For anyone who has gotten into hardcore, it is widely understood that the roots of the modern success of “independent” music were planted back in V.F.W. Halls, community centers and club basements back in the 1980s. Bands like The Minutemen, Black Flag and Minor Threat toured on shoestring budgets and in busted-up vans, all while sleeping on the floors of fans and friends to cut down lodging costs. The bands, mostly young, white, lower-middle class and male, toured with very little hope of making any money other than the requisite gas and food money they needed to keep the tour going. One of Ian Mackaye’s early projects — the Teen Idles — made only $900 during their entire existence, an amount that was used not to expand their efforts but to take care of a band kitten.
This was a time where money was made off of selling records more than anything. Touring was little more than a nuisance in the eyes of the big labels, a promotional push used to drum up hype and excitement for an upcoming release. But young punk bands — backed by labels like SST and Discord — knew that through hard work and asceticism they could compete promotionally and maybe keep themselves afloat. It’s all very romanticized now, but it undoubtedly harbored an image and ethos for indie rock. Come the 1990s, Ian Mackaye had moved on from Minor Threat to Fugazi, a band that all but codified DIY ethics. Fugazi toured relentlessly and kept costs down, ensuring all their shows had all-ages options, charging only $5 for tickets and, most shockingly, not selling any merchandise. Combine that with Mackaye’s job running Discord Records and we were talking about complete vertical integration of the label. What economists would call efficiency critics deemed indie, and thus a movement was manufactured.
These days, the catchall term “indie rock” is a verifiable commodity; its bands soundtrack iPod commercials, don American Apparel and lend credence to protests like Occupy Wall Street (albeit without the fervor of punks of old, but that’s another column). And while the laws as set forth by Fugazi have been slowly altered from “fuck the man” to “…unless it’s a lovable brand, like Taco Bell!”, it has been a worthwhile compromise. Modest Mouse, a Washington-bred indie rock band, dwelled in relative obscurity until their hit song “Float On” grew their audience exponentially. Then came commercials, festival headlining spots and that one time Johnny Marr made an album with them (wasn’t that cool?). No longer did they have to toil through tours across the country in a raccoon-infested van that broke down more than a South Carolinian Miss Teen USA contestant. It’s a more comfortable life for people making music the way it should be made. What’s not to like?
On July 17th, Coachella, one year after adding a second weekend of their premier music festival programming, announced the Coachella Cruise. For anyone who has ever romanticized indie rock’s everyman roots, this was a bit of an awkward moment. On one hand, integrity has always been a key value of any self-respecting independent music fan, and this action was the most preposterous instance of profit mongering ever suggested; on the other hand, Pulp was going to play on a boat! With a pool on it! And, fuck, meals are included?
All in all, it’s a bit of a quandary. After all, we always thought that the reason this music has succeeded was its integrity, its uniqueness, it’s flaunting of convention. But we’re realizing that we’re starting to sound like fashionistas; though instead of designer handbags, we have designer bands.