Indie rock, DIY, localism.

E.D. wrote, “The idealism of the paleoconservative cause is simply too burdened by the idealism of its vision.”

To which I offer—not necessarily as a rebuttal—three letters: DIY. As punks and hardcore kids in the 80s demonstrated, sometimes the best thing to do in the face of a massive system you want no part of is not to try to change it, but rather to build a plausible semi-alternative in its (inescapable) shadow, and in so doing make manifest distinctly different ideals of integrity. Not that agrarian localists should be trying to team up with hardcore kids, though I do think Ian McKaye and Wendell Berry would make a pretty fantastic duo. It’s that the 80s independent music scene offers a small-scale and for a time successful example of something like what I think many agrarians are already trying to do.

I’m eager to argue that rock and roll never really made good on its countercultural potential until punk music came around. The birth of DIY punk marked the first time that the suits didn’t have the movement firmly in hand, and hardcore took DIY to the rest of the country. Despite all the radical posturing of the big rock bands of the sixties, they provided big record labels with near-uncountable piles of cash. Yes, the labels were more artist-friendly back then, but a corporate machine is a corporate machine, and few bands even tried to buck the system. LA’s music industry leeched the money from the scene’s idealists. And look at what the idealists have become.

What was the setting for the emergence of DIY? By the late 70s, most of the rock that the major labels were putting out—the Bee Gees, the Doobie Brothers, Dan Fogelberg, or even Bruce Springsteen, my personal favorite rock star—couldn’t even plausibly pretend to be countercultural, and still the labels raked in the cash.  This doesn’t make it bad music; it just makes it too safe. (Confession: the outline of the story I’m about to tell comes from Michael Azzerod’s Our Band Could Be Your Life.)

New York City had its punk scene, and New York was big enough for it to more or less stay there. The same was true for Detroit and San Franscisco. But in pockets of the rest of country, the kids were also getting sick of all the safeness and homogeneity and four-part harmony. Taking initial inspiration from the punk scenes in the aforementioned cities, they played loud and fast and screamed and carried DIY out into middle America with tightly budgeted tours. Cue Minor Threat in Washington, DC. Cue Black Flag and the Minutemen in California. Cue Hüsker Dü in Minnesota. Cue countless other bands that never made much money but kept their integrity intact. At first they made music that sounded like punk, but then they got faster and louder and more personal, and later they appropriated any genre they cared to. They built their own studios, created their own record labels, and built their own touring network. Some of these bands, like R.E.M. and the Replacements, later made the jump to the corporate system—they “sold out,” to use the parlance of our times. Others never did. But they all, for a time, carved out their own place beneath the massive edifice of the North American music industry.

The 80s indie scene was eventually a victim of its own success when the majors plucked Nirvana and Pearl Jam out of the Seattle scene and made scads of money off their albums. In the wake of this surprise success, the labels raided the indie networks for talent and co-opted its sound to whatever degree it could. (There was a similar raid circa 2003 when The OC used indie bands on its soundtrack.) But DIY labels persisted and some of them even thrived. While the majors operated on a business model where a band had to sell hundreds of thousands of albums to turn a profit, a well-known band on a label like Merge, Matador, or Sub Pop (the “big indies,” pretty much) aimed for sales in the range of ten thousand albums. A failed attempt at a major label career often left a band indebted and without any of the rights to their music; smart indie musicians could keep the stakes much lower.

Here’s the application to politics. DIY never sought to replace the major labels; it just did without them whenever possible. It was in part technology that made DIY possible, especially cheaper home recording equipment, and the independent labels ended up striking distribution deals with larger companies, but it’s the way that DIY created its own definitions of success and integrity that really counts. Similarly, agrarians and localists might not have much immediate hope of dismantling the larger system, but they can and should live with integrity in its shadow, so that the rest of the world can see.

Incidentally, the rise of downloading has put the majors in a tough spot; it’s getting harder and harder to sell a hundred thousand albums. And so the indie business model of ten thousand albums starts to look better and better. Durham’s independent Merge Records had two top-ten albums in 2007 (Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and The Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible).

N.B.: The DIY spirit isn’t exclusive to hipster-approved indie-rock. You can find it in metal, punk, and hardcore. And perhaps one could argue that its expression in these genres is far more countercultural and “authentic” than what you find with an outfit like, say, Asthmatic Kitty.

UPDATE: In view of Michael Kaufmann’s comment below, I should make it clear that I picked Asthmatic Kitty for no reason other than that it’s a recognizable name to indie rockers. I’ve got no reason at all to doubt that they do a fine job as an organization, and I like all the CDs I own from their artists. Why would I take a dig at the people who brought us the beautiful sounds of My Brightest Diamond? (I hope the gratuitous link makes up for the confusion!)

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9 thoughts on “Indie rock, DIY, localism.

  1. hmmm…the idealism of any cause is tested by how it does in reality.

    I am a vet of the 80’s college radio/alt scene. great times they were ( i have dream syndicate playing as i type). I think i grew out of the major label= sell out, which is good. you can’t judge solely art/music/etc by how popular it is. if it speaks to you or a generation then it just does. and to be a functioning artist you have to survive.

    another example for you of the DIY ethic is Linux. there are a whole range of wonderful desktop operating systems running on Linux that are in many ways better then winblows. many linux systems are made entirely by volunteers who just want to make a good system. some are in small bushiness trying to make a buck on a free operating system. and for the record, kubuntu beats windows like a rented elf.

    of course winblows and apple still dominate over a free system that works just as well in general because they have massive power through institutional advantages. That does throw a wee wrench in DIY dreams.

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  2. Greginak,

    “if it speaks to you or a generation then it just does.” — I know what you mean. As much fun as it is to tell everything as suits vs. hipsters, if the stars align enough to provide a good start, talented folks can indeed do well for themselves on the majors, stay true to their vision, etc. And there are plenty of producers, recording engineers, session musicians, songwriters, and others involved in the process who take just as much pride in doing good work as the fine folks at Merge. I definitely don’t want to spit on their hard work.

    I tried Linux a few years ago but I wasn’t motivated enough to get into it. But it seems like another good example of sustaining an ideal of integrity despite little apparent hope of winning in the long run. Maybe next time around?

    The biggest complication is that it seems to me that the success of DIY movements seems to be a function of the availability of cheap technology, whether it’s recording equipment or processors—but the technology gets cheap only because the big institutions the DIYers want to subvert pushed so hard for it. I don’t think this is a big problem, but it throws another wee wrench into the mythology of DIY independence.


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  3. E.D.,

    I have a friend who works for Dell, and he recommended that I try Fedora (which is based on Red Hat, rather than Debian). He said it might support my wireless chipset better. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

    As for the music: yeah, I’m only 24, but I grew up on that stuff, and I have friends in bands to this day who self-release their music. (Most notably my college classmate’s satirical hip-hop group Zombies! Organize!!.)

    The idea of something like “conservative communes”, traditionalist and mostly self-sufficient communities, is interesting though on a whole other level, though there’s always the risk in these things of becoming too isolated. I’d definitely like to hear more ideas in this direction.

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  4. Thanks for the interesting read. I am not familiar with your site, but found it from a referral to our website. I am guessing that the end comment was not made by the author of the post, correct? I would love to hear more about why N.B. feels that Asthmatic Kitty is less “authentic” or “countercultural” in its DIY spirit than genres of metal, punk and hardcore…especially considering that Woody Guthrie was one of the first punks, with a guitar that could kill fascists and songs that helped illuminate and undermine the politics of injustice and inequality. I also think it is a gross oversight, if simply judging by aesthetic standards to leave out hip-hop, techno, blues, and soul (etc.) from this list.

    If the DIY spirit and be reduced to a particular style or sound our image, then it is no DIY spirit at all, but merely a subcultural protest communicated through fashion. But if the DIY spirit is really keeping separate from the systems of mass market and mass communication, how then is it even possible to evaluate motives or methods without an immediate and local interaction with the particular community being examined?

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  5. Michael,

    “N.B.” = “nota bene” = “note well.” I did write the line. It seemed right rhetorically but it wasn’t exactly fair of me to single out Asthmatic Kitty without any good reason. Everything I have from you guys, I like. I was hoping to touch off some discussion by being hyperbolic.

    What I was trying to get at, if I can say this without digging my hole deeper, is that some (not all!) metalheads and punks face more social disapproval for liking what they like than most indie rockers do. I’m thinking of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton,” which is admittedly fiction but rings true to me. Can’t prove this, can’t back it up except with anecdotes from North Carolina.

    I left out hip-hop, techno, soul, blues, folk, country, and many other genres because I only know enough to know that their stories are different. If I thought I could tell those stories, I would try.


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  6. I tried to tease out the same thread on The American Scene a while back, specifically in reference to interwar German youth movements and the 80’s hardcore scene. It yielded at least one very cool comment about rejectionist youth cultures and their political implications:

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