April 2, 2009

Question about indie rock dorks in the internet age

When I was 14 years old, my friends and I defended our favorite band like a farmer would try to fence off his land against raiding nomads. There was a tacit understanding that The Dead Milkmen was my band, Cibo Matto was another's band, and so on -- you could listen to them a little, but never really go steady with them, to mix metaphors. And you would never commit the faux pas of showing up to school wearing a t-shirt of Someone Else's Band.

Back then it was very easy to be the only one in your whole school or college who knew about your favorite obscure band. When we went to see Jad Fair at the 9:30 Club, the 30 other people there must have represented his entire East Coast fan base.

But after the internet became mainstream in the mid-1990s, that wasn't quite so simple. At first it posed no real threat to your indie ego -- "cool, I found a group of people who like writing messages about my favorite bands!" You'd never meet them in real life and be forced to compete face-to-face. (Although I did meet up with a bunch of internet-fans of They Might Be Giants somewhat regularly, mostly I-95 road trips toward Irving Plaza or the Mercury Lounge.)

Now things seem a lot different, with all of these websites like musicforants (I was pointed to this site a year ago -- may no longer be cool). They put up mp3s from bands that remain obscure for, roughly, 30 minutes -- until the other 10,000 dorks who follow the website click the play button too. Has the ubiquity of these sites changed the social dynamics of these people?

Now that people don't get out and socialize much anymore, especially music nerds, most of their interpersonal contact is gushing over the internet with their peers about the hot new bands on these websites. Of course, this just makes fatigue set in much faster than before --

Oh... you've heard of them too? Yeah, I guess I kinda got tired of that album after the third day. I'm so into ____ right now.

The basic model here is the co-evolution between a host species and a parasite species. The indie rock nerd sees himself as the host, and anyone else who likes his band is a parasite with no musical radar of their own. This drives him to abandon the band once he senses enough others are listening to them, and to find a new band. Now, though, the parasites can locate and exploit the host so quickly that the host ends up spending most of his time, energy, and resources trying to out-run the parasites -- a Red Queen scenario.

Is there anything to this? I matured beyond indie oneupsmanship when I was about 17 or 18 years old, so I don't have a really good feel for what the music dorks are like now. But from what I've read on the mp3 promoting sites, there's always some neurotic mess saying that he can't stay passionate about a band for longer than a week -- "after that, I'm so over them." Are they now locked into 18-hour days of indie drudgery, their only obsession being to unearth that one band that no one on the internet has heard of?

Buncha dopes. At least they won't have the time, or the social skills, to reproduce.


  1. Agnostic, I like you, you're not like the other kids here on the internets...

    I would say "no", not the way it used to be, in that the essence of avant-gardeness necessitates there being an leading edge or a definitive sound/scene. The internet and mp3s tend to blur those boundaries both temporally and spatially. No more waiting - knowing it's out there - for your fave band's new song to be played on the radio, no waiting for the single to show up in the shops... it is there for near instantaneous download. You don't invest the same time and money waiting for it to reach you. You can get it, listen to it and decide if you're really into them like you thought you were... without risk. There's none of the buyer's remorse like when you special ordered (and inevitably back-ordered) that imported, limited edition e.p. of a band that went in a completely different direction than you'd ever follow, and your peers would laugh their asses off at your disappointment.

    So what is invested in the Indie Geeks of here-and-now? Some space on a hard drive? A bootleg gig? Or a t-shirt from an ACTUAL gig perhaps? Maybe a magazine with an article on them or a poster?

    Not a hell of a lot.

    The modern kings & queens of the cutting edge can easily switch band loyalties because there's now such a ubiquity of sounds it's not hard to move on to a slightly dissimilar band. The evolution of bands isn't branching out as much as it is intertwining and stagnating.

    But hey, I'm just bitter, old school...

  2. There's also a supply-side effect involved in accelerating the evolution. It's easier to find a new band because there are more bands around and a vastly larger proportion of them have recordings. It's not even the internet as much as it is cheap recording technology and also the vastly improved quality of inexpensive instruments and amps compared to just a decade ago. I guess Asian instrument manufacturers switching from manual labor to CNC machines had a lot to do with that latter part.

    The outcome is a far larger amount of bands with available recordings, including one man bedroom bands. That enables the "host" to switch to a new parasite-free band much more frequently.

  3. Heh, social signaling works at all levels.

  4. I think that this is more common among youth, when group identification is a phase of psychological growth. Hopefully they outgrow this at some point when/if they become men. I've always been more of an individualist. I tend to despise followers as the beta-boy lackeys they appear to me. It has been shown that avid sports fans actually experience increases in testosterone when their team wins, and decreases when they lose. They have effectively based their testosterone levels, i.e. their masculinity on exogenous variables rather than elements within their own control. They lack self determination and must obtain their validation through other's accomplishments. In my opinion all fan-boys fit this profile, and are by definition subordinate to those who derive their masculinity from their own success and creativity. Don't get me wrong, I like music, movies and the like, I just don't adulate the celebrities and place them on a pedestal. On the occasions that I meet a celebrity I treat them as an equal, and as any other person, and they tend to appreciate it too. Sycophants debase themselves.


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