Over the weekend I spent some time exploring various indie music scenes around America. Instead of getting in my car and driving around America, I just stayed home and clicked around on ReverbNation, which hosts over a million indie bands worldwide. Of course, besides going to shows, listening online is about the only way to find out about local music scenes because even if you drove city to city, chances are you wouldn’t hear much indie music on the radio. You either have to go to a bunch of dive bars in order to construct a report on indie music, or just listen online. My latest SacTV.com video explains how indie music would be stronger with better navigators and presenters.
The great thing about listening online is you are in control of the music, provided the internet connection works. There’s no pressure to buy drinks all night or no danger of losing your hearing when you listen online. There’s also less chance of distraction, such as heads in the way or someone talking in your ear while you try to hear the music. Not that there’s anything wrong with blowing cash and missing out on the music you paid for.
Indie music is usually experienced on a local or intimate level and hardly gets talked about as having anything to do with the national scene. In recent years indie acts like Adele and Arcade Fire have grabbed awards in the national spotlight, but outside of that, indie music usually doesn’t make national headlines. Meanwhile, what does make headlines is the economic uncertainty of the major labels, as they continue to search for answers from online musical aggregators such as iTunes, Spotify, Pandora and Slacker.
While the indie revolution is clearly underway in terms of the infrastructure that has been built, there still needs to be a bunch of examples of indie artists that are making exciting music their way instead of conforming to the same old genres. There are now plenty of ways to deliver music to people wherever they are, but there are still not plenty of bands that have a reason to gain the national spotlight, not even from a major label perspective.
What’s really going on is there is a shortage of standout songs that unify people with important musical messages. Sites like YouTube have reminded us about the decades of great music from the past. But not much on YouTube cuts through all the clutter of the zillions of bands who either sound the same or have nothing to say in their music. There needs to be some type of navigator that ignores all the novice or generic stuff and puts the spotlight on musicians who have something special to convey.
In my online journey around the nation, I found that Sacramento has a pretty good roster of local talent compared to other scenes. San Francisco, of course, has always had one of the best music scenes, partly because the Bay Area region has a lot of venues designed to showcase artists, in which the ambiance becomes part of the experience. Seattle also has a long running community that supports the arts, which is why that scene never runs out of indie artists.
I found great sounding inventive artists in certain scenes like See The World from Minneapolis, The Late Night Callers from Kansas City and Ani DiFranco in Buffalo. Certain regions have predictable sounds. For example, I found a lot of country in the south and blues in the midwest. If your favorite music is just a variation on the same three chords, then there’s a lot to choose from in those regions. I did find that some artists stood out as interesting who stayed within the boundaries of the norm. Sahara Smith from Austin, Texas is certainly one of those intriguing and attractive artists.
Sadly, one of the subtle realities I noticed in researching local scenes around the nation is that in almost every region of the country, there is a flood of local artists who try to mimic national artists. Hip hop and metal have become the two styles that have produced stacks and stacks of imitators, most of which have very little creativity but somehow learned to play the right chords and beats that make up those formulas. No new ideas, just lots of near duplication just to say "I made a record."
The great news about all this redundancy and predictability is that it leaves the door wide open for exploration and regional domination. In other words, not too many regions are set in stone as far as untouchable acts. Certain markets like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Nashville are locked up with music biz people controlling things, whereas there seems to be more organic activity coming out of scenes like Portland, Oregon, Boulder, Colorado and Athens, Georgia.
When I think of why the popularity of Beatles has lasted so song all these years, it’s not because they blended in with everything else that was ever popular. It’s more because they stood out because every song sounded like its own genre. One thing indie bands need to break out of is the notion that "indie" is a specific genre. It’s more of a blanket term for anything that isn’t a specific genre. The other thing that needs to happen is someone needs to tie all these indie scenes together in a meaningful way that matters to a lot of people. I’ve actually started to do that with Playlist Research, a site that explores every region of the country, as well as various musical eras and themes. I’ve put the foundation together, now I just need to start documenting indie artists who have songs powerful and memorable enough to rival the mainstream.