Sunday, March 31, 2013

Indie rock is doomed like the monarchy

Like the monarchy, indie rock is doomed. I don't mean that it will vanish completely, just that it will fade away in significance. The only nations ruled by monarchs today are either small and weak or else totalitarian nightmares. To be a respected player on the global stage, a government must be a democracy.

The reason for this is simple. No one says, "If I ruled the world, I would be respected by everyone." That conveys nothing; it's a tautology, since rulers are respected by their very nature. No, they always say, "If I ruled the world, I would do this, I would do that." In other words, people intuitively understand that with authority comes leverage, the power to get things done.

But a king doesn't see it this way. For him, authority is the end goal and thus exists for its own sake, to be divvied amongst relatives and loyal subjects in a way that cements his own hold on power. Of course, royal appointees can certainly use their leverage to improve the lot of the people. But that would only be a fortunate happenstance; it's not why they were awarded their positions in the first place.

And so our natural inclination is to overthrow any monarchy, even one that is mostly benevolent. In our modern age, a nation led by an unimpeachable ruler cannot hope to compete with one whose government officials use their leverage to advance society, and who are then held accountable by the people when they don't.

To be clear, I'm not comparing indie labels to the worst rulers in history. However, in favouring bands that are friends, ideological compatriots, and hometown heroes who've paid their dues, these indie labels have one thing in common with all monarchs: a disregard for how leverage might be distributed to maximise outcomes. In the indie rock scene, exposure is the end goal and thus exists for its own sake, which means that bands are rewarded based on how hard they've worked for it, not on how remarkably they can use the leverage that comes with it. It's always a pleasant surprise when indie bands exceed our expectations with ambitious projects that take years of downtime to complete, of course. But that's not why they get signed in the first place.

A year ago, I read that an indie label I had long respected was struggling financially and thus closing shop indefinitely. Having some friends in common with the label's founder, I got in touch and offered a deal in which I would pay off some of his debts. In return, he would release my album, for which I would completely pay the expenses upfront. While initially receptive--if only because he wasn't in the best position to refuse--he eventually shied away from my offer and stopped writing back.

I couldn't figure it out at first. After all, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain; I would be shouldering the entire risk, and my band was at least as good as those on his roster. Only later did it hit me. To him, an indie label's greatest asset is its autonomy. Being admired and supported for doing things his way and listening to no one else is exactly what kept him afloat for as long as he did, and he wasn't going to jeopardise that goodwill now. Because without it, his only power is to grant exposure, nothing more, and exposure by itself just isn't worth much. Bands that can get decent reviews but don't really stand out from the crowd still have to hustle like crazy to get heard. And as far as he knew, those were the only bands respectable enough to represent his label.

For me, however, an indie label's greatest asset is its power to grant leverage. And that leverage is limitless in worth, just as a literal lever can be used to lift any heavy object by adding distance between the fulcrum and the exerting force. So if a band sees the leverage afforded by an indie label as their ticket to becoming the next Beatles, then that's exactly what it's worth to them, even if the label itself harbours no reciprocal ambition to sign the next Beatles.

In other words, this label's founder didn't value his own power to grant leverage anywhere near as much as I did. And those who don't value their own power--who can't envision the lofty ends to which some out there might want to see that power used--will eventually have it taken away, much like Vito Corleone took out Don Fanucci's little one-man operation. So his label will probably remain defunct, just like the great monarchies of the past. And if the other indie labels continue to shun those bands who value what they have to offer the most, in order to reward those who value it the least, then they'll probably fade away as well.