Three hundred years from now, when quasi-mutant future generations are uploading information directly into their Spock-brains for a class on pre-Saturnite music history, they’ll learn that everything changed on Feb. 13, 2011. At about 11 p.m., a typical Sunday became a day of utmost importance for Earthlings when Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs was named Album of the Year at the 53rd Annual
But wait. No. The truth is, The Suburbs' Album of the Year nod means nothing to the state of indie music.
Leading up to the big day, NPR pointed out that more than half of the Grammy nominees this year were artists on indie labels. Even Robert Plant, Herbie Hancock and Willie Nelson now make music for indies, and no one could plausibly argue they are making indie music. The reason seems obvious: There’s a difference between indie music and indie labels.
This is not a fresh insight. But as soon as Barbra Streisand confusedly announced Arcade Fire the winner, general consensus from the indie world was that “we” had achieved a monumental victory. That, after years of paying dues and spilling blood in the trenches, indie music finally earned the much-deserved recognition it had been denied since birth.
It was a head-scratching moment: Who are “we” and what have “we” won, anyway?
In a pre-Grammy interview, the co-founder of Merge (the venerable indie label Arcade Fire calls home) Laura Ballance claimed “whether something is on a major label or an independent label doesn’t matter.” With the rise of the Internet and the gradual dissolution of the traditional music industry the playing field has been leveled, the Thomas Friedman-inspired argument goes. Ex-Zeppelin frontman Plant is not jeopardizing his chance of success simply because he switched to an indie: he’ll still get the sales and recognition that previously
required a major label.
Among others, Esperanza Spalding and Hancock both won Grammys this year for indie label releases. But they’re not included in the indie “we” because they’re not making indie music. Their wins show that indie labels have been victorious, but do nothing for the elevation of indie music. The indie “we” refers to something about the music and not the status of the label.
Arcade Fire hold a unique position within the indie music category. Their 2004 debut, Funeral, was championed by indie overlords Pitchfork while also earning a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album and a few dates opening for 22-time Grammy winners U2. The same happened with 2007’s Neon Bible, which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200.
It isn’t shocking that they received both indie and mainstream praise given how easily digestible their music is. The comparisons to Bruce Springsteen Neon Bible garnered were strengthened with the release of 2010’s The Suburbs, where the band’s ability to create anthemic arena rock was on full display. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts. Soon after, they sold out two consecutive nights at Madison Square Garden, the second of which was watched by international viewers through a live webcast directed by award-winning filmmaker Terry Gilliam (with the support of American Express, YouTube and VEVO).
Considering the band’s high level of institutional and consumer support, it makes perfect sense that they’d give an acceptance speech this year.
Both musically and conceptually, The Suburbs is a perfect choice for the Album of the Year. It’s an agonizingly dull and excruciatingly long classic rock drag about throwing in the towel, entering the yuppie kingdom and romanticizing a vague, yet more idealistic, past. Simply put, it fits right in with the Grammy aesthetic. The win is far from proof that indie music has broken down the previously impenetrable barriers of mainstream institutions.
Instead, it shows that indie labels, if they release music that appeals to mainstream
audiences, can earn approval from mainstream institutions. This is a win for indie labels and businesspeople, perhaps, but not by any stretch of the imagination is it one for indie music. Shitgazing indie rockers Times New Viking, also on Merge, should definitely not get their hopes up.
If we’ve learned anything, hopefully it’s that the “indie” category needs a complete
overhaul. Just as there’s an inarguable distinction between “indie label” and “indie music,” the latter must be further broken down and reconstructed.
The 90 percent of indie artists who share nothing in common with Arcade Fire don’t benefit at all from their recent Grammydom. If anything, those less accessible bands are harmed as more indie labels begin to realize they can earn mainstream recognition by signing more conventional, less daring acts. The claim that “we” have been victorious is a deceptive
declaration that anyone other than indie publicists, labels and accountants should resist.
“Sometimes the panel behind the Grammy Awards likes to throw a massive wrench into the system and completely surprise all of us,” wrote Andrew Martin for Prefix magazine.
Really? Is it surprising that a band that sounds like Springsteen, tells a story about the suburbs, and sells out sports arenas won a Grammy? It shouldn’t be. Truly surprising is how quick and thoughtlessly the indie “we” accepted its absorption into an institution it once raged against. But maybe indie’s us-against-the-system days are long gone. Maybe the roles have shifted and the Grammy panel is the new wrench-throwing system-destroyer.
Perhaps we should all move to the suburbs and give up.
PW's Music Issue 2014