This month we look at how gloomy Manchester indie could be linked to the expressive ritual cycles of Northwest Coast Indians. Oh, and I try and answer the question you all wanted to know ...
If your question wasn't answered this week (I was excited to see there were hundreds to go through) don't worry, I'm keeping them all in my old-fashioned spiral notebook. And if you've got a new question, please post below (or send to firstname.lastname@example.org).
Why is it that certain places tend to have flourishing indie scenes and others not so much. Seattle, Glasgow and Manchester, for example?
When I lived in Manchester, musicians regularly told me why their city produced so much good music (I never asked this). The answer was always the same: the rain. The basic rationale is lots of time inside; gloomy weather, and the need to self-entertain. Interestingly, there could be something to this explanation as one of the culture regions with the most complex and elaborate art and expressive ritual cycles is Northwest Coast Indians. On the Northwest Coast of Canada, the rainfall exceeds even Seattle. Here extended families, living traditionally in longhouses spend months inside with all of their relatives (or all of their in-laws) in small villages wedged between the rugged ocean and impenetrable cedar forests abutting rocky cliffs. Imagine this living situation as a form of Big Brother with all of your relatives, only it lasts forever. From this society, where expressions need to be contained, emerged a breathtakingly dynamic artistic tradition that extended to the adornment of every functional object, mortuary poles, and architectural forms representing the relationships between humans, animals, cosmology and reflexivity commentary on man's place in the world.
It never rained much when I was in Glasgow, but local musicians frequently discussed the wealth of venues and other places to play, and the support of fellow musicians. Having locations where bands can practise and make a lot of noise seems to be an alternative means to creating a fertile music scene. As Ann Powers mentioned to me over burgers, "Sam Coomes of Quasi told me that the entire Portland scene was because of basements". Portland houses have basements that are basically soundproof, providing ample free rehearsal and recording space for budding artists. Bands need places to play relatively undisturbed and having the support of fellow musicians creates a subterranean economy of reciprocity and inbreeding that seems to develop a local sound.
What's the most effective way of getting people to be quiet at gigs, especially as people who don't like music that much tend to be going to gigs more often these days?
It's not that people who don't like music are going to more gigs, it's that you are getting older (not that there is anything wrong with that). People have always talked during shows. In venues without seats, there is a clear pattern of distribution of audience members correlated with age, interpersonal distances and talking. The youngest and most active audience members are at the front and they rarely talk during a band's set (other than the odd fan yelling out the titles of obscure B-sides). As audience members age, they move farther back in the venue where they have more space and tend to be involved in other activities that are not directly related to what is happening on stage. People also move during shows; if you don't like a band, you move back to talk and drink. When you are into it, you want to be in front where it's hot and your personal space is the limits of your body. Talking in the back is tolerated. Talking in the front is not. So if you want to get away from people talking, you just have to move up or go to a seated venue. Of course, that means being squashed up against a lot of younger music fans that can be a bit awkward for all involved. Now, if people are talking in the front, it means you are at a music industry showcase and you need to figure out how you ended up there in the first place.
This may be a dumb question, but what criteria are you using for "indie" here – musical/hairstyle, or artists who aren't signed to a major?
Not a dumb question, and one that lots of people asked in one form or another. I'll try and tackle the question that takes 57 pages to answer in my book in the shortest way possible. "What is indie" is the issue that is most contested, dissected, and passionately debated by journalists and fans alike. For me, indie is found in the arguments people have. For example, no one argues about ownership in hip-hop and nobody worries about who wrote the music to decide if you are "jazz" or not. For indie, there are five major arguments. I like to think about them as teams. First is "Team Independent Label/Distribution". For people who use this definition, it doesn't matter what you sound like or your practices. You just need the label (US) or distribution (UK) of the artist to be not owned by one of the four major international record corporations. The ideal is that independent labels interfere less, are more ethical, are "small" and reflect a local scene. However, no one seems to worry about the ownership of artists' publishing companies or booking agencies. This tells you independent ownership is more about perception of autonomy rather than actual autonomy. Second is "Team Attitude". For "Team Attitude" it is about the spirit of independence, the most punk criterion. This would include artists with creative control, DIY practices, egalitarian non-conformists who value individualism. Third is "Team Aesthetics/Genre". This is the one that creates the most exasperation for purists. Here, indie would be stylish four-piece beat combos with skinny guys and skinny girls in skinny jeans wearing their everyday clothes on stage, a twee, retro, or lo-fi sound, simple songs with intelligent, nostalgic, escapist, or depressing lyrics. This team allows audience members to be indie as well. Fourth is "Team Taste". These elitists claim to recognise the most authentic and quality music, it's just that the best music is the music that they like. It's a question of "artistic merit" and it is why Mr Tomfoolery "indie kids pretend to like rap music". They are the aesthetically elect. They are also the objects of collective ire.
Finally, there is "Team Non-Mainstream" (whatever the mainstream is, I am not). The mainstream is seen as a bloated centralised authority run by corrupt bureaucrats more concerned with sales than artistic expression. Therefore, indie would be anything that is the opposite of what we perceive as mainstream: diminutive, intimate, local, personalised, modest, original, intelligent, raw, austere, and substantive. I'm not privileging any of these teams. People want you to choose a side. Yet, if you take these premises together, you'll find out that they have more in common than you might initially think.
Where is the actual landfill? Is it toxic? Is it full yet? Do the neighbours complain?
Yes, there is a landfill. It's non-toxic. It's not full, and the only people who complain don't live nearby. The indie landfill is found at your local festival. The glut of festivals in Europe (now in America as well) has meant that not only do promoters need big headlining acts, but also moderately popular bands to fill the many slots on the various stages throughout the day and night: Bands on the way up; touring stalwarts, reunited bands and groups with only a single ride on the pony.
Why is this? In the late 1980s, there were relatively few popular "destination" music festivals: the UK's Glastonbury and Reading, Denmark's Roskilde, Belgium's Rock Werchter and Pukkelpop, Netherlands' Pinkpop, and Spain's Benicassim. In 1989, Mean Fiddler took over Reading Rock selecting a radically different lineup. It gathered an entirely different festival crowd. A new style and market was seen as attracting a large young audience for live music.
Initially, with relatively few festivals, each booker could be selective regarding which bands they chose to play. So if a band were playing Reading, then Glastonbury wouldn't choose them. With success, festivals have proliferated, a trend that continues unabated in 2010s. The competition for popular bands by bookers is more marked. Promoters stopped caring if they have exclusivity for a particular artist. This has created the generic festival bill with lineups that are interchangeable and the exact same bands playing at many overlapping festivals. Destination festivals need bands to play early and mid-level slots during the daytime. There has always been a place in music for one-hit or one-album wonders. As part of indie's system of authenticity, a band needs to be able to play their music convincingly live. They cut their teeth in rubbish venues without the bells and whistles of other music styles. Indie bands' abilities to set up and play solidly live with austere production make them ideal candidates for these mid-level festival slots. As long as destination festivals are flourishing, there will be space in the landfill. But remember, your filler band may be playing my ringtone.