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.