The Postal Service

In 2003, indie rock was undergoing an identity crisis. The “garage rock” bands had already peaked. “Dance-punk” was barely getting started. 2003 was perhaps the only year since the dawn of the internet without a real buzzword genre (unless you count crunk), and that lack of a scene made it arguably the best year of the decade for music. It was just before the rise of the trend-setting indie blogger, the lightning-fast buzz cycle, and the kind of conditions that allowed a band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! to accidentally charm the world for a few seconds before melting back into the Brooklyn pavement. It was before artists like Arcade Fire and Band Of Horses blazed a viable commercial path for bands on small labels, while pioneering a sound that, instead of liberating bands, created a boring template for indie rock stardom.

This weird transition period led to frenzied yet glorious genre fragmentation, and a sense that the keys to the kingdom were there for the taking — except people still had no idea what the future would sound like (something similar was taking place in hip-hop, what with Jay-Z “retiring”). From the working-class majesty of Sufjan Stevens to the backwoods found-sounds of the Books to the ghastly fun of the Unicorns, there was little to tie together the most acclaimed albums of 2003. It’s no wonder one of the best albums of that year was by a band called Broken Social Scene.

It was in this fractured environment that indie mascot Ben Gibbard and producer Jimmy Tamborello released the emo/electronic hybrid album Give Up under the name the Postal Service. The duo had collaborated previously on “(This is) The Dream Of Evan And Chan” in 2001, but while that track merely caused a micro-sensation, Give Up was a monster. It went on to become one of only three albums in Sub Pop history to go platinum (along with Nirvana’s Bleach and the Flight Of The Conchords’ self-titled release). Advertisers would use its most popular song, “Such Great Heights,” to sell M&Ms and expedited shipping. The song appeared in movies and TV shows, including Garden State and Grey’s Anatomy.

Fast-forward ten years, and the Postal Service is back with a new tour and a new song. Meanwhile, we’re in the midst of another moment of uncertainty as to where music goes from here. The transition we face now, however, is between a music scene driven by Web 2.0 principles, where bloggers generate buzz around personal tastes, to one driven by social media and YouTube. The “Grizzly Bear” model is dead, and the landscape is wide open for some band to figure it out.

Of all the great bands to make a huge splash in 2003, it was the Postal Service that perhaps best represented the sea change afoot. The ubiquity of songs like “Such Great Heights” obscures just how revolutionary the album was at the time for marrying emo sensibilities and glitchy electronica. Ten years ago, electronic music had moved to the extremes: You had either maximalist excess like Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx (with neither having yet gained the approval of the unwashed indie masses) or, in the case of “indie-approved” acts like Boards Of Canada and Keith Fullerton Whitman, music that was abstract and distant. Maybe it was the excess of late-’90s groups like Chemical Brothers and Prodigy that drove electronic to polar opposites, but in 2003, the Postal Service, along with artists like M83 and Manitoba (now Caribou), bashed genres with a sledgehammer to give a shot of warmth and soul to dance music.

Some of this genre experimentation was driven by technological circumstances. Napster was dead, but so were the days of glacially slow download speeds for many listeners. People had faster internet connections than ever before and there was a new peer-to-peer sharing protocol called BitTorrent gaining popularity. The Pirate Bay and the iTunes Music Store (for those who didn’t mind paying for music) were both started in 2003. The cost in time, money, and effort for finding new music had never been lower, so it’s no wonder listeners began broadening their horizons. The age of the MP3 left no room for rockists.

And yet over the past couple years, indie rock has been more genre-driven than ever, slave to reductive labels that approach self-parody like chillwave, witch house, and shitgaze. Meanwhile, popular music, at least in terms of distribution on the social web, is way ahead of the so-called “serious” artists that are supposed to lead the way in creativity. Look at some of the biggest hits of last year. While “Gangnam Style”’s global takeover seems inevitable in retrospect, its popularity in the US wasn’t ordained until it shot to the top of Reddit’s video vertical. Within a week of the Reddit post, the song had been shared by sources as diverse as the Wall Street Journal and T-Pain. While the medium that sparked the last democratization and fragmentation of content was the MP3 (and later, the MP3 blog), this time it’s YouTube, Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook. Beyond the obvious social benefits of these platforms, they’ve also brought the art of the remix to prominence. Unless you still follow Top 40 charts, there’s a decent chance that the first time you heard “Call Me Maybe” was as a remix or parody. In aggregate, these fan-made videos have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. Can the lessons of a K-Pop star and a Canadian Idol finalist hold value for more modest bands? I think so. While indie rock and its observers took expert advantage of the technology of the early 2000s, resulting in the glorious explosion of quality, we’ve yet to see a similar transition into the social age. Why has indie rock found itself still wrestling so unsuccessfully with this?

Maybe it’s economics. Nitsuh Abebe’s popular “What Does Being Indie-Rock Royalty Get Grizzly Bear In 2012?” feature for New York Magazine likened being in an indie-rock band, even one as critically acclaimed and beloved by fans as Grizzly Bear, to “running a risky small business.” So the old economic models are broken. But you can say the same thing about a lot of industries. The real problem is that the old aesthetic and technological models are broken, too. In an October Hipster Runoff post titled “How Indie Finally OFFICIALLY Died: The Broken Indie Machine” fake blogger/performance artist Carles provides the closing argument to the meta-case he’s been building for years: that indie rock blogs are completely full of shit. This time he makes the argument with more than just feigned sincerity and tween-speak, offering up a few lines of true insight, including this: “The blogosphere used to be a place that could help artists, now it just boringly boxes them up.”

Unlike Carles’s imaginary blogger, I think we could be about to turn a corner. When things get boxed up, they want to escape, smash genres, and no amount of so-called “failed memes” like Lana Del Rey and Kitty Pryde can change that. Indie rock may be “internet music,” but the internet of 2013 bears little resemblance to the bloggy internet of 2006. Again, it’s closer to 2003, turned on its side as people continue to invent new ways of using the web. Instead of a few people in their bedrooms churning out blogposts, now everybody’s in their bedroom, sharing (and creating) music 24 hours a day. Because of that, combined with the growing resentment toward bands that look or sound like whatever the blogs say is “indie” right now, I think 2013 could be just as liberating for artists.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the future of music will involve robots and algorithms trolling our Tumblr followers so we can find more underpaid bands on Spotify. Or maybe the only kind of independent artists to excel on the social web will be the gimmicky Pomplamooses of the world. But there has to be something more. If social networking can help topple dictatorships, then the least it can do for independent music is give us something better to listen to than Macklemore.

Comments (67)
  1. So much hate for basement bloggers in this piece. You do know some of us actually bother to write more than two sentences about a song and don’t just regurgitate whatever trend is collectively determined by the mass to be good at the moment, right?

  2. 1,349 words to say nothing

  3. you seem to fret over the idea that an individual or band will never reach the same level of creativity and success that this one record did, fostering the onslaught of overnight indie sensations we all enjoyed so much from 2003-2006. but has it ever occurred to you that, given the backstory of gibbard mailing tamborello skeletal versions of dcfc songs, tamborello adding beats, shimmery futuristic flourishes, etc., that maybe this was just a case of two dudes operating on the same level musically, once and only once?

    the irony of this article is that the entire blogosphere has been plugging, mentioning, obsessing about dozens upon dozens of give ups for ten years.

  4. Haven’t indie bands always been poor?

    • Exactly. People talk about Grizzly Bear like they were the first band to not have a lot of money and get tired of their van. Boo-fucking hoo.

    • The point being made here, I think, is that Grizzly Bear is a band who reached the level of popularity that they have without making money, and that matters. When you think about that in context it means that musicians must start doing all sorts of unusual things that we collectively gripe about just to survive, like putting songs in commercials. (e.g. Ian MacKaye’s new band is playing Coachella this year.) If you lived through the 1990′s, corporate affiliations were a faux-pas, but these days you would just sound anachronistic to talk about it, when even MacKaye himself might tell you to put a sock in it.

  5. the next time someone asks me what kind of music I like, I’m definitely telling them, “internet music”

    • Yup. In the cases of the Pixies and mbv, it took breaking up and waiting a decade before they had amassed enough fans for touring to be something from which they could make a profit. I remember when some people were crying “Sellout!” when it became clear that the Pixies were just going to continue touring without releasing a new album, but c’mon, when you’re middle-aged, you have to start thinking about some kind of retirement fund and the indie world owes them a lot more than they ever made in the first place. Besides, the Pixies were a force of nature at the reunion show I saw.

  6. I think part of what keeps “indie” music from exploding onto social media sites and what not is the continuing punk-rock ideal that to be well known somehow equates to cheating or selling-out. This notion of “Oh yeah, I knew them BEFORE they were big…I’m gonna move onto something else more obscure” is growing increasingly impossible in the internet age, so it breeds a community of near nothingness. The only thing cooler than obscurity is non-existence.

    • When the great American black metal band Weakling released their first/only album Dead As Dreams, they joked that only a minuscule number (like single digits) would be printed, then buried around the country, and anyone who bought the album would get a map to its destination.

    • I completely agree with this post. I loathe being called a hipster, because I feel that a hipster is someone who searches for the obscure in all aspects of life and they feel this makes them cool. I feel liking something more because it is unpopular is as bad as liking something because it is popular. I wish everyone in the world would listen to bands like Animal Collective, Wolf Parade, Beirut, etc. because I want everyone to enjoy them as much as me, and also so I have people to actually discuss music with.

      (MLK Jr. Voice) I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where music will not be judged by record sales or Youtube hits but by it’s listenability and character. And in this dream the discography of Nickelback shall be forgotten and entombed in the feces of this great generation and this will be done not because it is cool to dislike them but because it is legitimately terrible music. I HAVE A DREAM!

  7. Wouldn’t mind, to be honest, 2003 was a goddamn perfect year for music, both for indie and pop masses.

    Elephant. Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Chutes Too Narrow. Hail to the Thief. Boy In Da Corner.
    The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. Ghosts of the Great Highway. The Disintegration Loops II/III/IV. You Are Free. Rounds. TV on the Radio AMAZING EP.
    Radio Amor. The Meadowlands. Frengers. The Black Album. Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts.
    Guitar Romantic. Dear Catastrophe Waitress. 6. Lesser Matters. Transatlanticism.
    O. Happy Songs for Happy People. Streetcore. Transfiguration of Vincent. Wonderful Rainbow. Fever to Tell.
    Michigan. Room On Fire. Mount Eerie. The Lemon of Pink. Keep On Your Mean Side. British Sea Power.

    Elbow and Doves’ best efforts too. Probably I forgot many. many more. This is just top.

    Plus SINGLES! Crazy in Love, Move your Feet, Ignition Remix, Milkshake, Toxic, 99 Problems, Through the Wire, You Don’t Know My Name, Hurt, Mr Brightside, etc.

    It was the greatest year so far for me personally (the peak of my childhood) while this year is so far the shittiest. Looks like I’m dropping out of university, should fine money for bribe so I don’t go to the fucking army and really don’t know what to do with this fucking life

    sorry. pretty shit now

  8. Hm, I dunno. I think services like Spotify are stabilizing the way that people at least consume music. I’m not sure the user end is about to be disrupted.

  9. I don’t like when people take shots at Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Sure, they have a goofy name and turned out to be sort of a flash in the pan, but their first album has some jams that I, for one, still return to. They totally hold up. The way those guys get mentioned here seems like the author just considers them some kind of embarrassing relic of a bygone era, but I don’t see any way that they lack integrity/legitimacy.

    Sorry for only responding to one specific throwaway reference… But yeah.

    • People bring up CYHSY because they were the first post-Arcade Fire P4K bubble band. I don’t think people are ridiculing them, so much as the 2k5-2k6 internet mindset that created them.

      • I get what you’re saying, but I see no problem with the “internet mindset that created them” because they’re a pretty good band. So that internet mindset in ’05 or whatever just helped out with the rise of a pretty good band.

    • That first CYHSY album is GOLD. I still love the hell out of that thing. I even really enjoyed their second album. But their third…meh.

  10. So a whole post about how much your own website basically sucks and should be ignored?

  11. Its seems like the Postal Service were shoehorned into this piece out of nowhere. With a few minor rhetorical substitutions, the exact same thing could have been written at this time last year when James Mercer put out a new Shins album. Or two years ago when the Strokes came back.

  12. “Meanwhile, popular music, at least in terms of distribution on the social web, is way ahead of the so-called “serious” artists that are supposed to lead the way in creativity.”

    Give me a break. Show me one major label pop hit from the last year that wasn’t a warmed-over, simplified version of something more interesting from than a year or more ago or more.

    • I think he was talking about modes of distribution, but I agree with your point. Neither Gangnam Style nor Call Me Maybe are anything innovative musically. And as far as modes of distribution goes re: parody videos, a) I don’t think any musician puts out music with the intent of it getting parodied on Youtube to gain recognition and b) any artist who gives a shit about their music probably wouldn’t want their music to be known best for all of the parodies of it?

      • I think you’re right, but even if he was talking about distribution, I’m not sure how pop stars were “way ahead of the so-called “serious” artists that are supposed to lead the way in creativity.”

        If anything, my initial point is exactly the same when you talk about distribution, the pop stars and their corporations finally figured out how to use the internet just like the indie bands have for 10+ years.

  13. 2003 was the best year of the decade? Are we forgetting the year that was 2007? Look at the albums that came out in 2007!

    In Rainbows, Sound of Silver, From Here We Go Sublime, Alive 2007, Graduation, Kala, Neon Bible, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank, The Stage Names, The Shepherd’s Dog, For Emma Forever Ago, Boxer, The Reminder, Strawberry Jam, Justice, Person Pitch, Untrue

    There are probably more I am forgetting, but at least 5 of those albums are among my all time favorites, and From Here We Go Sublime is probably my single favorite electronic album ever.

    • I actually think 2002 was the best – Kill the Moonlight, Source Tags and Codes, Neon Golden, Yoshimi, Sea Change, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Turn on the Bright Lights, Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me Is Gone, Thought for Food, Murray Street, Geogaddi, One Beat, Sigur Ros’ ( ), Blacklisted. What a sick year for music. ’02 and ’03 is my generation’s ’68 and ’69 imo.

    • I would agree with 2007. Or maybe even 05…

      Takk…, Demon Days, Illinoise, CYHSY, Serena-Maneesh, LCD Soundsystem, Franz Ferdinand, Get Behind Me Satan, Silent Alarm, Late Registration, The Woods, I Am A Bird Now, Z, DangerDoom, etc etc

  14. The number 1 song of 2003? 50-fucking-cent. I know we’re talking about indie music and not pop hits, but I feel like everyone, in hindsight, forgets how much terrible music filled in the gaps between Give Up and Chutes Too Narrow. There will always be bands putting out good music, and bands putting out terrible music. We may not have the reaction to great bands now that we had when we were in high school, but the music is still there.

  15. You had my interest, even my attention for a moment, but instead of ending with an intelligent or witty observation, you dissed a talented artist who’s worked hard and is now getting his due, basically circumventing every point you just made. No respect. Not even a little.

  16. There are three reasons why I don’t think social media will bring about another indie renaissance:
    First, as some have already mentioned, is the pseudo-punk mentality of avoiding being a sell-out. By pimping themselves through social media, no matter how innocent or sincere, band typically come across as trying to be “mainstream.”
    Second, I think that social media, while useful in getting artists out there, just adds to fact that there is just too much music for people to really listen to it all, so some great stuff just doesn’t get the chance.
    Third, I’ve found that most people using social media only really give any chance to music that is extremely easy to digest. Other than people who go above and beyond (like people who visit music blogs and such) there isn’t anyone that I’ve come across that will give considerable time to an artist that’s fairly complex just because it pops up on their twitter or facebook. People mostly look for instant gratification through social media and they want music that supplies that.

    • Fourth, some people are completely obsessed with music and could not possibly care less about social media. I listen to new music (or old music that is new to me) on a near daily basis, yet I don’t have a facebook or twitter account, and I never will. For me, facebook and twitter would be wasting time I could be using to focus on discovering and listening to more music.

      All you have to do to discover new music is search the internet for what you like. Search in Amazon and follow what they recommend or the lists that come up on the side of the page. Search ebay and check out some of the other stuff that people have tagged with what you’re looking for. Go to Discogs and get absolutely LOST by clicking through the band, musician and label links on any given page. Use Yahoo or Google and just poke around whatever turns up. And yes, don’t be afraid to check out the things you know nothing about that turn up on Stereogum and Pitchfork, or Billboard and Rolling Stone, or Spinner and American Songwriter. Lastly, really crazy thought here, go to a record store and thumb through the bins for a couple hours. Make a point to buy one thing you don’t know or have only heard about a few times a year. Its really not that hard to get into new music in a positive, open-minded way if you put just a little effort into it.

      (That last bit was just a general mental splooge – wasn’t meant to be directed at Noah specifically.)

  17. Sounds like he’s just guessing numbers and figures while trying to pull the puzzle apart. It’s not really a question of science or progress, it’ more a matter of the heart. Feels like we’re running in circles and chasing our tails while always ending up back where we are.

  18. This is a very condescending and elitist article. I don’t care for this.

  19. hey guys read this treatise but also sign up for the motherfuckin folger jingle contest!

  20. You didn’t mention that the new song sucks

  21. Wait… Keith Fullerton Whitman is “indie-approved?” Did you make this judgment based solely on the fact that he has a beard?

    • Yeah, never would have expected to see that name included. The only thing he’s ever done that got any kind of even slightly moderate attention was ‘Hrvatski – Swarm & Dither’. Everything else he’s done (although it’s an admittedly vast amount of music) has been on such a tiny scale as to go nearly unnoticed by anyone who isn’t specifically looking for it (and even then its often hard to find unless you order it direct).

      • You’re spot on. I was working at a university radio station back in those days and outside of the two experimental shows, the only KFW/Hrvatski track that got any play was his Kid 606 remix from Swarm & Dither. Even then, it was only played on the handful of IDM shows we had at the time.

        Nevertheless, that whole paragraph is off. The “emo sensibilities and glitchy electronica” line and other language leads me to believe the author was probably just finishing high school/starting college in 2003, meaning this article was written via a rearview mirror and not first-hand experience. Nor does the author seem to have any idea how the music industry actually operates. Or he’s just a really poor writer. Whatever it is, this piece is elitist while being completely out of touch with its subject matter.

  22. You know what? If you find some music you like, like it passionately! Don’t question where you found out about it, how much it is or isn’t selling, what kind of people are making the music, if your friends like it, how old or new it is, and least of all, whether or not ANY music “press” agrees with your decision. Music has been around for HUNDREDS of years. LONG before there was any way to keep a permanent record of its existence. Its going to be around for hundreds more, at least until we find a way as a species to end our own story. But for now, it ain’t goin’ anywhere. And the business side of it, in the end, will have fuck all to do with it. People will keep creating, releasing and performing music in one form or another whether or not there’s any money involved.

    Music is art. The enjoyment derived from it is subjective on every level imaginable. All that matters is that YOU like it. End of story.

  23. While this is slightly off topic, I think the media conglomerates have managed to put the toothpaste back into the tube and/or the genie back into the bottle. The music industry is as top-down and vapidly ‘star’-driven as it has been since the late 1990s. The fact that names like Lana Del Rey and Taylor Swift regularly wash up on these here shores illustrates that.

  24. there’s no way the postal service reunion deserves nearly as much press as stereogum has given it. i know this article is about more than this, but furthermore i think stereogum’s been looking backward a little much as of late—do the last 15 years of music really need this much analysis and coverage? [i'm talking here in part about the 'backtrack' column...] that shit happened already. and who gives a shit if ‘indie’ is dead? all i’m trying to say is that obsessing over definitions and categorizations seems useless and the endless cycle of cultural mirrorgazing is frankly irritating–good music is being made and this should be concentrated on, i believe. when you lose track of this [that is, the music--what should be coming out of your stereo] then what the hell are you writing about?

  25. Don’t you guys realize that the “content farms” Carles mentions in his (totally brilliant) HRO piece–you know, the ones that ejaculate “listicles, contrived SEO-inspired Bleacher Report-wave think pieces, and other lame ass content that is… lucrative and successful”–that that’s you?

    You don’t seem to acknowledge that you’re complicit in the proverbial “boxing in” of indie music. Your content is totally regressive–listing the top 10 albums and songs for every fucking band in existence is trite, reductive, and totally boxes in art by furiously comparing it to itself ALL the time.

    Stereogum: you are the problem.

    • I completely agree with everything you said. Stereogum has been looking back instead of forward far too much lately. I am getting especially sick of the constant “top 10″,” worst to best” and “this album turns 20″ type articles that make up way more space here than they should. There ought to be more focus on new exciting music than there is at the moment.

  26. I personally thought that 2009 was a better year for music. Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear, Dan Deacon, Fuck Buttons, Dirty Projectors, The xx, The Field, Atlas Sound, Health, Fever Ray, Flaming Lips, Martyn, Oneohtrix Point Never, 2562, Mungolian Jetset, Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, Real Estate, Neon Indian, Silkie, Sonic Youth, A Sunny Day In Glasgow, Them Crooked Vultures, Tim Hecker and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs all had amazing albums that year (and that’s me leaving a ton of other great ones out!)

  27. what a controversial article! and one i have absolutely nothing to add to.

  28. You Forgot it in People came out in 2002 (although nobody heard about it until 2003).

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