When I was your age -- hold on, let me set aside my cane and adjust my pipe; much better -- finding good independent music (for that matter, finding bad independent music) meant undertaking the musical equivalent of walking five miles to school in the snow.
Location helped (I was fortunate to grow up in a region rife with college radio and mom-and-pop record stores) as much as whom you knew and more importantly whom you wanted to know. It was by some stroke of hipster Fate (the spirit of Chuck Taylor, perhaps) that my hand was guided from that Bon Jovi record towards Jawbox's Novelty at the listening station of my local CD Superstore one fateful evening in 1992. From that accidental discovery I set forth discovering new bands, albums and even fanzines through a grassroots family of independent record labels and concert venues specializing in this quietly thriving subculture we now know as Indie Rock. This usually involved extended conversations with the forefathers of bed-head and guys with their wallets on long chains.
Of course, what was once the realm of English majors and Warhol-wannabes is now big business. Groups like the Arcade Fire sell out venues that Slash and company would love to play, Botoxed twenty-somethings playing teenagers rock out to Death Cab For Cutie on major network television and snatches of soaring post-rock help sell luxury SUVs. Oh, how far we've come from the photocopied catalog obtained by mailing a SASE to some P.O. Box in Olympia, Washington.
So is this progress something to be proud of? Purists argue that with the almost exponential growth of exposure to independent acts, the quality of the listening experience declines. I remember a friend's crestfallen expression the first time he witnessed a Nissan commercial featuring Modest Mouse; don't mind the fact that at this point the band was signed to Epic Records, a Sony subsidiary: "Now their shows will be packed with guys wearing woven belts and dirty white hats," he lamented. I'll admit, it's a rather snotty approach to appreciating music, one that seems rather counterintuitive to the ethos of an artistic underground. That said, these days it doesn't just feel like the party's been crashed. It's starting to feel like the jocks showed up and peed on the Twister mat.
Optimists (and most likely the artists themselves) will argue the opposite. For every minute of airtime LCD Soundsystem gets on cable music channels or, oh, I don't know, Food Network, one more kid out in Fly-Over Country is exposed to a world beyond American Idol. In fact, with the ease of informing oneself through MySpace, YouTube and the like, the soil is fertile for a generation of music fans that just might buck the established Major Label machine. The charts already reflect this, with independent acts increasingly debuting in prime position (although the decline of CD sales probably offsets the impact of this). Still, shoegazers-in-training and their ilk seem to be discovering an ever-expanding universe just behind the eclipse of Fall Out Boy.
Speaking of which, where had I heard of F.O.B. back in the day? Oh, that's right. Years before they were co-branded with body sprays and keeping the Staples Center warm between Lakers games, Fall Out Boy were one of the biggest sellers on Fueled By Ramen Records, a stalwart in the pop-punk underground.
Apparently the spirit of Chuck Taylor has been hard at work moving bigger hands than mine. Major labels seem to have grown as fond of the rock underground as the fans. My Chemical Romance, Gym Class Heroes, and Taking Back Sunday are all groups once retained by independent labels that have made the jump to a major. (They're all also arguably groups of questionable indie aesthetic, but that's for another discussion.)
Of course, this is nothing new. Subculture has long been ripe for the picking when mainstream crops yield less. Technology has changed the game, however. What was once a risky gamble (even my beloved Jawbox got signed to -- and dropped -- from Atlantic Records) is now more of a sure-fire bet thanks to the sheer exposure guaranteed by the Internet. What I wonder now is, where will it end? One of the best aspects of the "old days" was that crappy bands tended to implode for lack of attention. There was only so much a group could afford to press vinyl and Xerox flyers for gigs. If the listeners turned their backs it was seemingly in vain to press on. Now, all it takes is consumer-grade software and a cursory knowledge of web browsing, and your terrible Creed-inspired garage band can live in perpetuity on social networking sites and file-sharing servers.
I sure do sound like an old-timer, don't I? My crankiness is really in jest. For that unseen hand that guided me to a CD case, millions more are guiding mouse clicks around the world. And if that means more original, against-the-grain music flooding the airwaves, I'm all for it. Everyone's welcome to this party. Let's let 'em in.