Indie Musicians: Balancing Mainstream Popularity with an Independent Image

By Janet Martin

In his article in the Spring 2009 edition of Cinema Journal, Michael Z. Newman describes the “indie” culture as something that “derives its identity from challenging the mainstream…‘indie’ connotes small-scale, personal, artistic, and creative.” Although discussing the independent scene in film, the same definition applies to indie music.

During the 1990s, a similar set of artistic ideals applied to the alternative and grunge scene. Kurt Cobain, lead singer of alternative rock group Nirvana, told Flipside in March 1992 that some bands are “obviously just corporate puppets that are just trying to jump on the alternative bandwagon.” This “alternative bandwagon” began a year earlier, when Nirvana’s album “Nevermind” launched the group out of the underground, and directly into mainstream pop—a change that Cobain would struggle with for years.

Nearly 20 years later, indie music faces a similar shift. Groups like Imagine Dragons, Fun, The Lumineers and Grouplove fall under the indie label, and yet all have songs on Billboard’s Top 100 Chart. With the growing popularity of indie music, artists and producers find themselves in the same situation as Cobain and Nirvana. That is, how to balance an independent image while maintaining mainstream success. This time around, however, there are some key differences.

The Alternative Scene of the ‘90s: The Alternative Bandwagon

During the ‘90s, the popularity and ideology of grunge had a very specific image and mindset. It was about messy hair, a messier sound and the overall belief that mainstream meant the death of art and creativity. In his 2005 essay, “Alternative to What? Subcultural Capital and the Commercialization of a Music Scene,” sociologist and author Ryan Moore stated that part of grunge music’s appeal was its challenge to authority and rising commercialism. It was about creating something “sloppy, coarse, and [featuring] frequently incoherent vocals” that directly contrasted with “the decadence and self-indulgence that characterized popular music.”

Anyone who conformed to corporate demands and styling, or worst, jumped on the aforementioned alternative bandwagon, was seen as a poser and faced backlash from the self-proclaimed “hardcore” musicians and fans. When alternative albums like “Nevermind” went gold and tracks like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” reached the Top 40 in a month, it became difficult to distinguish between the two worlds, even for bands like Nirvana. Bands felt the pressure to maintain their alternative integrity.

In an interview with Details in 1993, Cobain said, “The thrill and embarrassment of becoming international pop stars was too much, so we opened our mouths and put our foot in sometimes,” implying that the group put on crazy and offensive antics just to escape the careful construction associated with corporations and big labels.

The Indie Scene of the 2000s: Bands Embrace Mainstream Influences

Nvate Indie Music Mainstream Grouplove Ben and Nicky Berger

Credit: by vegadsl

Things have changed drastically in the last two decades. Ben and Nicky Berger, managers of Grouplove, gave their opinion on this shift. Grouplove is a Los Angeles-based band that released their first EP independently before signing with Canvasback Records, an affiliate of Atlantic Records. Since their debut, they have been rising in popularity. Their song “Tongue-Tied” was featured on an iPod commercial and reached No. 49 on the Billboard Top 100, while their song “Slow” was on an episode of The CW series “Gossip Girl.” The Bergers believe that “today’s indie music embraces the electronic elements that are popular in today’s mainstream culture” whereas “the ‘90s alternative scene completely strayed away from the ‘80s’ new wave aesthetic.’”

Grouplove, in particular, exemplifies this embracing of mainstream influences. They mix synth sounds of pop music with harmonies, guitar and lyrics of more marginal styles like folk and punk. By opening up to the mainstream sound rather than fighting against it, bands like Grouplove can maintain their creativity and individual sound.

The Bergers also believe the change in technology and the rise of the Internet play a key role in this different mindset. “There is a very small distinction these days between ‘indie’ music and ‘mainstream’ music. It all stems from the Internet,” they said.

“The Internet gives indie bands who were forced to be a part of a niche culture the opportunity to have access to millions of fans who didn’t know how to look for them before,” the Bergers said. “It used to be very localized, but when a song from Coldplay is next to a song from a small indie band on a blog, the playing field becomes equal.”

How Things Have Changed: Less Talk of Selling Out

Television also helps provide more mainstream exposure, and it doesn’t require any sort of rewrites or artistic compromising. “Syncs in general are a very helpful way of getting your music out there,” the Bergers said. “Any chance to get your music heard while still maintaining the integrity of the creative process is a win for everyone.” Since songs are chosen to fit the show, as opposed to written afterwards to fit a certain scene or mood, there is no need to adjust style. Quite the opposite, something about the original song appealed to the music coordinators, allowing complete freedom to maintain integrity.

This may explain why fans seem more supportive of the shift this time around. “The fans have been overwhelmingly supportive of the band’s continued successes,” the Bergers said. “The band has personal relationships with many fans who have been with them since the beginning and because of this commitment to them, their fans stay committed for the long haul.”

And there is less talk in music magazines and entertainment shows about selling out, whereas bands of the ‘90s were constantly under attack by some portion of their fan base. This, too, could be explained by the Internet. Websites and blogs allow bands to interact more with fans and create that connection that the Bergers believe is crucial to continued support.

This may not be true for all bands because there will always be dissenters no matter what the music or the scene. The lack of negative commentary in music magazines, on YouTube and Facebook would suggest that a majority of indie fans do not suffer from the same feelings of anger that ‘90s alternative fans felt once their favorite bands hit the pop charts.

Whether it is technology or a simple change in attitude, bands like Grouplove are able to enjoy their success without feeling the pressures experienced by Nirvana and other alternative rockers. The association with “major label corporate rock sell outs” —as Cobain stated on April 17, 1991, at the OK Hotel in Seattle, Wash., and documented on the “The Live Nirvana Tour History” DVD—is gone and replaced by the belief that a group can be, as the Bergers describe it, “100 percent organic [without] a formula for managing them. Our job is to help foster their visions and help them carry it all out to what you see at their live shows, on their albums and in all of the content they put out.”

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