Indie Rock Success Just Ain’t What It Used To Be

The term “rock star” conjures up images of a lifestyle defined by excess. Whether that means copious amounts of drugs, women, or fame, it all stems back to one unavoidable trait: limitless wealth. But if you’re an indie rocker, chances are the drive to make music was art over commerce. There was a sense that bands trying to make a living in the independent music world were doing so because they believed in their craft, not because they wanted to make boatloads of money. However, when the only model of consuming music was actually purchasing a record or a CD, even indie bands saw some profits if they released an album that was even moderately successful. Now with torrents and Spotify becoming the preferred mode of listening to music, and with indie rock becoming the dominant trend in rock music, even successful indie bands can’t even pay for health insurance.

This has caused a strange dissonance in the eyes of the public between the perception of a band’s success and the reality of it. In a recent profile of the band Grizzly Bear, Nitsuh Abebe discusses how, in spite of the undeniable commercial and critical success of their last album Veckatimest and their most recent Shields, as well as a sold-out Radio City Music Hall show leading to an international tour of 2,000-3,000-capacity venues, the band still functions like a “risky small business.”

This is a strange time for indie rock. Beginning in the 00’s, indie rock exploded in the cultural consciousness due to the rising influence of blogs, social media, and the general democratization of music as a result of widespread Internet usage. While this would normally translate to a giant boon in success for indie bands, instead fans are no longer buying music but streaming and downloading it for free. “People probably have an inflated idea of what we make,” Grizzly Bear front man Edward Droste says. “Bands appear so much bigger than they really are now, because no one’s buying records. But they’ll go to giant shows.” Indie bands make the majority of their income on touring and song licensing as opposed to record sales, and since independent music is still a trend-driven art, they’re suffering for it in the long run. You may see or hear Grizzly Bear’s name everywhere on the Internet in the form of articles and mentions, but the sad fact is that wide exposure doesn’t mean what it used to. “There’s a ceiling that independent artists hit,” Droste says, “and the only way past it is radio…[which] still feels very much controlled by major labels’ ability to use leverage.”

However, these guys have no illusions about their career choice. “You’re doing it because you love it,” Droste says with the full awareness that, in order to maintain a middle-class living, he would have “to keep doing this forever.” So, how can we help? Even though it’s blasphemy in the indie community to decry piracy, as that would mean placing greater value on monetary success than artistic integrity, Droste says that actually buying an indie artist’s album can help them immensely. “Every record sold shows the industry your value,” he says, with a keen awareness of his place—and possible stasis—in the economic hierarchy.



Commentary Ticker

  • Data Knows Best: Greatest TV Shows Get Ranked and Graphed
    March 26, 2014 | 10:50 am

    Every argument is better with charts and graphs. Sometimes a little linear regression can provide more insight than a long-winded report. GraphTV tests that theory by plotting the ratings of popular television shows. It all started with Breaking Bad. Data guru Kevin Wu was watching its fifth and final season and couldn’t help but think [...]

  • A Coin-Inspired National Spirit, Hopefully
    March 20, 2014 | 11:56 am

    The Lakota Nation, a group of seven Native American bands in North and South Dakota, voted to make a Bitcoin-like crypto-currency called MazaCoin their official currency, according to Forbes. Programmer and Lakota activist Payu Harris believes that the coin will help the Lakota people gain sovereignty over their land. “To be a truly independent state [...]

  • Smartguns and the Promise of Progress
    March 3, 2014 | 9:50 am

    With the recent Sandy Hook elementary school shooting (and the 44 school shootings since) still relatively fresh in our collective minds, and with Congress empirically unable to do anything to stop gun violence at all, it seems slowing, if not stopping, the gun violence epidemic has fallen on a strange coalition of gun manufacturers, Silicon [...]

  • Watch: Movies Without Imaginary Friends
    January 28, 2014 | 12:56 pm

    If you seriously haven’t watched Fight Club yet (or read the book by Chuck Palahniuk) stop and go do that right now. You’re fifteen years late to the craziest party. Okay, you’ve watched it now? Onwards. A visual effects specialist in New York accelerated himself to Internet fame in mid-January when he edited Tyler Durden [...]

  • The Racism of “Racism”: The Complicated Origins of the Term
    January 17, 2014 | 12:27 pm

    “Racism,” like race, was invented. The term “racism” has done a lot of heavy lifting for anti-racism advocates, helping to frame anyone discriminating by race as misguided. Just as with classism or sexism, not only does the word racism give name to an evil, it helps to create the thing as evil in the first [...]

  • RSSArchive for Commentary Ticker »

Join our mailing list!

Trending on The Airspace