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++ Needle Drops is now an occasional music column that a number of Neumu writers take turns writing. All columns prior to March 2004 were written by Philip Sherburne.


++ Recently ++

Tuesday, November 29, 2005 = The Stooges Unearthed (Again)

Tuesday, November 8, 2005 = Documenting Beulah And DCFC

Tuesday, November 1, 2005 = Out-Of-Control Rock 'N' Roll Is Alive And Well

Tuesday, October 25, 2005 = Just In Time For Halloween

Monday, October 3, 2005 = The Dandyesque Raunch Of Louis XI

Monday, August 15, 2005 = The Empire Blues

Tuesday, August 9, 2005 = David Howie's Sónar Diary

Monday, July 25, 2005 = Hot Sounds For Summertime

Monday, June 27, 2005 = Overcoming Writer's Block At Sónar 2005

Monday, June 4, 2005 = Cool New Sounds To Download Or Stream


++ Needle Drops Archives ++

View full list of Needle Drops articles...




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Tuesday, December 14, 2004

++ Selling Out

By Jenny Tatone

++ So maybe it's old news by now. You've probably already slapped the book shut, cleared the table and gone to bed on the issue. But I'm still having trouble sleeping on it.

Most of the bands I was into growing up made relatively "weird" music and, because of that, were never going to be available for mass consumption. Never would they face fame or fortune.

And they didn't care. They knew that was the deal from square one. They knew it on the first inaccessible note they banged out. Most of them saw this not as a sacrifice but a blessing — separating themselves from the mainstream was a good thing. They dug being part of the underground.

Out of the mainstream also meant out of money. But that was OK because it often guaranteed that the band was focused on what mattered: the music.

I guess you would call this time period B.N. (Before Nirvana). This late-'80s/early-'90s alternative scene is certainly not the first music underground, nor is it the first music underground to eventually be exploited (the Beat culture, '60s psychedelia, mid-'70s punk, et al.).

The historical cycle goes something like this: weird artist makes weird art, weird art circulates long enough that the weirdness value depreciates to a point that the current torch-bearer of said weird art finds a mass audience; art that was once considered "weird" is eventually seen as fairly conventional.

This has been going on for decades. But it strikes me that there's something different about what has been happening during the past few years.

++ Maybe we got sour to the too-cool attitude the underground has long perpetuated. Maybe the underground has lived through too many fakes and too frequent exploitations to continue to take itself seriously — maybe the underground has been, in an ironic turn of events, forced to rebel against itself.

And with this comes the reversal of many of the underground's most significant ethics — or dare I say rules? The DIY, anti-capitalist, anti-corporate, anti-everything shared politics are beginning to crumble. The anti-conformist underground began to conform to itself and a lot of kids today aren't having it.

But must one pick up poor politics just to feel separate? And can it last? Because not until today have I seen dollar signs flash in the collective pupils of underground bands; for the first time in my experience it has become totally acceptable for an "underground" band to make making money its top priority.

What was once called selling out is now considered a smart move. Where signing a major-label contract once brought in a flood of turned backs and turned-up noses, today it garners so-what shrugs and subtle nods of approval from music nerds, hipsters and punks everywhere.

Indie rock (and all its sub-genres) has evolved into something else entirely. But this isn't your typical evolution. This isn't some industry types swooping in on a scene to exploit it, strip it of its soul and sell a watered-down version of the original to the masses.

This is the scene itself growing comfortable within the mainstream environment. This is the underground actually wanting to play the game, wanting to do the proper publicity, exude the proper image and score some hits.

And I think there are two reasons for this. One, Gen-Xers have grown tired of the defiant scene that spawned them and are ready to defy it. Two, Generation Y (and Z?) never understood much of a need to separate themselves from the masses to begin with.

The changing nature of the industry (the imminent digital music takeover) has also changed the dynamics of the underground/mainstream relationship by forcing major-label bigwigs to allot more freedom (and a better deal) to bands who have the option of staying with an indie label.

++ So now you've got bands like Death Cab for Cutie (who recently signed to Atlantic) playing in the background to a hormone-heavy episode on Fox's hit teen series "The OC," and The Walkmen playing live onstage at the show's hipper version of "90210"'s hangout, the Peach Pit, on another.

I know what you're thinking. Nirvana signed to a major; Sonic Youth signed to a major; many of those early "alternative" bands signed to majors. True, but not without years of struggling penniless down under, understanding what it meant to feel like unwanted misfits. And, even more important, neither Nirvana nor Sonic Youth sold out. They did what they did on their own terms, made the art they wanted to make, and then let a major try to market it to the masses.

Today, "indie" bands are signing to majors before releasing their first album (The Strokes, Franz Ferdinand, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, etc.). They're often more than willing to have their recordings used as background music in TV ads and/or appear on lame TV shows.

While, a few years back, some Gen-Xers were bitching and moaning over the overnight success of bands like The Strokes and the White Stripes, today it seems all is not only forgiven but outright accepted.

As the Gen-X "never mind the mainstream" attitude begins to fade into history and the music it once considered "against the grain" slides into pop culture, the people change too; applying the "who cares, whatever, never mind" outlook to selling out. And, I have to say, I don't mind seeing some pretty decent tunes make it onto the radio and find a mass audience.

While "weird" music of yesteryear becomes today's norm, and present-day undergrounders have no qualms about it, I'm able to accept it because I know there will always be new band out there ready, when the mainstream fails us (as it always does), to offer an alternative.
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