Over the past decade, a myriad of factors have (for better and for worse) upended the culture surrounding “independent” music. Its broadcast and overall makeup has been changed, especially since “indie” as a term represents less of a previously established ethos and more of a programming-friendly marketing term. But few elements of modern life have changed indie so profoundly – in particular, the way musicians attract wider audiences beyond just music streaming – like the prevalence of social media.
The near-instantaneous level of access listeners of all stripes have gained to the digital attention of their favorite artists has dramatically changed the culture surrounding indie rock and other indie-adjacent variants, effectively leveling the playing field for game between some of the company’s pop’s up-and-comers and the biggest indie stars. “If you’re worried about social media and spending too much time on it and not quitting because you think you need it for a career…that’s NOT necessarily true!” So said Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon on Twitter last monthbut, especially considering recent events, social media is increasingly essential to the entire existence of independent musicians.
maybe you’re fine
But fuck that
— blobtower (@blobtower) February 11, 2020
It’s almost all too fitting that the turning point of this shift – an increased focus on personality and fandom within indie culture that closely mirrors pop’s increasingly toxic “stan” culture – centers on a misunderstanding that happened online. After Mac DeMarco (an artist who, by the way, is inactive on social media) announced the release of his latest album Here comes the cowboy last year, Twitter users were quick to identify similarities between the album title and Mitski’s be the cowboy of the previous year; As with so many micro-controversies online, things quickly spiraled out of control as the latter’s fans rushed to her uninvited defense. “Being on Twitter is like I went to a restaurant, I asked for a burger, they didn’t have any, so I asked for noodles instead, except an angry bunch appeared and threatened to burn the place down for not giving me a burger,” Mitski tweeted regarding the non-troversy. Several months later, she deleted her social media presence entirely and still hasn’t returned to the platform.
Mitski’s decision to disappear from social media altogether — like father John Misty and, uh, Kanye West before her — was as understandable as it was increasingly rare. (After Lizzo — an artist whose mainstream visibility dwarfs Mitski’s but who nonetheless maintains an equally fervent online fandom — claimed she quit Twitter earlier this year due to “too many trolls” , his account has nonetheless remained active with regular promotional updates signed off by his management team.) It’s also indisputable that Mitski is one of the few artists at his level of public exposure who can afford to turn himself off, especially since “_____ Reactivates Social Media Accounts” has taken its place as an anticipatory title among adjacent indie artists just one level of exposure above it.
Otherwise, as the reach of music coverage has shrunk online, the last five years have seen the answer to whether independent artists should join social media shift from “if” to “when.” Even notoriously press-averse artists like Bill Callahan are now on Twitter, cracking up on Baby Yoda and SEO Pootie Tang – a generational shift, of course, from the pre-digital days of the 1980s and 1990s Callahan hailed from, a time when music-makers grouped under the “college rock” and “indie rock” umbrellas were widely prized for their lack of personality in front of the public.
It’s indicative of how quickly popular culture has evolved over the past decade that at the height of the 2010s, imagery in indie had been de-emphasized to the point where complete anonymity was the most quick to get noticed. The lion’s share of musicians who have taken this non-self-promotional approach — avoiding press photos, donning masks in performance to hide their face, and more often than not refusing to identify themselves entirely — have worked. in various shades of electronic pop, a subgenre of music that has gone far beyond traditional rock music to define modern indie as a whole.
There were few precedents for this micro-phenomenon, which spanned the lifespan of various chillwave projects and culminated in the sonic inflection point of alt-R&B in indie. The then faceless presentation of Burial, whose quirky take on UK rave and UK garage proved hugely influential in the first half of the 2010s, loomed large and was also part of a larger legacy of anonymity in the history of dance and electronic music. More impactful are Weeknd’s intentionally coy tendencies towards the release of his 2011 debut balloon house practically spawned several waves of artists — from the once-hit soft-pop project Rhye and dvsn duo OVO to bass-adjacent producer Evian Christ and R&B singer-songwriter HER — who initially exerted trends enigmatic as a virtue.
Nine years later, The Weeknd – more specifically Abel Tesfaye – is an easily recognizable megastar in the world of popular music and beyond. Although the decline in the use of anonymity as a means of self-promotion is not intrinsically linked to its rapid and meteoric rise, the ways and means of making a name for yourself in the digital age were rapidly changing, as Twitter and Instagram were playing an increasingly important role. among musicians now a regular presence in the pop-cultural landscape. There are, of course, exceptions to this otherwise dominant trend; the community-dependent punk and metal genres still largely depend on a mathematically imprecise combination of informed word-of-mouth and the dumb luck of gaining wider coverage by more mainstream publications.
But the ever-expanding world of alternative pop is the best proof yet that taking an intensely engagement-focused approach to social media is in itself enough to build and sustain a reasonably healthy career. Billie Eilish’s ever-growing arc of success was easily measured by the astronomical increase in the number of Instagram followers she amassed each year. Over the past few years, Charli XCX has effectively rehabilitated her career to capture the micro-zeitgeist after flirting with major-label victim status, maintaining a ubiquitous online presence and reminiscing at the height of alt culture. -pop. In the case of Grimes – an artist who has straddled the indie and pop worlds for most of her career – a no-nonsense attitude towards social media has kept her presence almost constantly felt in the digital realm of popular culture. , even if his musical production was marked by long periods of inactivity.
For independent artists, a regular presence on social networks is by no means the key to breaking through to a wider audience. But it’s become a necessity to play with the attention economy — or, at least, to stay afloat in it — nonetheless. Despite the traffic of sounds more left of center, guitarist Ryley Walker has undoubtedly garnered more press and digital attention thanks to his Twitter account, which often reads like a laser-pointed roast of the past 25 years. of indie rock culture as a whole. Even though Perfume Genius’ Mike Hadreas has steadily become one of the most important independent artists of the past decade thanks to a rich and growing catalog of bold writing, it’s a near guarantee that his perpetually viral tweets have also put the name of his project in front of people. eyes before his music reaches their ears.
“People told me I should just be sad and not joke on Twitter,” Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius told me in 2014, and he’s not the only independent artist to express his ambivalence – towards me and to the general public – about his social media presence. Shortly after Mitski deactivated her own Twitter account, Jay Som’s Melina Duterte told me in an interview around last year Anak Ko“I have a weird relationship with social media now – I’m very afraid of it… You don’t have to share everything about yourself, but people want it, and I know that.”
True story, 7 years ago in a gym in Memphis, Toro Y Moi accidentally bumped into me both shitting and doing a kick line. The Chillwave music died out soon after. Nobody could be cold after seeing that. I finished chillwave.
— Ryleywalker (@ryleywalker) July 29, 2018
A few weeks ago, Duterte was one of many artists who had to cancel tour dates due to the coronavirus pandemic – a list that grew exponentially until most US cities reached the point of total closure at which they currently find themselves. There’s no touring revenue to be had, and it’s unclear if the touring act itself will be able to resume anytime soon. Six months ago, maintaining a regular social media presence was, while increasingly essential, still an opt-out option when it came to ways for musicians to build a career. If the future continues on the path it is currently on, that will no longer be an option.