In hip hop, being underground is its own merit badge. Subterranean emcees have created a cult of greatness by rapping at least half of the time about their inherent superiority to mainstream cats obsessed with balls, bullets and bills. That's silly, of course: Obscurity doesn't always translate into quality, and plenty of mainstream rappers can challenge most relative unknowns. But, once you're engrossed in the underground and then told constantly by its practitioners and its proponents of its ingrained talent and moral high-ground, it's hard to turn away.
Until now, indie rock has largely avoided such an argument, though bits of punk-pride lineage and DIY ethic have always marked independent labels and bands. Then again, some bands sport a conscious askew nature just to ward off the faint of imagination. But overall accessibility is changing the ethos of what it means to be an indie rock band, delivering new music and new strains of product deviating from the mainstream to a broader range of listeners who, 10 years ago, would have had few alternatives to Top 40 programming.
As with most things, the Internet has altered the avenues, increasing purchase possibilities for the average listener and upping awareness through music Webzines, blogs and message boards. MySpace has become the ultimate musical test drive. Finding a once-import-only album has become a matter of an open iTunes applet.
Long-time indie rock favorites like Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie, for instance, have found pop success on major labels, and, in turn, their back catalogue and the independent labels that released it have enjoyed a portion of that success at the hands of a new clientele: Club Indie-Lite.
You know them: They're the ones with the white earbud cord peaking from the bright-colored iPod minis, casual music fans who will visit an amphitheater twice in a summer and a rock club four times each semester, buying a mix of major-label output and upper-echelon independent releases, influenced as much by Blender or Entertainment Weekly as Pitchfork or others who feel an album can't be contextualized in 75 words. There's no commitment to a scene, ideal, label or history. As with the most base and exploitative pop music capitalism, it revolves around hooks.
Matt Pond PA's last album, Several Arrows Later, still a hot property of Club Indie-Lite, isn't any smarter than John Mayer's Room for Squares. They do the same thing, too, both rendering sad love and tedium as life-for-par over a catchy, well-arranged backdrop. Members of Club Indie-Lite can be cooler by liking Matt Pond PA, but an admitted interest in someone like Mayer or Dave Matthews is either anathema, a teenage relic or a guilty pleasure. It's hip to be cultured and somewhat obscure, one supposes, even if it's hard to be honest in doing so.
In a sense, such a redistribution of listeners and access begins to subvert the hegemonic over-structure of the antiquated record industry, pulling funds away from the handful of conglomerates that have owned popular music for years. That's great. But, adversely, small independent record labels are beginning to realize notoriety and profits are only a few hundred-thousand downloads away for their bands and for themselves, a goal much more attainable than turning an independent record to Gold, in-store sales of 500,000. That pushes things two ways: Either independent labels function more like university presses and allow one bestseller every few years to fund plenty of very important, less popular work, or they stay the course with bands in their back catalogue while only signing new acts they feel can catch fire when Club Indie-Lite somehow catches wind (The O.C.?).
And, while neither one of those models nor the notion that buying into slightly left-of-center music makes one somehow more cultured or cool are new, their merged relationship with the simultaneous emergence of a huge interested buying sect is. Let's just hope the Club-issue iPods can carry more weight than Matt Pond PA.
Matt Pond PA plays the Cat's Cradle on Friday, June 9 at 9:15 p.m. The Prayers and Tears of Arthur Digby Sellers, maybe too good for Club Indie-Lite, opens.