Meet a new person and spend more than five minutes with them, and if they’re a musician—much like with vegans, crossfitters, atheists, and homosexuals—they’ll find a way to work their lifestyle into the conversation.
So anyway, I’m a musician. In the past, I was pretty active in my city’s rock music scene. There were tons of bands bashing away at clubs, hawking CDs and other merch. Given that this was still in the early 2000s, the Internet and social media weren’t quite what they are now, and nowhere near as powerful. To wit: live-streaming a concert was a far-fetched possibility that we all knew took way too much equipment and bandwidth to actually be plausible. For a lot of my time in the indie music scene, smartphones weren’t a thing, and even when they were, the technology was not robust enough to have a phone replace a music player.
Anyway, one of the most frustrating things about being an up-and-coming, unsigned, independent music, was getting people who weren’t musicians to come to shows and buy music. There’s an old joke that an indie band’s audience consists of the other bands playing that night and their girlfriends. It’s similar to how indie authors have social media followings consisting mostly of other indie authors.
A part of this is natural. We enjoy talking shop with others and networking with colleagues in our fields. These connections are important, but after a while you really need to branch out lest you become like the proverbial insurance salesmen selling insurance to each other.
There were a few bands that I really liked. One in particular shared the bill with us quite a bit: Red Quiet. They were a delightfully weird hard rock combo. One time when I broke the low-E string on my bass one song into my band’s set (don’t ask), their bassist let me borrow his axe for the rest of our set. Good guy. Their singer was a big dude with a big beard and glasses who wore a gray t-shirt with the words “TACO THUNDER” scrawled on it in black marker. He’d have a milk jug full of water on stage he’d swig from between songs. Every so often he’d jump off the stage and run full-speed toward some unsuspecting audience member before stopping right before hitting them, turning on his heel, and walking nonchalantly back to the stage. It was pretty funny.
The guitarist always wore sunglasses and didn’t move much, the cool, calm center of the band. Their second drummer was my favorite though. He was a handsome dude, about five-foot-five, black hair down to his shoulders, and was absolutely jacked. He’d wear leather pants, a button-down shirt, a leather vest, and a cowboy hat, but always took his shirt off before playing. And boy did he beat the hell out of his drums. He was fun to watch because he was always spinning and twirling his sticks between cymbal hits.
I preached the gospel of this band to friends, and offered to burn a CD for them. They were moody hard-rock with a very experimental, bizarre edge. I had no takers.
Another local band we played with a lot was called Forest Henderson. They were a fun-loving, jovial bunch of guys. The singer/guitarist was a physics grad student at one of the universities in town. We always had fun with them, and their music was a really sunny, crunch hard-rock/power-pop that went over well.
None of my friends were interested in them either.
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I have a hypothesis about this sort of indie aversion: most people want to be into something that everybody else knows about.
It’s hard to understate the lure of a shared culture to those who never experienced such a thing, and why it’s such a hard habit to break. For those of us born in the last pre-Internet generation, we grew up where everybody, black, white, and whatever else, listened to Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Huey Lewis and the News, U2, David Bowie, Talking Heads, the Police, Chic, Run DMC, Whitesnake, M.C. Hammer, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Poison, Motley Crue, Paul McCartney, Bryan Adams, Madonna, the Cars, Cyndi Lauper, Devo, and so much more, all without a trace of self-consciousness or racial/tribal signifying.
This was all played on the radio and shown on MTV, and while adults and teenagers were likely more into the whole “If you’re in the new wave scene, you can’t listen to hair metal” and the “white people cannot listen to black music,” kids and normal adults did not care. Music was music, and like movies and TV shows of the time, everybody knew about what was out, enjoyed it, and could talk about it.
Things are not like that now. Instead of a shared culture, we have a mass culture, but it’s broken off into a thousand different splinter cells, all siloed off from each other. Within each silo, fans will have their own smaller shared culture known only to those within the same silo. These fellow travelers have their own esoteric languages and signifiers that they are in the club. This is great when speaking with those within your sphere. Step outside for even a moment, however, and you will quickly realize that most people have no idea what you are talking about.
This is isolating, and pushes you further into your little subculture.
As we lurched into the new millennium and technology further allowed these smaller groups to branch off, people still yearn for that shared experience. Too much, so my hypothesis goes. It’s become a religion. Don’t believe me? Look at the rapture on the faces of the people watching the final Game of Thrones season, of all things.
In the absence of an actual, healthy religion bringing people together and providing this shared experience and culture, dysgenic pop culture has become people’s religion.
You can see it in the marketing strategies and creepy psychological tricks advertisers use. When few people have read the Bible and know the stories underpinning Western culture, it gets replaced with whatever is hot on HBO Max and Netflix.
I’m not even talking about everybody needing to be a believer—but for centuries even atheists or agnostics knew the Old and New Testaments very well. This isn’t event taking into account classical literature.
You can see the analogy I’m trying to draw between indie music and indie books. It’s the same struggle to get people into a series by, say, Rob Kroese or Yakov Merkin or Brian Niemeier or Jon Del Arroz or Ben Cheah, as it was to get friends to listen to Red Quiet or Forest Henderson. Who will I talk about these books or this band to? Nobody else knows them. I don’t want to be alone!
Interestingly, indie video games and movies don’t suffer from this problem to the degree we see with books and music.
The second big block to overcoming indie aversion is what I call the official seal of quality problem. People respond positively to what they know, be it a movie franchise or a record label. Think of driving through an unfamiliar town on a long road trip around lunchtime. Do you take your chances with a local joint, or head over to Applebee’s?
It’s the same thing with books. Do you get book one in the latest series of fantasy doorstoppers by that author who’s recent work has been kind of weak and kind of insulting with the political stuff, or take a chance on book one of a series by a guy who is not published by Tor?
Many people go with the comfortable choice. It fills a deep human need to avoid uncertainty and maintain predictability.
I’m likely overstating the psychology behind this. But I think I’m on to something with this hypothesis.
* * *
Great. So what’s the answer?
The same answer as always: Keep pushing. Keep putting stuff out there. Keep spreading the word. And keep banding together to achieve critical mass. Here in our writing sphere, we’re getting close to some kind of breakthrough. Hans G. Schantz always puts on these periodic book sales, and this time with the most recent Black Friday Book Sale—which in the interests of full disclosure I must say I am participating in—we’re finally getting some attention from the bigger alternative outlets.
Independent creators are not going to do this alone. In order to create the network effects that the big franchises and recognizable trademarks have, we need to get our stuff into the hands of more and more people. Make it sound like everybody’s talking about it—this takes coordinated effort. And our stuff needs to be as good or better as the big market stuff, offering a unique experience people cannot get from superhero movie number forty-seven or laser sword tie-in novel six-hundred and two.
Eventually, quality wins out.
I’m going to wrap this up with another music analogy. Do you know the band Phish? Leave aside whether you like the band Phish or not. All you need to know is that this is a band who doesn’t need a record label, or even studio albums. While they’ve had some big sellers, and they still release studio albums, Phish’s bread and butter is the stage. Before their debut album, they’d built a ferociously loyal audience, and they continue as a viable economic concern to this day by earning their keep on stage.
The recording contracts, the album advances . . . that’s all gravy. Phish built their career the old-fashioned way: tons and tons of drugs.
* * *
My apologies for taking the low-hanging fruit with that joke. Phish really built their career the old-fashioned way by connecting with one audience member at a time. One became two, became four, became eight, and you can guess the rest. Eventually, the whole thing snowballed because they offered something audiences and music aficionados couldn’t get from other bands, or from listening to albums in the privacy of their own homes: the chance to get higher than a Georgia pine with a group of sweaty friends in some field.