As you probably already knew – or perhaps will soon learn – most of the music I’ve been listening to for the last decade or so would fall under the vague and nebulous “indie pop” or “indie rock” label. The classification really doesn’t mean that much; it encompasses a vast and diverse world of sounds that can include a wide variety of instrumentations and styles. The only real unifying thread to these artists is that they get little attention from the mainstream music channels.
Indie rock took a sudden step into the limelight last year at the Grammys when Arcade Fire won a richly deserved “Album of the Year” award, setting off a tempest in a Twitter, of sorts. “Who is Arcade Fire?!?” spouted cultural luminaries like Rosie O’ Donnell and Dog the Bounty Hunter. Disguised as a question, these statements of protest carried implicit messages of faith in major labels to spoon feed the best music into the mainstream.
Unfortunately, this trust is as badly misplaced as the faith anyone might harbor that big names in the food industry like McDonalds, Burger King, Taco Bell and KFC would provide good, quality meals. Like the kings of the fast food world, the products produced by of today’s big names in mainstream music just aren’t very good. It’s not meant to be. In the world of the major record labels, commercially viable music trumps talent and variety every time. It doesn’t matter if the music they’re selling is good enough to merit multiple listenings or if it has a fresh sound, it only matters if it can sell an album or a single.
Even by that criteria, the bar is relatively low. A successful album might not sell more than one or two million copies. In a country of over 300 million, that’s a drop in the bucket. A substantial majority of people can think an album is terrible, yet because it attracts a modest plurality of listeners, that makes an album “popular.” Popularity is a major driving force in any market; a salesperson can tell you that one of the most effective sales pitches that can be given for a product is, “oh, it’s very popular!” But in a world where tastes in music are highly personal, how can the music industry harness the power of popularity to sell records?
The answer is by reaching out to an audience that has an immense desire to conform and fit in with their peers: teenagers. These young folks are the perfect target demographic for the music industry for so many reasons. They don’t have the life or musical experience to discern to be discriminating customers. They’re looking to define themselves as part of their own generation separate and distinct from their parents, yet their attempt to define themselves as individuals is always shaped by the pressure to conform and be just like their peers. It’s an audience that’s easily taken by storm with second-rate product, so that’s what record companies give them: mediocre instrumentation, vapid lyrics and performers that sell attitude and eye candy as much as what’s coming out of the speakers.
These popular mainstream albums may sell more copies than their less-well-known brethren, but album sales and critical acclaim rarely go hand-in-hand. Metacritic aggregates reviews from across the industry and calculates a single consensus review score for each album. Check out their top albums of 2011. That’s a pretty broad mix of sounds right there: folk, techno, soul, punk, pop, hip hop, and good old fashioned rock and roll. What’s missing? All of the most popular music nominated for Grammys this year.
Is there another creative art form that has such a substantial disconnect between critical acclaim and award nominations? One where sales figures translate into awards? Here’s the list of top grossing movies of 2011. Who’s ready to give a handful of Oscars to “Transformers: Dark of the Moon?” “Twilight?” “Fast Five?” Yeah, right.
Acclaimed films and television shows often attract a substantial following. People want to know what the buzz is all about. So why not critically acclaimed music? If we accept the fact that the Grammy awards do not reflect excellence in music the way that the Oscars, Emmys (or Tonys?) do for their respective fields, then it’s time for people to start looking more closely at lists like the Metacritic Best of 2011. I don’t agree with all of those picks; only 8 of the Metacritic top 40 were in my top 30, but that’s not important. What is important is that there’s a lot out there for ANYONE looking to discover something better than the options that the mainstream presents.
Will you like everything the critics do? Nope. But that’s okay, because you’ll also find some things that you really like quite a lot and that will make it all worthwhile. Our hypothetical person who only eats fast food might think McDonald’s or Burger King serves up the tastiest burgers anywhere, but one trip to Tessaro’s would forever change his outlook and perspective. Maybe like Dog the Bounty Hunter, you haven’t heard of that great indie band today, but that doesn’t mean you have to stay in the dark. Take the plunge. Step into your musical Tessaro’s. Heck, I’ll even help show you the way. It’s a trip that I’ve made time and time again, and it’s always fun. Let’s go check out some indie rock.