Indie rock, DIY, localism.
E.D. wrote, “The idealism of the paleoconservative cause is simply too burdened by the idealism of its vision.”
To which I offer—not necessarily as a rebuttal—three letters: DIY. As punks and hardcore kids in the 80s demonstrated, sometimes the best thing to do in the face of a massive system you want no part of is not to try to change it, but rather to build a plausible semi-alternative in its (inescapable) shadow, and in so doing make manifest distinctly different ideals of integrity. Not that agrarian localists should be trying to team up with hardcore kids, though I do think Ian McKaye and Wendell Berry would make a pretty fantastic duo. It’s that the 80s independent music scene offers a small-scale and for a time successful example of something like what I think many agrarians are already trying to do.
I’m eager to argue that rock and roll never really made good on its countercultural potential until punk music came around. The birth of DIY punk marked the first time that the suits didn’t have the movement firmly in hand, and hardcore took DIY to the rest of the country. Despite all the radical posturing of the big rock bands of the sixties, they provided big record labels with near-uncountable piles of cash. Yes, the labels were more artist-friendly back then, but a corporate machine is a corporate machine, and few bands even tried to buck the system. LA’s music industry leeched the money from the scene’s idealists. And look at what the idealists have become.
What was the setting for the emergence of DIY? By the late 70s, most of the rock that the major labels were putting out—the Bee Gees, the Doobie Brothers, Dan Fogelberg, or even Bruce Springsteen, my personal favorite rock star—couldn’t even plausibly pretend to be countercultural, and still the labels raked in the cash. This doesn’t make it bad music; it just makes it too safe. (Confession: the outline of the story I’m about to tell comes from Michael Azzerod’s Our Band Could Be Your Life.)
New York City had its punk scene, and New York was big enough for it to more or less stay there. The same was true for Detroit and San Franscisco. But in pockets of the rest of country, the kids were also getting sick of all the safeness and homogeneity and four-part harmony. Taking initial inspiration from the punk scenes in the aforementioned cities, they played loud and fast and screamed and carried DIY out into middle America with tightly budgeted tours. Cue Minor Threat in Washington, DC. Cue Black Flag and the Minutemen in California. Cue Hüsker Dü in Minnesota. Cue countless other bands that never made much money but kept their integrity intact. At first they made music that sounded like punk, but then they got faster and louder and more personal, and later they appropriated any genre they cared to. They built their own studios, created their own record labels, and built their own touring network. Some of these bands, like R.E.M. and the Replacements, later made the jump to the corporate system—they “sold out,” to use the parlance of our times. Others never did. But they all, for a time, carved out their own place beneath the massive edifice of the North American music industry.
The 80s indie scene was eventually a victim of its own success when the majors plucked Nirvana and Pearl Jam out of the Seattle scene and made scads of money off their albums. In the wake of this surprise success, the labels raided the indie networks for talent and co-opted its sound to whatever degree it could. (There was a similar raid circa 2003 when The OC used indie bands on its soundtrack.) But DIY labels persisted and some of them even thrived. While the majors operated on a business model where a band had to sell hundreds of thousands of albums to turn a profit, a well-known band on a label like Merge, Matador, or Sub Pop (the “big indies,” pretty much) aimed for sales in the range of ten thousand albums. A failed attempt at a major label career often left a band indebted and without any of the rights to their music; smart indie musicians could keep the stakes much lower.
Here’s the application to politics. DIY never sought to replace the major labels; it just did without them whenever possible. It was in part technology that made DIY possible, especially cheaper home recording equipment, and the independent labels ended up striking distribution deals with larger companies, but it’s the way that DIY created its own definitions of success and integrity that really counts. Similarly, agrarians and localists might not have much immediate hope of dismantling the larger system, but they can and should live with integrity in its shadow, so that the rest of the world can see.
Incidentally, the rise of downloading has put the majors in a tough spot; it’s getting harder and harder to sell a hundred thousand albums. And so the indie business model of ten thousand albums starts to look better and better. Durham’s independent Merge Records had two top-ten albums in 2007 (Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and The Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible).
N.B.: The DIY spirit isn’t exclusive to hipster-approved indie-rock. You can find it in metal, punk, and hardcore. And perhaps one could argue that its expression in these genres is far more countercultural and “authentic” than what you find with an outfit like, say, Asthmatic Kitty.
UPDATE: In view of Michael Kaufmann’s comment below, I should make it clear that I picked Asthmatic Kitty for no reason other than that it’s a recognizable name to indie rockers. I’ve got no reason at all to doubt that they do a fine job as an organization, and I like all the CDs I own from their artists. Why would I take a dig at the people who brought us the beautiful sounds of My Brightest Diamond? (I hope the gratuitous link makes up for the confusion!)