March 30, 2008

Personal essay: "The Great iPod Indie-Rock Challenge of 2008."

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

This is my iPod; there are many like it but this one is mine

(UPDATE, DECEMBER 2008: All four essays in this series are now available as a free downloadable eBook, for those who are interested.)

Yes, I know that talking about music here at CCLaP starts veering quite wildly from the organization's main mission (to promote literature and photography, that is), which is why I try not to do it too often, and as you can see am doing it this time on a weekend, and under the label of personal essay. And that's because I do have an interesting story going on in my personal life regarding contemporary indie-rock music, one that I imagine a lot of CCLaP's readers in their thirties and forties can relate to, which I think can be related to a lot of other mediums as well, which is why I think it's ultimately worth sharing...

In a nutshell, like many others, when I was an undergraduate I too was a snotty little indie-rock king, who worked at my local campus radio station and attended four live shows every week, going through countless crates of blank cassettes while duping off the newest albums down at the KCOU listening lounge. It's a natural place in the arts to turn to while young, I think, for all the obvious reasons -- the late nights, the sexiness, the relatively easy constraints of writing a pop song (versus writing an epic novel, for example), the hair and the clothes and finding your own identity through popular culture, and all the rest that has been well-documented about why rock music appeals to youth so intensely. My point, though, is that it's a part-time job unto itself to keep up on the latest with any burgeoning underground scene; like mentioned, I myself used to listen to a dozen hours a week of college radio, at least briefly review 100 albums a month, easily spend $200 a month or more on concert fees, drinks, CDs, t-shirts and all the rest.

As I went from my twenties to my thirties and now into my forties soon, I found like many others that my tolerance for the part-time work of it all to be waning; given that I was spending those years myself trying to keep up on the latest with underground writers, I soon found my listening habits stuck in the same late-'80s/early-'90s rut as when I was not so coincidentally a college DJ myself, and when I picked up the majority of my CDs; just endless listenings to Pavement, the Pixies, the Replacements, and all those other dinosaurs we old fogies embarrassingly request after getting drunk at wedding receptions. Which was fine for awhile, I suppose, but now that I'm trying to pursue a day job of being an "expert" in the underground arts, I figure that it will only help me to be as on-top of every aspect of the underground arts these days as I can. It was about six months ago that I made this decision, in fact, several months after getting CCLaP up and running to start with; and see, my personal music player happens to be a little iPod Shuffle, a cute little 1-gig thing that can hold around 150 songs once you add all the podcasts I'm listening to at any given moment too, and so I figured a good goal would be to have that entire iPod converted to new music and new bands as soon as possible.

That, then, has inspired me in the last six months to start following along at music websites for the first time, places like Pitchfork and Discobelle and What To Wear During An Orange Alert; and it's also inspired me to start listening to a bunch of "indie-rock song of the day" podcasts, not only independent groups like Indiefeed and La Blogotheque but also such radio stations as KCRW and KEXP. And lo and behold, about six months later I actually have turned over almost the entire collection of music on my iPod to new songs by new bands, through a combination of legal sales and legal downloads and some downloads that aren't so legal either; I was just doing some cleanup work on my iPod today, in fact, which is what got me thinking about the topic. Well, how about that! That's the most amazing thing about the entire subject, I think; that a mere half-year after being essentially clueless about contemporary bands, through a mere dozen blogs and podcasts I've been able to find at least 150 songs now that I've liked enough to download and install, bands that span the planet and fall on all kinds of levels of the general popularity scale.

This is such an easier thing than when I was an undergraduate in the '80s and '90s and trying to keep up with indie-rock myself, something I feel compelled to shout at my fellow middle-agers all the time -- that it's actually much easier to keep up with at least the general contours of the indie-rock community than you might imagine, even if of course you're never going to become an "expert" on the subject through such a thing (nor should you want to; leave the "indie-rock expert" stuff up to the kids, I say, who can afford all that time and money spent on all those concerts and clothes). It's intimidating, I think, to approach any fast-moving facet of the arts once you've been out of it for awhile, whether that's a former DJ getting back into the music scene like me, a former writer who wants to know the latest with the literary community, a movie buff who's lost touch with the festival circuit, etc etc. These are chaotic, rapidly-changing environments, dominated by people much younger and better-looking than us, leaving it an intimidating thing for people "of a certain age" to just throw themselves into again feet-first; just ask me how much of an idiot I'd feel like, for example, if I were to attend one of these sweaty 2 a.m. house parties where all these electronic musicians I listen to perform live, or how out-of-place I'd be among all those Last Nights Party tube-top-wearing zoned-out hipsters.

It's been nice, then, to discover that I can now do a lot of this research and checking-out of bands online, and that the entire infrastructure has been set up to easily accommodate and support this -- thousands of musicians who provide songs for free, leading to thousands of podcasters/personal DJs who have lots of material to legally play, leading to thousands of basement labels and distributors and promoters helping these musicians and podcasters and listeners all find each other, all connected together through a dozen high-profile "hubs" for the intelligent music lover, places like iTunes and YouTube and iMeem that make actually listening to and buying these songs a snap. My own challenge to become more "with it" has been going great as a result, something I just felt like sharing here with all the people my age feeling intimidated about getting back into it all again. Really, it's not as bad as the last time you were doing such a thing, no matter what medium you're talking about.

So are you curious as to my new indie-rock iPod stats? Well, I've got a grand total of around 110 different bands stacked up in my Shuffle now, all of them bands I had never heard of six months ago, reflecting the main way I find new music, one promotional single at a time given out by the bands and featured on podcasts. Of those 110 bands, though, there are 11 I've liked enough now to download their entire latest CD and keep the entire thing too; they are...

Battles [top 5]
Feist [top 5]
The Field
Jens Lekman [top 5]
Laura Veirs [top 5]
LCD Soundsystem
The National
Of Montreal
Pablo Sciuto
Spoon [top 5]

And then there was that new album by Radiohead, which I picked up too, and I also picked up an older album by Saint Etienne because of one of the podcasts I listen to doing a retrospective of them earlier this year. Which I guess is the final irony of it all; that apart from Radiohead and Saint Etienne, I have absolutely no idea how relatively famous or popular these other 11 "best liked bands of the last six months" are with the population in general. I mean, I can see from their online bios that some have been on Letterman and world tours, others not much more than kids in their basements; but it's extremely difficult for me to keep all that info in my head when I'm actually just listening to my iPod on random mode, or to get the kind of ad-hoc group opinion of a band that you can when, say, living in a college dorm and walking down the hallway listening to stereos. And that's something else that I think remarkable about the times we're living in; that I can have this whole iPod full of favorite new music, and literally not be able to tell which were done at a million-dollar Los Angeles studio to support a million-dollar marketing campaign and million-dollar Grey's Anatomy corporate tie-in, and which were done in GuitarBand in a basement in Akron, Ohio, while the family was away so that they wouldn't make any extra noise on the recording. I know I've talked about this to death at the site, but as someone who came of age in the DIY punk/zine environment of the early-'80s, I just still find this latest turn of events remarkable, that independent artists can not only create and release their own work but that it's virtually indistinguishable at the end from any mainstream big-budget project.

Anyway, I guess that's enough musing on the subject for a Sunday afternoon. Make sure to come by again in another six months for my one-year report on the "Great iPod Indie-Rock Challenge of 2008."

Filed by Jason Pettus at 1:51 PM, March 30, 2008. Filed under: Music |