By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Meanwhile, the True Believers did something even stranger: They buried their heads in the sand as they got lost in successive waves of inaccessible sounds. As the major labels became obsessed with appealing to the widest possible demographic, the True Believers turned music into a private, cultish domain. Their first major counteroffensive was punk in the mid-’70s — a shift so counter to popular sensibilities that it took well over a decade for the mainstream to absorb it. In the ’80s, this led to support for the birth of indie rock.
It’s at this point that the divide between business and music fans began to take on political overtones. Favored indie labels like SST cloaked themselves in slogans like “Corporate Rock Sucks,” even though their business practices were often just as dubious as the majors’. Odder still were some of the subcultures that blossomed in the wake of punk and indie rock, a shadowy miasma of elitism, experimentation and obscurantism — hardcore, indie pop, post-punk, math rock, post-rock, goth, industrial, stoner metal, etc. In fact, whenever a new genre has taken off in the last few decades (techno, hip-hop), it’s quickly been joined by an intellectualized splinter genre (intelligent dance music, underground rap). The Great Schism caused many listeners to become as obsessed with taxonomic organization as young zoologists do after spotting their first platypus.Healing
In the 25 years after Monterey, the Cynics and the True Believers kept digging deeper trenches. The businessmen became pornographers, while some of the world’s most passionate music fans became aesthetes or neurasthenics, adrift in doubt and detail rather than big musical ideas.
It wasn’t until the ’90s that a few labels began to resolve these differences. A handful of indies began to develop responsible business practices just as they were flowering artistically — Sub Pop with ironic yet anti-intellectual rock from the Pacific Northwest (Nirvana, Soundgarden); Matador with sardonic, urbane cool (Pavement, Liz Phair, Yo La Tengo); and Touch and Go with terrifying Midwestern crunch (Slint, Big Black, Butthole Surfers). Today these are referred to in the trade as “core indies.”
One problem these labels faced was that their artists became wary when they succeeded on the indie level. Indeed, the very aesthetic of their art entailed built-in fail-safe mechanisms that prevented crossover. Indie rock stars were either aggressively amateurish (Liz Phair), overly self-conscious (Pavement), clinically self-destructive (Kurt Cobain) or downright hostile (Steve Albini from Big Black). Consider the ’90s pop music’s late existential period. Just as modern life seemed too complicated and difficult for the original existentialists, the stakes of modern pop seemed too high for these artists.
This takes us back to 1999. Relations across the Great Schism were as tense as ever. The True Believers were setting up their own network of events (ATP, Coachella) to avoid the wider marketplace, the Cynics were inventing new trophies like the Diamond to pat themselves on the back for their successes. Napster came along and changed everything. Suddenly, cynical businessmen couldn’t get their hits, and their trophies were useless; the indie-rock True Believers had their doubts about the market confirmed by the larger populace, and sensed an opportunity. Since 1999, we haven’t heard nearly as much about “indie cred” as we once did, in part because underground cliquishness and mainstream avarice have become side issues to a hitmaking game that’s suddenly open to all comers.
The state of affairs we now find ourselves in isn’t so much an end of the music industry as it is a new beginning. Today’s indie labels can realistically expect to have the same financial roll if not the cultural impact that Sun, Chess, Atlantic and Specialty did in the 1950s. In short, 2004 is beginning to look like 1959 all over again.
Sales sales sales
To bring home the way the market has shifted in the past five years, let’s dispense with the allegory and compare some present-day Billboard numbers with those posted five years ago.
First, look at the albums filling the top three slots the week of June 5, 1999. Numbers 1, 2 and 3 were albums by the Backstreet Boys, Ricky Martin and Britney Spears — the ultimate in manufactured pop. Then look at the chart for the week of June 5, 2004. There were still a few semifamiliar names in the top spots — R&B crooner Usher, Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man — and their popularity is easy enough to understand, even if a few years ago they would have seemed like one-week flukes. After that, though, the chart became baffling.
The third-best-selling record in the country was by New Found Glory, a veteran emo group signed to a fake indie called Drive-Thru (it’s funded by Universal Music Group). Where once there were only widely acknowledged superstars in Billboard’s upper reaches, now the charts are dominated by acts like these — artists that are known but are by no means world-famous, and probably never will be. ‰ 29
The differences get stranger still if we open up the sample. For instance, the top 25 of 1999 was home to the Dixie Chicks’ Wide Open Spaces (10 million records sold), ’N Sync’s ’N Sync (10 million), Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time (12 million), Backstreet Boys’ debut (13 million), and Shania Twain’s Come On Over(17 million). These five records had total sales of more than 60 million.