Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Why indie rock lacks diversity

(While most resources that seek to empower artists do so by helping them achieve independence, my new startup will do so by allowing them to seek interdependence. Now, interdependence in music and the arts has always been the historical norm. And yet, because the culture of independence these past few decades has been so successful and complete, any progress towards reinstating interdependence will likely be mistaken for a relapse into dependence, and thus meet fierce resistance. These next few blog posts will reflect my attempts in real time to perfect my arguments addressing these concerns, so bear with me because some of my thinking is still kind of raw. Feedback and criticism are always welcome in the comments, of course.)

Many have not failed to notice that as socially progressive as indie rock is known to be, there is a surprising lack of female and minority artists in this scene.[1] The following is my explanation for why indie rock lacks diversity and probably always will, despite the best intentions of most everyone involved.

First, we need to understand what indie rock is. "Indie" stands for "independent," and as anyone who's ever tried to get anything done knows, you choose independence when you want to retain personal control. You choose interdependence when you want to make the largest possible impact. Neither is superior to the other; it's just a question of what you want.

So obviously, indie rock is about forgoing the chance to make a large impact in favour of retaining personal control. But this also eliminates the most crucial incentive for trying to stand among the best.[2] Let's face it, why would an unknown band put in countless time and energy working to be the best when they've already deliberately limited the size of their audience?

In other words, indie rock is a genre that explicitly chooses not to provide unknown artists with incentives to try to be the best, and in doing so, actively undermines any such efforts. Because now, trying to be the best doesn't just offer little advantage; it becomes an actual disadvantage. After all, to do so would mean diverting time and energy away from efforts for which indie rock awards the most points, towards those that award the least.

Okay, so now we've established that an unknown band probably won't get far working to be the best in indie rock. But even if it isn't a competition, it's still a contest. Too many want recognition, yet too few can have it. There's just no way around that. So the designation of being "the best" must still necessarily exist; it just isn't something anyone can actively try for.

But this is a problem because for some out there, trying to stand among the best is the only recourse they have for overcoming their natural disadvantage and leveling the playing field. The world isn't their playground, which means they can't cop the same nonchalance towards success that indie rock's most favoured sons do, confident that life will still be pretty darn good if the stars don't align in their favour. Rarely do they even question their lack of options; it's just the only reality they've ever known, which they've long since internalised as the basis for how they go about everything.

I'll refer to all those who belong in this category as "the other half." Obviously this includes women and minorities as a general rule, but I'm really talking about anyone who isn't favoured to win outside a meritocracy: the old, the weird, the unattractive. The Beatles were working-class kids trapped in a rigid class system designed to keep them in their place. They count too.

So what happens when trying to be the best is taken off the table? In his review of Bon Iver's second album, Pitchfork's Mark Richardson writes, "There's something irresistible about the thought of a bearded dude from small-town Wisconsin retreating heartbroken to a cabin to write some songs[.]" Was it really necessary to mention the beard, and the part about small-town Wisconsin? Yeah. While Bon Iver's music is beautiful, what we really love is the whole package: the image, the backstory, the persona. This makes perfect sense, because if being "the best" can't be earned through trying, then it must necessarily come from some innate quality. It comes from who you are.

Now, in its defence, indie rock has proven no less willing to embrace the other half for who they are as well, once they do happen to land on the radar.[3] But this uncertainty of landing on the radar is precisely the problem, because when you're the other half, the prospect of having your story deemed irresistible just can't be a part of your contingency plan. Bob Dylan didn't go around telling people he was a middle-class Jew named Zimmerman. That just wouldn't have flown and he knew it, which is why he focused solely on writing amazing lyrics instead. Bob Dylan is now a legend, precisely because his work was allowed to stand on its own, separate from who he was.

And situations where your work can stand on its own, separate from who you are, are what the other half naturally seeks out, because that's the most they can hope for. Of course, your work won't mean anything by itself unless you stand among the best. But at least you get to try to do exactly that. And if this must be your reality, then your reality is pretty darn awesome, because the other half throughout much of the world doesn't even get to have this much.

Well, unfortunately, indie rock... belongs to that part of the world where the other half doesn't even get this much. For as we've just seen, it's not about trying to be the best; you're better off simply being yourself. This is just what indie rock is, and always will be. Obviously, many find this empowering and uplifting. But the other half needs merit-based competition to thrive. By shaming them for their personal ambitions, indie rock shuts off the one recourse they have for leveling the playing field and winning any recognition at all.[4] And so they rarely do, as plenty now haven't failed to notice.

I don't doubt that pretty much everyone in this scene has only the best intentions. Few would dispute that indie rock is one of the most socially progressive genres out there. But this is, in fact, precisely the problem. Indie rock protectionism, like almost every other form of protectionism out there, is ultimately motivated by an altruistic duty to stand up for the common man. Unfortunately, this ends up screwing over plenty who aren't men. Or common.


[1] There's been plenty of criticism directed against Jody Rosen's article in Slate, none of which seems to understand the real point. (Rosen doesn't make it either.) Competition doesn't begin the moment a band needs to pass muster with the critics and the public. It takes place much earlier, when the labels decide which bands to sign, when the venues decide which bands to book, and even back to when these bands first decide to form. So if there's a homogenising tendency at work here—which many of Rosen's critics do concede, but just consider too slight to be of concern—then it's actually getting amplified and reinforced at every single one of these stages.

[2] I'm not making any specific claims about what being "the best" necessarily entails, or how exclusive it has to be as a percentage of the whole. It can mean seminal, inventive, masterful; it can be the top 1%, 5%, 10%. Let's just recognise it as a quality that can be voted upon, by those who acknowledge and respect that the struggle for recognition is a competition very few get to win.

[3] I don't rule out the possibility that Bon Iver might also be an example of the other half getting his rightful due. I'd need to see it spelled out, though, since Richardson's description above doesn't exactly strike me as one of disadvantage. Unless there's something truly brutalising about small-town Wisconsin that I'm unaware of.

[4] Ambition from unknown artists certainly does get celebrated in indie rock; but it's strictly the kind related to furthering one's career, not making groundbreaking music. Again—and this is not a trivial point—the "indie" part of its name really does define the fundamental character of indie rock, wholly and absolutely.

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