The problem with indie rock

By the 90s, the major labels no longer invested in their bands. They simply counted on a few superstars to break out, like Nirvana or Radiohead⁠— and then they wrote off the rest as failed bets. By contrast, the indie labels held to fair standards that promised all their bands a working future. A decade later, the majors imploded⁠— so indie rock won! Except now…

Bennett from the Bobtail Yearlings here! I’ve spent half my life arguing that indie rock has made music worse, to no avail. But in recent years, something amazing has happened: Young people have grown disillusioned, and some now agree with me. It turns out, they’d love a Nirvana and Radiohead of their own. So the interdependence revolution can finally begin!

There’s just one problem. Rebelling against centralized institutions is simple: Break all that we hate! But to rebel against a de-centralized system like indie rock, we must build⁠— which is vastly more difficult. After all, build… what, exactly? Luckily, I’ve also spent half my life coming up with a plan:

BYCombo will assemble interdependent bands who’ll sacrifice serious chunks of lifetime to make historically consequential demos, which we’ll then show in a public registry to sustain an alternative counterculture.

The revolution will not be decentralized

Okay, that’s a mouthful! Let’s break it down…

Why an alternative counterculture?

A counterculture is needed to protect dangerous ideas, yet we haven’t had one for some time. Meanwhile, despite indie rock’s good intentions, music is now worse. But what if music is worse… because of these good intentions? What if all this charitable support for artists… is actually bad for art? It’s a dangerous idea, yet it might be rock’s only hope⁠— so let’s protect it.

Why historical consequence?

Critical acclaim can be inflated, which makes it a terrible barometer. What can’t be hacked is the historical canon, because making history means competing on equal terms with past artists who didn’t rely on charitable support. In this light, it’s likely that no indie artist today will be inducted into the canon⁠— and this is why people gripe that rock is getting worse.

Why assembled bands?

Has rock explored all the ways a band can come together? It might seem so⁠— assuming they’ll always form on their own, in a decentralized free-for-all. But if we ditch this notion? Then rock has barely scratched the surface.

What if musicians hoping to form history-making bands could flock to a single hub from across the globe? What if a cartoonist could also join⁠— and bands, in turn, could think to look for one? Or, suppose the next Kurt Cobain is a minority woman who’s currently struggling to attract bandmates. What if she could ask to be judged without unconscious bias?

With so many ways left to innovate in this space, there most certainly are canonical bands still to come. All that’s needed is a centralized initiative like BYCombo to help them come together.

Why interdependence?

To make consequential art, a band must develop exceptional strengths. But this isn’t humanly possible unless they’re allowed to stay weak in areas of administration like marketing and distribution, where a partner can be more efficient. That is to say, history-making bands need to be inter-dependent, not indie-pendent. They need a label, or some other business partner.

Why demos?

A demo shows what a work can be in the future, with a partner’s help. This doesn’t just free a band to take creative risks; it awakens the very thought to do so⁠— with doublespeaker rhyme being my own go-to example. Yes, artists today can self-release their works⁠— but this is a curse, not a blessing. Past artists put out demos, and to compete with them means doing likewise.

Why a public registry?

It takes time to review an ambitious demo⁠— but the indie labels won’t put in this effort, since any artist they sign will be charitably supported just the same. So an interdependent band’s best bet is to join a counterculture that criticizes indie rock’s good intentions⁠— and a public registry is where future business partners will know to find them.

Why serious chunks of lifetime?

Low barriers to entry have allowed an endless stream of underwhelming artists to pour through, leading people to grow wary and lose interest. But indie rock has no way to reverse this damage, given its decentralized nature.

To save rock, then, a centralized initiative like BYCombo must now step up to enforce a steep cost of entry. This cost can’t be arbitrary or artificial, so it can only be one thing: a serious chunk of lifetime. After all, a lifetime is all you have; once that chunk is gone, it’s gone! Which means there’s nothing more precious that a band can sacrifice to restore the public’s faith.

And finally… how has indie rock made music worse?

Here’s an incomplete list of ways…

Cultures of grievance wallow in confusion

In the 90s, “indie” referred to bands like Pavement, who never signed to a major label. As Gen X knows, then, Nirvana and Radiohead aren’t indie. To the younger generations, however, they sound indie⁠— so they might as well be. But… this isn’t a trivial mix-up! It’s causing us to look for the next Nirvana and Radiohead in the wrong places. How did we get confused?

Simply put, indie rock doesn’t know what it stands for, only whom it stands against: the major labels. Like MAGA, it’s a culture of grievance⁠— and so it shares the same tolerance for confusion. After all, who cares that those on your side are confused in their beliefs, if this is what fires them up to attack your common enemy?

For example, even after Goatse proved that the Internet caters to the lowest common denominator… indie rock concluded that bands going viral is the new grassroots phenomenon?! And when Radiohead and Amanda Palmer crowdfunded their works… this was seen as proof that artists don’t need a major label deal?!

In all these early examples of online success, chance or privilege clearly played a key role. Yet indie rock was so eager to “own” the major labels, it chose to downplay this point. And it worked⁠— the Internet came to be seen as a great equalizer. Except now, when artists struggle to succeed online… the public can only assume their music is no good!

The moral here, then, is that by tolerating confusion, a culture of grievance ends up hurting its own. So yes, the major labels did many things wrong⁠— but they got Nirvana and Radiohead right! How? With BYCombo, you can now join a movement that’s willing to ask⁠— because it holds no grievances.

The opportunity cost is too damn high

In the past, we of the English-speaking world rightfully claimed ours to be the rock canon. Our bands had no foreign peers; any who could match us, like ABBA, simply joined us instead. But today, indie rock feels like just another foreign canon, because indie artists never go above and beyond. Why don’t they? It’s because they’re required to build a fanbase on their own.

Happily enough, building a fanbase yields compounded returns, since each fan brings in more fans. But not only that, with no talent scouts out there trying to discover artists, it’s a huge disadvantage not to. Going above and beyond, on the other hand, yields marginal returns for massive effort⁠— yet, by definition, it isn’t a disadvantage simply not to!

What happens if a band goes above and beyond anyway, hoping to remain peerless? Add up their gains, subtract the costs, and the math is clear: They’ll end up the biggest loser. No wonder we lost the historical canon! But with BYCombo, you can now go above and beyond to win it back.

Revelations reward the idle mind

Indie rock requires artists to wear several hats: the marketer hat, the publicist hat… Of course, the best among them don’t skimp on wearing the artist hat; they want their art to stay on par with their talents. Yet the best works are even better than the artists who make them. Why? Because they also benefit from revelatory insights that can’t be summoned at will.

These insights emerge from the unconscious mind as your thoughts drift in the shower, or when you daydream out of boredom. But this can’t happen if you’re always context switching⁠— or worse, multitasking! So keep your artist hat on, and let a partner wear the others. You want your art to be better than you, and so does BYCombo.

Timeless music has intrinsic appeal

To get radio airplay in the 90s, alternative bands had to win over listeners who weren’t rooting for them⁠— and the best would do this by crafting works so good, the music alone hooks you in. Being an unpopular child at the time, I knew my only hope was to develop such a talent myself. So I studied these bands closely, dreaming that one day I could teach others.

A while back, I sent copies of my songwriting book Bobtail Method to all the indie labels; I later did the same with my musical tile game Bobtail Dominoes. But the labels weren’t interested… and then I figured out why: Indie rock has no conception of music as a craft.

Because the indie labels always lost those radio-friendly bands to the majors, they learned to favor works that rely on extrinsic context to be appreciated⁠— a strategy guaranteed to win over the critics, who alone provide this context to the public. So even today with radio in decline, the indie labels look for an artist whom many critics can admire⁠— but few musicians will study.

Yet no one cares what past critics thought, while nearly everyone loves a past work with well-crafted hooks⁠— and future audiences will judge our times the same way. There’s no way around it: To be timeless, your music must hook in the listener on its own! So BYCombo gives you all the time you need.

Creativity gets its chance from the clueless

Because the indie gatekeepers stay close to their local scenes, they’re both “in the know” and “one of us.” So whatever they like is what others like us have liked, which means it’s the best of what we’ll like… right? Yet according to science, it’s human nature to dis-like creativity!

Creative ideas are unfamiliar, and this makes us uncomfortable. Now, the corporate suits just ignore this discomfort, since it’s all unfamiliar to them. But those in the know pride themselves on their hard-won instincts, so they interpret the discomfort as a sincere warning from their gut. Ironically, then, as Frank Zappa noted, this makes them worse at discovering creativity!

Which is why, throughout history, the most creative artists were backed by those with the least experience in the arts. Let’s face it: The best partners take pride in knowing how to do business, not in recognizing great art. Now with BYCombo, you can once again find such partners to back you.

Middle managers join the revolution last

In his book Originals, Adam Grant points out that in any business hierarchy, the ones most eager to take risks are those safely perched at the top, as well as those at the bottom with nothing to lose. Those in the middle, by contrast, are the most risk averse. And who are these risk-averse middle managers in rock? The indie labels.

Because indie labels have just enough standing to lose, they only make safe bets. And the safest bet is to deliver what the people already want. But this creates an echo chamber⁠— the same kind that makes predictive analytics so detrimental to art. Even worse, every revolution gets nipped in the bud, because the people never ask for what they can’t envision on their own.

Revolutions may start with artists, but they’re spread by business partners, whose know-how is needed to win over the public. This makes it crucial for such artists to find partners who share their appetite for risk. So BYCombo helps you reach industry executives who are well-funded enough to make smart bets, as well as budding entrepreneurs with no standing to lose.

The grassroots is now a lottery

We all respect those 80s indie bands for having built a grassroots fanbase, right? Yes, but also for a less spoken reason: Their stories feel deterministic to us. That is to say, they were always likely to succeed, because they earned it. They put in the work each day for untold years⁠— unlike a one-hit wonder, who simply lucked out and won the virtual lottery.

In those days, lottery players had no patience for the grassroots; they’d sign lopsided deals with a label instead, all for a single chance at exposure. But the Internet has empowered them to reach the people directly, giving them unlimited chances⁠— and making them indie artists in good faith! So now they’re drowning the world in their music⁠— and getting respect for it.

Naturally, bands who prefer the deterministic path can’t compete like this. Yet indie rock hasn’t noticed; after all, some artists are still building a fanbase on their own, as always! But with BYCombo, you can once again earn your success, by showing up every day for untold years⁠— to work on your craft.

History happens by peer review

Most artists in the historical canon were superstars in their own day. But indie rock’s bet is on the long tail⁠— a future without superstars! So how will any indie artist make it into history? The critics have a plan: Pick one who typifies the underdog of our times, then rally around them. After all, who isn’t rooting for the underdog to win?

Um… all of us other artists who weren’t picked, that’s who! To be clear, we’re not crabs in a bucket. But if a critical darling strikes us as a lottery winner, we won’t pretend otherwise. And this gets at why critics are so bad at making timeless judgments: They never consider how an artist looks to other artists.

Because we’re invested in the creative process ourselves, we don’t commit false positives: We recognize when a critical darling’s talents are nothing to envy. And we also don’t commit false negatives: We’ll give crazy new ideas a chance, knowing the courage it takes to propose them. In other words, what historians will see in time… artists come closest to seeing now.

So don’t be misled by the critics! To escape the long tail and make history, you must earn the respect of your fellow artists. This is why BYCombo includes you in a community of others who’ll keep your standards high.

Competitive self-reliance favors privilege

To promote self-reliance, indie rock requires artists to do the middleman’s job for themselves. But a wealthy artist can just pay others to do it… and, well, who better to hire than a former middleman?! So indie rock has done little more than “privatize” access to business deals that were once “public”⁠— to the benefit of the privileged. How did this happen?

The problem is that indie rock enjoys the goodwill generated by artistic movements of cooperative self-reliance, like the Maker Faire, that are united by love of the craft. But indie rock is really about competitive self-reliance; like libertarianism in politics, it’s grounded in excitement for the hustle. And nothing makes the hustle easier⁠— and thus more exciting⁠— than privilege.

There’s nothing wrong with indie rock’s artistic libertarianism⁠— but it’s a partisan ideal that gets mistaken as universal. So when a band struggles to hustle because it’s a poor fit for their circumstances, they’re told to just suck it up and try harder. Now with BYCombo, there’s an opposition party that advocates for the interdependence you want, out of respect for your craft.

Hungry outsiders aim for the canon

Who foresaw indie rock’s final stage as a trust fund playground? We did⁠— us women and minorities⁠— which is why we’ve never started a movement to compete on self-reliance. And hip hop is no exception; rappers proudly rely on labels and producers. When they boast of having hustled, they’re saying, “Hey, I hustled too!” It’s to ensure that self-reliance means nothing.

Yet despite the poor fit, indie rock sure is eager of late to hand over its reins to us. Why? Because it’s in decline! After two decades with little to show that could matter to history, indie rock today feels like just another foreign canon. So women and minorities are being nudged onto a glass cliff

No thanks! Remember, rock and roll was founded by poor Blacks and queers, then taken further by rural Southerners, Midwestern Jews, working-class Brits… In short, it’s a history of hungry outsiders. Which means women and minorities should naturally be aiming for the historical canon⁠— and today we would be, if indie rock hadn’t intervened.

Like those hungry outsiders before us, we need to be the most original, the most talented… and this can only happen through mutual reliance. Hip hop gets this, which is why it hasn’t declined; today’s rappers win Pulitzer Prizes. Now BYCombo gives you the same chances⁠— in a rock band.

Interdependence guards against prejudice

Indie rock is less an aesthetic than an ideology⁠— and ideologies transcend time. So why couldn’t rock be indie from the beginning? Imagine, then, that we take a time machine back to the 50s and announce: “Artists, your success now rests solely upon building a fanbase on your own. A business partner can no longer help you!”

Every Black artist would stare glumly at us. Why? Because back then, they needed White partners to advocate on their behalf. Indie rock’s rules would work like an artistic poll tax, shutting them out in effect⁠— without admitting to this intent. By bringing indie rock to the 50s, then… we’d look like White supremacists. But this wasn’t our intent! So where did we go wrong?

It’s simple: Given its decentralized nature, indie rock can’t guard against the prejudices of its times. It can only reflect them⁠— and the 50s were openly racist! Well, is society free of prejudice today? Of course not⁠— which is why BYCombo lets you find partners to advocate on your behalf. Because if you need interdependence… who are the indie gatekeepers to tell you otherwise?

For many years, I worked days as a coder and nights on my audio webcomic. When I came back to the music world, I was surprised to hear indie artists speak of paying their dues⁠— to justify, let’s say, touring at a loss. In the tech world, “paid dues” is a synonym for “fake work”⁠— and outsiders who see this, disrupt industries that don’t. But why don’t the disrupted ever see this?

It’s because paid dues are worthless outside the one system that honors them; so by nature, any such system breeds loyalty to its rule. In other words, you can pay your dues, or you can start a revolution⁠— but never both.

Moreover, once someone has wasted their best years racking up symbolic credentials rather than actual talents, they can never feel secure enough to let others surpass them. As a result, the only newcomers they’ll accept are the ones willing to squander even more potential. But these newcomers will then feel even less secure⁠— thus perpetuating a vicious circle.

Which is why it took an outsider like myself to start BYCombo, driven by an urge to help future bands surpass me. My solution is so simple, I doubt I’m the first to think of it. Rather, I’m just the first artist who’s secure enough to want it⁠— having never paid indie rock’s dues myself.

Happiness flows from the act of creation

At the peak of my years working eighty-hour weeks⁠— forty to earn a living, and forty on my own projects⁠— a friend staged an intervention. On a scale of one to ten, he asked, how happy am I? Eight, I replied. He was dumbfounded; he’d expected a three. And so I cleared up the matter: The very reason I chose this path was to guarantee my happiness.

In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that when an artist has a clear goal; feels adequately challenged; and gets feedback to guide their progress, they become fully immersed in the act of creation⁠— which then leads to long-term fulfillment. This is why my years of sacrifice were some of my happiest; I wasn’t burnt out like my friend had feared.

Meanwhile, there’s a mental health crisis in music today, with artists facing high levels of anxiety and depression. Why is this? It’s because indie rock can never admit the truth: Anything gained through self-reliance might just as well be won by chance or bought by privilege. Every indie artist knows this, yet they play the losing game anyway… and it eats at their soul.

So yes, BYCombo requires you to focus on your craft. But this isn’t just to make your art better! It’s also for your happiness⁠— and the good of your soul.

Art needs the passion of martyrs

”Where’s our Nirvana?” It’s a question asked by today’s young people. Well, there’s an easy way to answer it: Can we imagine the next generation asking of any band today, “Where’s our _____?” If so, then _____ is this generation’s Nirvana. Of course, we can’t⁠— because this generation never got its Nirvana. Why is this?

It’s because we really only pine for past artists who self-sacrificed for art’s sake. But since indie rock is here to save artists from exploitation, it roots for those who empower themselves instead. As such, indie artists today demand fair compensation; they don’t self-sacrifice for anyone, because to do so is a classic sign of being exploited.

But the problems with this current Age of Empowerment go beyond its failure to give us the next Nirvana. For one, self-empowerment is really just self-serving, power-seeking behavior in those we see as underdogs; it’s not noble in and of itself. For another, in a decentralized system, artists with this trait hold the advantage⁠— so how exactly are they the underdogs?

Worst of all, self-empowered artists will never start a revolution, because the means to fair compensation get settled only at the end. To save rock, then, we need to make way for bands who’ll selflessly advance the art form. In other words, after Empowerment… comes the Age of Martyrdom.

Let’s never go back to the days of artists dying young, of course. Thankfully, history tells of another kind of martyr: those who sacrificed not their lives, but their lifetimes. Can we imagine this generation’s Nirvana being an entire movement of selfless bands, each one sacrificing a serious chunk of lifetime? If so, then BYCombo is here to give us the next Nirvana now!

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