Cult favorites no more, indie bands crafting intelligent songs are becoming major players in the changing world of pop music
By Joan Anderman, Globe Staff | April 24, 2005 (Correction: Because of a reporting error, the band Sleater-Kinney's record label is misidentified in today's story on independent bands in the Arts & Entertainment section. Sleater-Kinney is signed to the Sub Pop label.)
On a Sunday night in early February seven musicians were swarming and rustling onstage at the Roxy. Five of them were the official members of the Montreal indie-pop band the Arcade Fire, among them giant 24-year-old Win Butler, who sings in a high quiver, and his 28-year-old wife, Regine Chassagne, who has a subtle French accent and an uninhibited way with an accordion. A pair of plastic calves were lashed to the drum kit and a disco ball descended for one tune, which began, like many of the Arcade Fire's hard, gorgeous, swelling, soul-thumping songs, with everybody singing, microphone or no microphone. A bit of wrestling, and a festive parade, followed.
It was a circus, except instead of jumping dogs and clowns there were xylophones and tambourines and violins and guitars. And instead of the small group of devotees that such innovative musical performances typically draw, the place was sold out. On a Sunday night. On a tour with no road crew to support a band with no manager whose players slept two to a bed because their North Carolina indie label, Merge, operates on a shoestring.
The Arcade Fire is an amazing band. More amazing is the fact that they're being widely heard, and they're not alone. Pop music is flourishing -- not connect-the-dots Top 40 pop, but smart, quirky, literate pop. The Arcade Fire -- along with the Decemberists, the Shins, the Postal Service, and Death Cab for Cutie -- are leading the charge for the swelling ranks of independent bands moving beyond the cult-size audiences they, and their labels, have historically appealed to.
They're cultivating the sort of super-comfortable careers that until recently were considered the exclusive domain of the corporate-backed musician -- ironically, at a time when mainstream music and its infrastructure are scraping bottom.
''People seeing the band live and talking about it, that's the way we sell records," says Merge Records president Mac McCaughan, who signed the Arcade Fire in May 2004. ''Here was this thing music lovers heard about from friends, and when the record came out in September it lived up to the hype. By the time the second leg of the tour started in January, it was totally over the top. It was the fastest thing we've experienced, and I think the press followed the fans, to a certain extent."
The last decade has been something of a death spiral for independent spirits. Where DJs were once tastemakers, commercial radio has largely become a wasteland of boardroom-approved niche markets. Corporate consolidation of the major record companies has made labels slaves to profit margins. Plunging sales -- the fallout of free downloading or a remarkable proliferation of bad music, depending on whom you ask -- have triggered a proportionally desperate scramble for quick hits.
All of which should logically combine to hang a big noose around the necks of risk takers and freethinkers. Quite the contrary. In time-honored but technology-forward fashion, all those slamming doors have sparked a flinging open of windows.
Radio is in decline; satellite services XM and Sirius are ascending. Warner Music is scrambling to meet shareholder's demands, but independent labels Merge, Sub Pop, and Kill Rock Stars are watching records sell in unprecedented numbers. These days a band doesn't have to be seen on MTV, or heard on WBCN, or written about in Rolling Stone for fans to find out about it -- although against all odds the Arcade Fire, one of the most original bands to come around in a long time, is being embraced by the conventional media.
But that was after an Internet-fueled word-of-mouth windstorm made the group's debut album, ''Funeral," the most celebrated indie release of 2004.
''The Internet is challenging the corporate clutch on both radio and retail," says Slim Moon, founder of Kill Rock Stars, also home to Sleater-Kinney and Har Mar Superstar. The label just released the Decemberists' third album, ''Picaresque" -- a British-folk-inspired dream-pop collection that opens with a thunderous processional about a child monarch and closes with a lovely ballad about drowning.
''[Radio stations and record stores] used to be the ways you learned about music," Moon says. ''But radio killed itself, playing what people paid the most for with this attitude that listeners were an asset that they could deliver to the major labels. I think that MP3 blogs [websites that are part mixtape, part diary, and part music magazine] take the place of the trusted DJ or record store clerk. And once you've tapped into that universe there's a trail. People are used to digging and searching. That's a fundamental shift in the way people think about information in general."
There's also been a shift in the music culture, which tends to cycle through styles as they inevitably evolve from fresh to familiar to stale. Nu-metal and rap-rock dominated in the late '90s, and the pendulum is swinging back with force: from rugged riffs and simple-minded sentiments to nuanced melodies and intelligent wordplay, from Limp Bizkit's Fred Durst (who, famously, did it for the nookie) to Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, who's become a poster boy for legions of music fans hungry for ambitious songcraft and introspective poetry.
''Alt-rock was eating itself and Death Cab was definitely the beneficiary of modern rock radio program directors wanting to put something new in the mix," says Josh Rosenfeld, president of Barsuk Records. ''The last couple of years have been right for bands making music that's different from what's in the mainstream."
Gibbard and his like-minded peers have a new and powerful ally in Hollywood, which for years has saturated feature films with big-name rock acts and is now, thanks to a few key music supervisors, giving mainstream exposure to a slew of cool indie bands. Seattle-based Death Cab (a Barsuk-bred group that was picked up several months ago by Atlantic Records) is routinely mentioned by name and plugged via a prominent bedroom poster on the Fox network's hit series ''The O.C.," whose soundtrack is filled with creator Josh Schwartz's favorite indie bands.
On Thursday's episode, Death Cab went from being frequently name-checked by the show's favorite brainiac character, Seth Cohen, to actually performing songs from their album ''Transatlanticism" for a rapt audience at the fictional Bait Shop. ''Transatlanticism" has sold almost 300,000 copies, a good 10 times the typical figure for an indie release.
During a scene in the 2004 feature film ''Garden State," Natalie Portman puts her headphones on writer-director-actor Zach Braff's ears and promises that the Shins will change his life. Then a lengthy clip of the Shins' ''New Slang" -- a wistful, surrealist pop nugget -- fills the theater.
''One thing that's made the environment more fertile for this to take root is that the indie-rock fans are now in positions of power," says Tony Kiewell, who works in A&R at Sub Pop, the Shins' label. ''People like Zach Braff and Josh Schwartz go to shows."
The Shins' most recent album, ''Chutes Too Narrow," is approaching the 300,000 sales mark, as well, and another Sub Pop group, the Postal Service (a sharp, sensitive synth-pop band that includes Death Cab's Gibbard), has moved nearly 550,000 units -- the biggest seller for Sub Pop after Nirvana's ''Bleach."
''The giant bands of indie rock were selling maybe 100,000, and now it's a whole new echelon," Kiewell says. ''There's always been a vast wealth of intelligent pop music, and people driven to create it, but now we have an audience -- which makes it possible for the bands to survive."
Not surprisingly, the majors are frantically courting the Arcade Fire, the Postal Service, and the Shins -- bands that surely wouldn't have merited a second listen prior to their phenomenal grass-roots success. One has to wonder if, in addition to providing audiences with great music and deserving artists with enduring careers, the rise of these fiercely independent bands will spark a renewed emphasis on artist development at the major labels, where the holy grail of instant returns has all but snuffed out the creative spark.
It's a prospect about which Barsuk's Rosenfeld has mixed feelings.
''A couple of years from now," he predicts, ''we'll probably have a really nice crop of really awful bands that look a lot like the bands we're talking about now."
Joan Anderman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.