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.