Wallace Wylie

No Alternative: Pitchfork and Indie Culture’s End Times

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If you want to understand the indie mindset in America (and elsewhere) right now I would say it’s a must that you read Pitchfork. It wields an almighty influence in terms of the formation of taste and in terms of giving musicians widespread internet exposure. To give it its due, Pitchfork has regular features on topics which are often ignored, such as international music trends, and has also been reasonably successful with regards to exposing indie fans to hip-hop and electronica. Its reviews and articles are almost uniformly awful but, if one is willing to wade through the garbage, it’s possible to discern how both the typical indie fan and the typical indie musician approach music and popular culture.

While reading through various Pitchfork features recently I noticed a slightly troublesome trend. From a recent interview with Iron And Wine came this little nugget: Beam, who has frequently licensed songs to commercials and films, is largely unconcerned about repercussions within his fan base. The days of hollering “sell out,” we agree, are mostly over. “I think people in the industry care. And people who define themselves by what kind of music they listen to care. But most people can tell the difference between people who are making records to be famous, and people who make records because that’s what they like doing,” he says. “It’s the same shit, whether you put it out yourself, or on an independent label, or on a big label. It doesn’t matter.”

What I found troublesome was the offhand way in which the entire question of ethics in regards to song licensing was glossed over. Decades of debate were dismissed casually and carelessly. Barely a week had passed when I uncovered this in a Decemberists’ interview:

Pitchfork: Did you feel any backlash from the initial decision to go to a major?

Colin Meloy: We didn’t get as much backlash as we might have if it had happened 10 years prior, when there was a stronger connection to what independent rock music meant. Now, people understand that you gotta do what you gotta do. I remember when The Shins sold ‘New Slang’ to McDonald’s – it was an uproar. People were so pissed off. Now it’s, “Oh, whatever”.

Notice that both statements reek of passivity. This thing happened, and, well, that’s just the world we live in now. There’s no point in complaining and, anyway, people can tell who’s in it for fame and who’s not. So, in case you were slow on the uptake, here’s where we’re at right now: there should be no ethical dilemmas about either signing to a major or allowing your songs to be used in a commercial. It simply does not matter anymore. Then while browsing a little more I find these lovely quotes from a Pains Of Being Pure At Heart feature:

Pitchfork: You recently wrote on Twitter: “We just turned down a lot of $$,$$ because we don’t want to be in TV ads. Not self righteous, just rather be unknown than known for that.” Can you expound on that?

Kip Berman: I shouldn’t have said that because one day we’ll be on a commercial and someone will be like, “Oh wow, you compromised your original values!” If someone else had said that, I probably would’ve rolled my eyes at them. The thing is no one really knows our music and suddenly for everyone to hear it for the first time all at once on TV– I don’t know. I just want people to hear our music as music first.

At the same time, there are a lot of bands that are better and cooler than us that have done it. It allows a lot of artists to make music on their own terms. Ultimately, the song’s a song, no matter the context. It’s a way for bands to make money and bands deserve to make money. But we do want our songs to be in TV shows and movies. I’ve always wanted to be a part of popular culture like that.

Alex Naidus: Just because we’re indie, it doesn’t mean we can’t do this or that. That whole idea doesn’t exist as much as it used to.

Did you catch that? The palpable sense of embarrassment at maybe, kinda, making a decision based on ethical grounds? Please don’t mistake their actions for self-righteousness though! At this point it would appear that some people live in fear of being judged if they take a moral stand. Is this is what we’ve come to? Something important has disappeared in terms of our understanding of what ‘indie’ or ‘alternative’ is, and nobody seems to care. In fact, they appear rather pleased about it. So, I suppose what I’m wondering is, does it matter and should we care? -> -> ->

First off, we need to define alternative culture. Is it something that provides values for those who identify with it, or is it just mainstream culture decked out in thrift store apparel? What we think of as alternative culture can be traced back in an almost unbreakable line to the social circles and hangouts of early jazz musicians. As many white Americans began for the first time to mingle with African-Americans, the hipster was born. From hipsterism came the Beat movement, the first major American rejection of mainstream values. While it’s easy to go back and pick apart the motives of those involved, the Beat Generation’s bohemian challenge birthed our now accepted liberal attitudes to sex and sexuality, as well as a predilection for more challenging forms of music and literature. With this came an understanding that, in rejecting everyday values, a person had to embrace an alternative set of principles in order to combat the all-powerful force of mainstream culture. The main point was that one did not play by ‘normal’ rules and as such helped produce an us-against-the” mentality that fueled many powerful and enduring works of art. This truly ‘alternative’ culture became a wellspring of debate and ideas, as all preconceived notions were put under the microscope. From Beat came rock ‘n’ roll and 60s counterculture, with its influence still being felt in the days of post-punk and beyond. So, if we still have a counter-culture in this day-and-age, what are its principles?

It’s OK, you can give up. I can’t think of any either.

If there’s a cardinal sin in these times it’s not being open-minded enough about mainstream music or, worse still, having a self-righteous attitude. Ironically enough, corporate entities have managed to so completely co-opt the idea of ‘cool’ and alternative that many have leapt to the conclusion that there really never was such a thing as alternative to begin with,; it was just a bunch of people fooling themselves. And, anyway, The Clash were on a major label, right? (Yes, they were. Look what an unlimited budget will do for you! You too can produce a bloated incoherent mess like Sandinista!). [Amen! – Ed.] Slowly but steadily business ideals have both absorbed and corrupted alternative values, with corporations grabbing what they can resell back to the public and dispensing with those things which are a bother. One of the most bothersome things of all for the corporate agenda is having principles, which means potentially saying no to something even if the end result is having less money in your bank account. This doesn’t mean not wishing to make any kind of money at all. Oftentimes if one criticises an indie act for “selling out” one is met with the quip “Yeah, cos everybody just wants to record in their bedroom and never make money. Grow up”.

Apparently, holding an artist accountable for whatever actions they take is just childish. Does it bother Vampire Weekend that Tommy Hilfiger uses sweatshops? Oh, grow up. Does the idea that corporations around the Western world are slowly but successfully undermining basic notions of democracy wherever they go imply that one should think twice before helping them shift more of their product? Look man, you gotta do what you gotta do and, anyway, we can tell who’s making music because they care. So, whatever. The Decemberists turned down Dennis Miller for being too right-wing but still allowed AT&T to use one of their songs even though AT&T gave the maximum possible contribution, $250,000, to George W. Bush’s second inauguration. Then there’s the matter of AT&T assisting the American government to tap citizens’ phones without a warrant. Still, what’s the big deal? -> -> ->

The question remains: is it ever acceptable to allow your song to be used in a commercial? I suppose if you had done your homework and a company’s ideals matched your own, then a case could be made. But what of the integrity of the song? Does such a thing exist? I’d like to believe it does, but the idea seems overly precious in our values-free times. We’re all supposed to be reveling in a smash-and-grab pop culture wonderland and absolutely nobody is allowed to take themselves seriously.

The idea of an alternative culture has been all but destroyed, replaced with what can only be described as a light covering of dust from alternative cultures of days gone by. Everyone has been trained so thoroughly to identify all the bullshit from alternative cultures of the past that everyone has forgotten all of the good things that came from them. Knowing that the 60s were just a bunch of smelly hippies looking for free love, I am at liberty to dismiss everything connected to the 60s counter-culture. In the same vein, punk was just a bunch of middle-class poseurs reveling in anti-social behavior to upset their parents.

So what’s left to believe in? It appears that the business agenda, which does not hide its desire for profit, is the least hypocritical enterprise on earth! Alternative culture, in the past, has indeed produced hypocrites, charlatans, liars, opportunists and every other kind of unpleasant individual. But it has also produced debate, it has challenged the norms of our culture, it has given us wild acts of creativity, and it has traditionally been the most welcoming culture for minorities of all description. Even smaller alternative cultures like the one which produced hip-hop would have been impossible without an isolated sense of us-against-them. There were rules but as hip-hop collided head on with the commercial world these rules were eroded and are now all but forgotten. I will let history judge whether this development was beneficial.

The idea that a person should not allow a song to be used in a commercial comes from the unwritten rule that to do so would be to help move product, to debase the idea of Art, and to reduce your song to a mere jingle. If that seems pretentious it’s because our ideals have been transformed into cynical acceptance of the realities of the modern world. Without some sense of an alternative culture, without the idea that some unpopular ideas are important enough to be taken seriously, we allow the dominant culture’s values to be our own given that our built-in bullshit detectors have become attuned to reject every idea of rebellion as foolish and naïve. (The flipside of this is pseudo-intellectual debate about commercial monsters like Lady Gaga).

For those who see pop culture as nothing more than brightly-coloured entertainment to fill up some empty hours this essay will seem laughable, but for those who imagined that within pop culture there lurked something more, something meaningful, some thread that connected the best of it to challenging artistic movements of the past, it’s hard not to feel a sense of loss at our current predicament. There is a feeling not so much of surrender but that nothing much mattered in the first place. Our job now is to accept the reality of the modern capitalist agenda. Anything else is naïve. At this point we have no alternative culture to draw strength from, no connection to the glories of non-conformity. All that exists is all that is sold to us. By accepting this reality we reject the idea of meaningful change and, when all is said and done, that could turn out to be the single most powerful weapon the dominant corporate culture possesses.

10 Responses to No Alternative: Pitchfork and Indie Culture’s End Times

  1. Everett True March 4, 2011 at 12:59 pm

    [The link to the original article has stopped working, so I’m posting this up. Apologies for the messiness of the imported comments – Ed]

    Wallace Wylie
    Submitted on 2011/03/03 at 12:50 am

    I also wanted to add, without making too much of the Pitchfork/alternative, Grammys/metal comparison, do you think people at Pitchfork think they are part of the ongoing trajectory of alternative independent culture that exists on the fringes of popular culture or do you think they see themselves as just writing about music with no connection to alternative ideals? I don’t know if anyone thinks that’s important, but I do. The larger point I’m also making is that there are literally thousands upon thousands of people walking around, listening to music, writing about music, who kind of imagine themselves to be alternative in some way but when it comes write down to it they aren’t, they’re actually destroying the last chance that many isolated, lonely individuals have of somehow coming across something worthy in popular culture. I never said all alternative cultures were dead, in fact I do connect this particular alternative culture with “indie”, which many people see as a continuation of the values of the various counter-cultures that have sprung up on the edges of popular culture. The Grammys have never been about metal or ever claimed to be.

    Wallace Wylie
    Submitted on 2011/03/02 at 3:06 pm

    Well, I would hope it’s obvious that I wasn’t saying “With the death of indie culture, the last hope for humanity has been irrevocably destroyed forever. In a few short years we will all be marching to the same tune and all individuality will have been crushed”. Perhaps this article was more of a lament for the current definition of indie culture, but is that so bad? While it seems appealing to face every situation like Yoda, I would imagine that the whole desire to form an alternative culture in the first place is not by having a “this too shall pass, namaste” attitude but by being quite unreasonably annoyed by the current state of things. If there’s a Chinese alternative culture thriving, my heart is with it. But I don’t live in China, I live in America, and things don’t seem so great here.

    Pitchfork is far more likely to randomly pick up on an independent band and thrust them into the limelight than High On Fire winning a Grammy (They haven’t, have they? Should I have picked a more recent metal reference?). Pitchfork is not interested in alternative culture, and that was my point. Neither is NME. If all is well in the world and at 35 I am past it and confused about the world ok, but I’m still going to go out complaining. Maybe my greater point was there used to be a thread of interest and excitement that existed on the verges of popular culture that could connect a person up to more alternative pursuits but at the ripe old age of 35 that seems gone to me.

    Submitted on 2011/03/02 at 2:29 pm

    “OK, I’m feeling a bit more combative now.

    “Could a child of the eighties have understood the formative ideals and motivations of generation X?”

    I would say yes, but at the same time even if I thought no this implies a rather fruitless cycle of youths creating some slight variation on the alternative culture idea only to have it co-opted by the dominant culture ad infinitum. It’s hardly a ray of optimism. “You are too old to see the current alternative culture but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It does, and just like the one you were familiar with in your youth, it will one day be co-opted and some concerned person will write about it and they’ll be told that just because they don’t see it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist……”

    In terms of what I mean by alternative cultures, I mean groups of individuals who share values and goals that in many ways are opposed to those of the dominant culture. I think in this instance it’s certainly an overtly romantic view to say that people involved in tape-trading, etc, don’t worry about whether things are thriving, they’re just DOING. I know people involved in tape trading. I myself have released cassette’s on a local Minneapolis tape label. These people have the same worries as anyone else, and question their activities worth and other such things, but they carry on, and that is very admirable. I don’t think having worries or fears is necessarily a bad thing or detrimental to doing.”

    It isn’t a ray of optimism because it isn’t meant to be a ray of optimism. It’s reality. You get old, you die. What you love and what you value will eventually die – either through being co-opted or through the deaths of its followers.

    Now, you can look at that as depressing or you can look at it as invigorating.

    Personally, I take great pleasure in the knowledge that my time on this earth is temporary and I take solace in the fact that the fundamental cause of alternative culture – which is to stand apart from mindless ordinariness – will remain alive even if I will no longer be able to see it and experience it as I once did. Will things be irrevocably lost? Undoubtedly – but new things will be discovered. At the risk of sounding like Dr Phil, that is the joy of being alive.

    Going by your definition of alternative cultures, thousands exist across the entire globe – think of the currently thriving underground Chinese alternative culture. Whether you’re thinking locally or globally, alternative cultures continue to thrive and continue to exist – to continue the Chinese underground theme, a majority of that culture’s albums over the past handful of years have been re-released via awesome Australian label tenzenmen.

    The thing is, though, it’s unlikely you’ll read about such cultures or values on Pitchfork because Pitchfork, at this point in time, have no interest whatsoever in alternative culture. You can say indie culture has been severed from the values of alternative culture but, really, you’re not talking about indie culture in this article. You’re talking about the current face of popular culture.

    Look at interviews with actual independent bands on a website that isn’t currently the centre of popular music criticism in the eyes of youth communities and I imagine you’ll see a very different picture of alternative values. Alex Gillies of Brisbane three-piece No Anchor, to list one example, flat out told me he has no interest in selling a hundred thousand records. He just wants to connect with likeminded people. The sole ambition of Ash Timms of Nova Scotia, similarly, was to perform overseas.

    When I said that not being able to see a community doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist – I wasn’t really talking about how old you are or aren’t (though a lot of this discussion does bring to mind “I used to be with it – but then they changed what it was and now ‘it’ seems strange and confusing to me”). I was talking about looking at something like Pitchfork to evaluate alternative cultures. You may as well claim heavy metal is dead and then point to the grammys.

    Submitted on 2011/03/02 at 3:42 am

    I may be pedantic, but I’m not making a semantic argument re: mechanical and performance rights. What I’m saying is artists absolutely do have a say in the licensing of their songs, unless they’re so foolish as to have signed over more than half of their publishing, and are therefore entirely accountable for the use of their songs in ads, TV, and film.

    To look at these artists as poor little lambs who innocently sign recording and/or publishing contracts only to wake up and find their songs being used to shill some evil corporation’s wares is terribly naive. An offer is made and the artist decides whether their song is a song or it’s a paycheck and an advertising jingle. I know people who have said yes and I know people who have said no and they both seem happy with their decisions. Personally, I’m against it when it comes to advertising. As for TV and film, I’m more annoyed that directors have become so lazy. At best they might believe they’re following the lead of Kenneth Anger or Martin Scorsese.

    Labels repackaging material isn’t part of the discussion, but Radiohead are hardly the equivalent of the innumerable artists of yore who were robbed blind by record companies. Perhaps said hits album fulfilled a contractual obligation.

    Artists, music and otherwise, have always been selling themselves and their work. It’s their choice. They decide whether it’s a compromise they’re willing to make, or whether they feel it’s a compromise at all, and it’s up to us as the audience to call bullshit or just accept that nothing is more important than money.

    Princess Stomper
    Submitted on 2011/03/02 at 12:17 am

    @ Klaus says:
    it is the artist and publishing company who own the songs and license them to advertising, film, and TV. They, not the labels, say yes or no to these companies and they make (most of) the money. The label owns the artist’s recordings and their right to record and release material under the duration of their contract, and the artist’s take may go back to the label as part of the label recouping their expenses should the artist be so indebted (I know smaller labels often do a 50/50 split), but the labels can’t just sell this material willy nilly to anyone with a checkbook.

    In terms of distinguishing between mechanical rights and performance rights, we’re getting a little pedantic here. The point I was trying to make is that the minute someone gives you money in return for your music, you no longer own the music! That is what you are selling!

    If you sign a record deal, the label have the right to press your record in any way they see fit – compilations, etc. – you’re pretty unlikely to be allowed to refuse that. See Radiohead’s grumblings about the “greatest hits” album that was released without their say-so. They sold that right!

    If you sign a publishing deal, the (publishing) label have the right to authorise the song’s performance and you no longer get to say how and when that song is aired.

    My point, semantics aside, is that when you sell that right, you *sell that right*. That is why they give you the money!

    Really huge acts tend to get more say in how and when their songs are used – hence Lady Gaga’s deal with (I think) Gap, using her selling power as leverage against their “homophobic” funding activities. Most acts do not enjoy that luxury.

    Acts wanting to retain their independence – their ability to say no – must think very, very carefully before signing a deal with anyone. Well, ALL bands should think very, very carefully before signing a contract in any way, shape or form with anyone whatsoever. That’s pretty much why the whole DIY/punk thing came about anyway – out of necessity rather than anything else – but you still need to come up with the money to fund recording, etc.

    Wallace Wylie
    Submitted on 2011/03/01 at 11:33 pm

    Yeah, I have that Dylan interview CD. I wondered at first if it was some kind of joke on his part. Still, I’m not giving him a free pass. He gets enough of those. If Dylan has complaints with anyone corrupting the great American folk tradition it should be with his younger self. He (brilliantly) updated folk music and then when he couldn’t sustain the lifestyle or the songwriting momentum he crashed out and hopped around looking for a comfortable persona. He’s found it now but I don’t think it washes. That’s a whole other subject though. If that’s the state of the Co-op now then Dylan’s decision seems even more puzzling.

    If Conor Oberst is doing something good, I applaud it. I can’t ever applaud his music though, and he was definitely one of the bigger names who complained about Bush. Jr as if he were satan himself and then campaigned for Obama, the end result being just about the same thing.

    Lewis Parker
    Submitted on 2011/03/01 at 7:25 pm


    Mr Oberst, whom I spoke to for The Quietus recently, is campaigning on behalf of the suspected illegal immigrants being detained in privately run prisons in Arizona. It’s a coalition called Sound Strike, which Rage Against The Machine are also a part of.


    With the Dylan thing, I would point out that he did once say that he would like to appear in a woman’s underwear commercial, so it is kind of funny that he did that. The Starbucks thing isn’t so funny. I would say that he regards himself as a kind of sage, whose job is to preserve and further the great American song book. That’s not an unfair assessment, though, since he does perform that role.

    I would argue that the Co-op, in the UK, is no longer the kind of community co-operative that would warrant support. It runs banks whose fees and charges are even more inflated than those charged by high street banks. It also stocks unethical produce and pays crappy wages.

    Wallace Wylie
    Submitted on 2011/03/01 at 2:12 pm

    Dylan allowing a song to be used, and appearing, in a Victoria’s Secret commercial was pretty pathetic. Most of his fanbase just shrugged and said “Oh that Dylan, he’s such an enigma, always doing the opposite of what people think” as if his actions were meant to be challenging in some way. I swear if most Dylan fans came home to find the great man chowing down on dog shit on their favourite rug they would have much the same response. I’ve only seen him asked about it once. Unfortunately it was in a Rolling Stone interview so that means no tough questions for the master. Anyway, when asked about it, Dylan’s reply was “Was I not supposed to do that?” like some 5 year old caught chowing down on dog shit on their parents favourite rug. Dylan has disappeared so far up his own arse that he seems to have actually convinced himself that he’s some kind of guardian of real American folk traditions, taking a stand against the pernicious influence of Modernism. Completely delusional.

    The Co-op thing is more interesting. I’m actually Scottish and did not move to America until I was 25. America has local co-ops too and they are run along very similar lines. I do all my shopping at a local co-op and am also a member (they even give you a check once a year) and to me it seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to support. You could perhaps view it as noble that Dylan is lending his support to the Co-op, but given his general behaviour I don’t think it represents any kind of moral action.

    With Bright Eyes…well, I detest them to be honest. I didn’t even know they allowed a song to be used in a Halifax commercial. Supporting the Democrats is not only naive but also dangerous. I wrote a blog piece on Obama and the current state of the American left here:


    Unless I’ve missed something Mr Oberst seems to be rather silent on the political front these days. Every musical act who publicly supported Obama should be doing some soul searching right now.

    Submitted on 2011/03/01 at 2:41 am

    Sorry Princess Stomper, but you’re the one who is confused.

    Beside the passionate music fan fantasy, and the fact that signing to a major, which bland acts such as Arcade Fire, Interpol, and Spoon have proved to be unnecessary in gaining widespread access and appeal (not that they haven’t all tried it past or present in various regions) is contrary to an alternative in the first place, it is the artist and publishing company who own the songs and license them to advertising, film, and TV. They, not the labels, say yes or no to these companies and they make (most of) the money. The label owns the artist’s recordings and their right to record and release material under the duration of their contract, and the artist’s take may go back to the label as part of the label recouping their expenses should the artist be so indebted (I know smaller labels often do a 50/50 split), but the labels can’t just sell this material willy nilly to anyone with a checkbook.

    In this day and age, selling your song is pretty much the only way to make any money in music so it’s not terribly surprising when people jump at this opportunity, one which wasn’t really an option for alternative bands pre-1990′s (I remember my shock the one time I saw the Volcano Suns “White Elephant” Levi’s ad). Your call I guess, and I’m not even bothered by usage in film and TV, since those are at least as artistic endeavors as music (yup, Peep Show is easily as significant as your D-beat band), but when Maximumrocknroll can’t even get their Facebook fanbase to back an anti-corporate sentiment that John Cougar Mellencamp was espousing in the 80′s then that’s pretty fucking sad.

    Lewis Parker
    Submitted on 2011/03/01 at 1:05 am

    Enjoyed the article, Wallace. Just wondering where you stand on a couple of the trickier cases. Bob Dylan — selling an album through Starbucks is obviously ethical plundering at its worst. But the Co-op, an old socialist concept that runs everything from supermarkets to funeral services in the UK. Where do you stand on that, since the Co-op is in principle a progressive idea.

    Or how about — Halifax bank commercial aside, which was another ethical clanger — Bright Eyes playing in support of the Democratic party in election years? While they’re to the left of the Republicans, they’re still free-market capitalists who seem to favour aggressive foreign policy and punitive social measures.

    Submitted on 2011/02/28 at 11:12 am

    “Could a child of the eighties have understood the formative ideals and motivations of generation X?”

    I would say yes because of the simple fact that generation X contains some children of the 80s. Gen X ends around 1982.

    Wallace Wylie
    Submitted on 2011/02/27 at 11:26 am

    OK, I’m feeling a bit more combative now.

    “Could a child of the eighties have understood the formative ideals and motivations of generation X?”

    I would say yes, but at the same time even if I thought no this implies a rather fruitless cycle of youths creating some slight variation on the alternative culture idea only to have it co-opted by the dominant culture ad infinitum. It’s hardly a ray of optimism. “You are too old to see the current alternative culture but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It does, and just like the one you were familiar with in your youth, it will one day be co-opted and some concerned person will write about it and they’ll be told that just because they don’t see it, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist……”

    In terms of what I mean by alternative cultures, I mean groups of individuals who share values and goals that in many ways are opposed to those of the dominant culture. I think in this instance it’s certainly an overtly romantic view to say that people involved in tape-trading, etc, don’t worry about whether things are thriving, they’re just DOING. I know people involved in tape trading. I myself have released cassette’s on a local Minneapolis tape label. These people have the same worries as anyone else, and question their activities worth and other such things, but they carry on, and that is very admirable. I don’t think having worries or fears is necessarily a bad thing or detrimental to doing.

    Submitted on 2011/02/26 at 7:17 pm

    What’s your definition of ‘thriving’ and ‘cultures’? Is it just ‘indie guitar music’ you are alienated from?

    Because there is more art being created (and sold) right now, than at any time in human history. Bloggers, digital artists, the Etsy/Maker/homebrew craft and electronics crowd, even musicians. There’s still a tape-trading scene of noise, experimental and metal underground if all you really want is stuff outwith the mainstream. They don’t worry if they’re ‘thriving’ or not because they’re too busy DOING.

    Sure, it can be difficult to connect with this stuff because often it doesn’t have a name. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. Naming something allows it to be defined and packaged, perhaps softened and ultimately sold. So perhaps it’s better to remain nameless.

    Wallace Wylie
    Submitted on 2011/02/26 at 2:52 pm

    I think there are always pockets of what could be termed alternative culture. I have friends who are deeply involved in queer culture and punk rock/DIY culture, and I think they are both important. In the greater sense though I think that even these alternative cultures have been depoliticised to a large extent and when I get into conversations with my friends about things like “selling-out” they feel that there is no such thing. Not because anyone has come to terms with it and viewed it ultimately as a good thing to accept money from corporations but more because it seems almost pointless to fight it. It simply is. It feels as futile as fighting daylight. So the only thing left is to fight for your place in the sun, which of course plays into the corporate agenda. Perhaps I also feel that the creativity from these alternative cultures is limited. That, I suppose, is perhaps a romanticised view of what alternative cultures should be, though.

    I’m willing to accept that there is perhaps a thriving alternative culture that I simply have not connected with, but it has been severed from indie culture. Indie culture is a bad joke and I would hope that’s obvious to everyone. Like everything I write it was certainly meant as a starter of some kind of dialogue, whilst also expressing genuine despair and alienation I personally feel in terms of being unable to see or connect with alternative or challenging viewpoints. If someone has examples of thriving alternative cultures I would honestly love to hear them.

    Everett True
    Submitted on 2011/02/26 at 1:07 pm

    Once again, I find myself in agreement with Matt. Particularly this:

    Just because you can’t see an alternative culture, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It just means that you can’t see it.

    Submitted on 2011/02/26 at 11:18 am

    You know, if there *were* an alternative culture, I doubt anyone would be offering them licensing deals.

    What this article ultimately relates to is that one alternative culture has been co-opted – and it has, no doubt – but that is the way of things. Alternative aesthetics are embraced and disposed of by the mainstream. That doesn’t mean the concept of alternative ceases to exist. It just means its representations are altered with each generation – and I think it’s exceedingly rare for an older generation to ever understand the politics of the younger.

    Could a child of the eighties have understood the formative ideals and motivations of generation X? Just because you can’t see an alternative culture, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It just means that you can’t see it.

    Wallace Wylie
    Submitted on 2011/02/26 at 9:11 am

    I traced modern counter-culture back to jazz and drew the line there as it seemed to be an appropriate birthing point for a modern counter-culture. I don’t think it had any deliberate philosophical ties to previous ones.

    The idea that Major record companies are staffed by passionate music fans who are just trying to recoup their money is the most romantic view of record companies I’ve ever heard. They are corporations designed to maximise profit for themselves. I don’t believe anybody thinks otherwise. I certainly didn’t indicate otherwise in my essay. The phrase corporate-greed is redundant. One implies the other. These are undisputable facts. How many albums cost millions to make? Even if I were to believe that all Major record companies are staffed by passionate music fans, the corporate system they work for over-rules any of the decision making processes. I’m sure people at Apple are all passionate about computers and innovative technology. That doesn’t mean their corporate agenda hasn’t destroyed rivals, upped the ante on constrictive intellectual property laws, sued people in their thousands and generally acted like a powerful greedy bully, which in fact it is, and that is what it is designed to be. Nobody expects otherwise. And thats my whole point. We should not be working WITH this agenda.

    The blame for lack of an alternative culture lies both with the corporate agenda and with people failing to take a stand against it. Who’s to blame is secondary to the fact that an alternative culture does not exist in any form, and people in bands, and the most influential “indie” media outlet, don’t care.

    Shan Welham
    Submitted on 2011/02/26 at 8:46 am

    So true and thus so utterly depressing.

    Hannah Golightly
    Submitted on 2011/02/26 at 8:19 am

    It’s a selfconscious risk free approach of ‘am I doing it right yeah?’ conformity to the tried and tested past of hippies, punks, rockabilly, mods etc… I can go to the shop and purchase the correct attire for the social group I am playing at being part of, even though it was over long before I was ever born… and nothing new is happening….

    Hannah Golightly
    Submitted on 2011/02/26 at 8:02 am

    I think that when the ‘indie’ musicians are more concerned with making a living than making a scene or opinion or movement, then the product of such attitude is evident in the bland throw-away quality of their sooooo-dull-I-can’t-believe-it’s-even-COMMERCIALLY-successful music.

    What music needs is some band who comes along with something to f**king say!

    The teenagers don’t know what they’re missing out on. The wool’s been pulled over their eyes by the normality of it all- coming of age in a time of such blandness can’t be healthy for the musical taste buds development. But it’s their time and their music… and I’m just old enough to scratch my head in bemusement- not in the same way older people looked upon the hippies, the punks, the new romantics, the ravers, the shoegazers or the grungers or even the (God-awful) britpoppers… oh no. There’s simply nothing zany enough to scratch my head about in my lack of understanding. There’s no ‘I can’t BELIEVE they like this awful sound and wear those daft clothes’… there’s nothing to comment on or complain about- is that the new rebellion? At least the ‘apathy’ of the grunge movement was a sort of 60s drop out, Gandhi passive resistance movement against Yuppies and the grand dollar… this is a passivity all of it’s own vacuous nature. What is there to say?… the kids played it safe, the record industry tiptoes towards the inevitable cliff edge of the end of it’s road bargaining all the while with music designed to placate the masses with it’s ‘mass appeal-zero sound style’, copying successful elements of the past and doing a crapper than karaoke remake of something that was brave and innovative and got noted in history of pop due to it’s maverick appeal, hence why these pussy-footed ‘New’ songwriters and musicians ape it in a less accomplished tribute band?

    Times are tough and they all want to make it big as the next Stones, Blondie or Oasis (puke… but read the muso ads, it’s the most mentioned word aside from ‘drummer wanted’)

    These days with mass media ruling the world, ask children what they want to be when they grow up and it’s no longer Princesses and astronauts- they all wish to be the same thing: Famous.

    So they all have these Indie fantasies but with steel phoney Nu-Yuppie hearts, hidden one chip beneath their carefully constructed exteriors that pose to the contrary. So here comes the bottom line: the money talks and the bullshit walks: they don’t want to piss off the ad companies because they WANT to work for the ad companies… they just want to be ‘credible’ bands first so people don’t think of them as a One hit wonder from that mobile phone ad. In fact you could possibly blame the Dandy Warhols for setting this president and career map for younger bands… but why would you do that?- They took the new opportunity of appearing in an ad long after they’d established their career as musicians in a real band… Thing is, new musicians wanna cut to the chase and don’t see the work that went into forming such a reputation in the corners of dirty sweaty dive bars with audiences of 12 to begin with that got these bands where they deserved to be- making serious cash from their career in whatever form that incurred. But that was never the point and that is all the difference between them and the novices.

  2. Ken March 7, 2011 at 3:52 pm

    Well, as a lifelong music obsessive who works in advertising and has occasionally written stuff with licensed music in mind, I’d say nothing that’s going on right now is particularly new, certainly not in principle. Hank Williams did ads for Mother’s Best Flour every bit as crass, if not quite as self-conscious, as that GAP ad. Even with that particular piece of ick, I don’t think any less of Willie Nelson’s music (or any more of Ryan Adams’) for having seen it. Like 99% of ads, it will be quickly forgotten.

    All decent musicians are squeamish about putting their stuff up for sale, but it’s not as if the people who complain are going to start paying for CDs again. It’s an ugly reality, and if you want to adopt a crypto-Marxist fundamentalism about it, then go ahead. Resisting the temptation to license is truly praiseworthy and more than ever a principled stand, but you cannot blame any starving band with 500,000 views on YouTube and not a penny to show for it for accepting the only chance of a reasonable income that may come their way. As for doing due diligence on the company writing the cheque, well, how clean do you need your money to be?

    It’s actually the ad agencies I get pissed off with. So many pieces of good music are used to prop up bad or non-existent ideas, devaluing everyone in the process. If I was a musician in that position, while checking for the obvious client bogeys, I’d look at the agency and the script and take an interest in the final product. Better still, volunteer to write a track for it rather than have something personal co-opted.

    I love Bill Hicks, but a cheap shot is a cheap shot. I’d be more worried about black ops PR crap and what’s going on in deals behind closed doors than the simple, obvious and frequently crude sales pitch of an ad that could be deconstructed by any sentient 6 year old.

    I take it we’ve all had a nervous giggle at this:


  3. Wallace Wylie March 8, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Ken, it seems like there’s almost nothing you believe in that you can’t find a way of circumventing when push comes to shove. You seem to agree with me in principle but ultimately don’t think that anyone can really have my beliefs in the real world. So why even bother having them. Just discard them.

  4. Ken March 8, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    I’m not copping out Wallace, I just think it’s not fair for any of us to hold musicians accountable to standards that cost us nothing to demand.

    A few years back, we put a track from The Clean on to this ad:


    I don’t think it damaged their music or their integrity, but the proper money they got basically enabled them to record their last album, Mister Pop. When you’re a New Zealand music institution, you’re indie gods in the States, your stuff is on everyone’s iPod and yet you’re on the minimum wage, what else can you do? And is it any worse than getting 15 seconds of your hook played in “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” just to signal to a cinema full of proles that Adam Sandler’s character has grown as a person?

    There are distant relatives of obscure songwriters out there raking in millions because their long dead antecedent wrote some piece of hack work that got licensed by something big. I’d rather see that money go to living musicians, especially struggling ones. Earning money that way offends me much less than what Snoop Dogg used to do for a living.

  5. Lewis Parker March 8, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    I think we’re forgetting the crucial public service Iggy Pop is performing in reminding us to get our cars insured.

  6. Pingback: Selling Out » The Cynical Musician

  7. golightly June 5, 2011 at 3:50 am

    Do you think it has something to do with the internet. This generations of musicians and bands are the first to grow up in a time when the internet is as important and increasingly more so than TV. Instead of a limited number of TV channels representing a narrow range of opinions, we now have the anarchically free sharing of opinion and information via the internet- perhaps this makes the them and us/ mainstream vs alternative debate irrelevant and therefore the ideals become lost on what constitutes alternative. I was watching the film Whip It last night and the main character is definitely what most people would call ‘alternative’. There is a scene where the girl who picks on her says to her sarcastically “So what? You’re like alternative now?!” She comes back deadpan with “Alternative to what?”- I thought this was a cool response. But perhaps I was understanding it from a generation X viewpoint or irony and anti-cool… maybe I missed the intended point- perhaps she was being sincere- Alternative to what? The internet has largely changed the pecking order of culture. I’d still say that RnB pop was the mainstream in the UK, and other things were more or less ‘alternative’, but we are not being force-fed culture through limited TV channels and a handful of magazines anymore. Yeah, they still hold considerable influence, but they no longer dictate.
    So perhaps it is not a loss of values, but a changed landscape where these values are becoming less relevant and perhaps all in all that is a good thing, even if we have to leave behind our cherished and pet ways of doing things.
    I do agree that corporations have stolen counter-culture of the the past and made it into products for this generation to buy, sending them a weird message in the process.
    I got seriously pissed off when the manager of the Spice Girls took the riot grrl feminism and watered it down and sold it out to the masses. Honestly, in spite of the whole world shouting the words Girl Power, I honestly don’t think that anything else has been more harmful to feminism since. It perverted the message and confused and diluted it until it no longer had any real meaning. It cut off it’s balls and neutralized it.
    It may also be worth noting that a certain amount of tried and tested ‘alternative’ music has found it’s way into mainstream culture, which has some repercussions: everyone was walking around wearing Motorhead tshirts because that was cool amongst mainstream types a few years back… then Motorhead play at a festival and everyone flocks to see them as a by product of wearing all those tshirts… then you get Lemmy being interviewed afterwards showing his disappointment because the shows are selling out, but “the audiences are crap” or words to that effect.
    It’s hard for us because we know what we have lost. These kids have been sold these illusions plus they have been given more access to musical equipment and recording devices than any previous generation and adverts have been banging into them the idea that they really can all be rockstars and footballers and win X Factor. It used to be the domain of the people on the fringes of culture who went out looking for this stuff- now it’s fed to people like McDonnalds.
    Or perhaps with all the referencing of the past and the trend for listening to old music to find new stuff has eroded counter-culture, because it is old music being approached from a modern mix and match attitude. Maybe it’s a completely different culture that looks like an old one- a proverbial wolf in lamb’s clothing. And maybe they look like they are one of us, but in fact their lack of values proves their mainstream status, only the mainstream is not what it used to be.

  8. Joe Journey June 21, 2011 at 3:19 am

    Sorry I don’t have time to read the posts below however I think you raised a point that many people have in the past the idea of ‘selling out’, as it were.

    I thought I would post a brief response as a musician.

    I play in a moderate level UK band, to define this. It is my soul employment, we have released material via a long established true independent record label. We tour in both the UK and Europe playing to crowds of between 100 and 400 depending on city/country. We have appeared in a live capacity on all of the major UK radio stations (except BBC radio 2) and many of the largest radio stations in Europe. Have had pieces in major UK magazines and newspapers (NME, Word, Q, Nylon, Various Broadsheets).

    I am not writing this to brag about our modest achievements only to point out that in many peoples eyes we might be considered a moderate success.

    I have been doing this as a full time job for 2 years, after quitting the 9-5 devoting my full attention to the band and living off savings.

    To date in terms of monies I have taken home from the project it is probably something in the region of £500, over two years. Now obviously we have had a total income of considerably more than this but after costs (who knew an hour long meeting with a music lawyer could cost that much!) that is about all we have earned.

    Everyone is fairly desperate for money, we don’t have major label backing, in everything we do we have to count pennies. Even our record deal advance only just covered the recording costs of our album (to give you an idea it was about the amount I earned one summer when I was 16 washing dishes at the local carvery).

    As a music fan I used to loath bands that exploited their music for commercial reasons but right now having our music in the background of a beer advert (for example) might be the difference between allowing the band a decent wage (by this i mean less than legal minimum) for the next 6 months, record and promote a new album and afford to repair amps, guitars etc that don’t fully function.

    I can safely say though I am broke the last two years have been the best of my life, having got to travel the world and play the music I love to thousands of people. So do we take the cash and carry on or do we keep our moral sheet clean and head back to the office….

  9. Lucy Cage July 2, 2011 at 7:55 am


    Where Collapse Board leads, others follow.

  10. Richard November 16, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    “It is my soul employment” – a phrase that seems to encapsulate the article beautifully.

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