Not so long ago, it felt like indie rock drove the discourse around music on the internet. Now, the Indie Rock Blog Hype Era is as gone as the Roman Empire. What happened?
In the summer of 2012, as it was hemorrhaging readers and losing ad money, Spin put Best Coast and Wavves on the cover of their magazine. It was a tacit attempt to capture a narrative that Hipster Runoff made famous a few years before. Nathan Williams and Bethany Cosentino were a deadbeat couple — they wrote songs about getting high and being worthless — and the internet happily turned their cute tweets into a national celebrity saga. Indie rock had never been written about with a trashy tabloid tenor before. The genesis of underground music came from the belief that the people on stage had everything in common with the people in the crowd. But in the late 2000s, at the height of the unregulated music blog era, we learned that to a certain group of people there wasn’t much of a difference between Paris Hilton and the girl with the “As If” tattoo.
Only a few months after the Wavves/Best Coast cover, Spin laid off a third of its staff and shuttered their print division. BrooklynVegan, Hipster Runoff, Pitchfork, Gorilla vs. Bear, and a number of other small, independent media channels conquered one of the oldest, most influential magazines in American music journalism. They didn’t need a budget or access; instead these blogs proved that you can create your own celebrities without kowtowing to the lowest-common-denominator demands of traditional arts coverage. There were no filters, no nuance, no chill. You can annotate the history of the blogosphere with thousands of miniature obsessions and controversies: Wolf Parade, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Sleigh Bells, Lana Del Rey, those Bruise Cruise pictures, whatever. It was so much more exciting to read about Black Lips and Wavves’ feud than, like, No Line on the Horizon.
“Spin did their Best Coast/Wavves cover — it just took them forever to do it, which I think is the real problem,” says David Greenwald, music critic at the Oregonian, and someone who got his start writing a blog. “Pitchfork and other webzines were literally years ahead of them on taking underground music seriously and building what we think of as the modern indie rock canon. Rolling Stone didn't even run their own website for years. By the time these magazines were paying attention to the internet at all, Pitchfork had a following and trust. It wasn't that Pitchfork understood consumers better — it had a different, younger base, millennial readers who weren't interested in their older siblings' Spin issues.”
Music writing was intended to be a little bit rude. The mythological Lester Bangs is probably still how most people envision a rock critic — loose, fast-talking, gregarious, full of brusque ideas about authenticity. Those qualities weren’t perfect, but the tone was crucial. Rolling Stone was built on rebellion, but unfortunately by the '90s the old guard had given up. Music ended with Nirvana and the only thing to look forward to was the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series. The staff was old, jaded, and digitally illiterate. There were no miracles or disasters on the horizon - just the same static canon for the same static readers. The world needs change, and sometimes that change comes in a 3.7 Jet review.
“Pitchfork was never scared about giving a low score to an album when it deserved it. They might give out an 8.9 Best New Music and on the next record give the same band a 4.2,” says Daniel Gill, owner of Force Field, a highly influential music PR firm. “If you look at Rolling Stone, the majority of the album reviews are always three star reviews. Would it kill them to occasionally call someone out? This is how Pitchfork got to the point of relevancy that they're currently at, they know that controversy sells and gets people talking, and when people are talking about your record reviews, then you hold the power. Just getting mentioned in Rolling Stone is still exciting for bands and something they can brag to their families about, but it doesn't get people riled up like a really positive or really negative Pitchfork review.”
Music blogs created a narrative where the definitive next big thing could be lurking anywhere. Ernest Greene was a Georgian bedroom producer with a crush on blotty synths, but once Pitchfork got their hands on “Feel It All Around” his Washed Out project was immediately cast as the face of a brand new genre. They plucked a total nobody from a sea of MP3s and propped him up as a scene-defining pioneer. Phrases like “Chillwave” and “Witch House” can’t help but sound embarrassing now, but that was also what made the coverage so interesting. Music blogs didn’t have to worry about appeasing the biases of an aging readership. They embraced their roles as tastemakers, eager to make the stuff they loved as important and pious as they wanted. That doesn’t mean they were always right, but their enthusiasm was persuasive.
“You could go to bat for these weird, smaller bands as a way to brand yourself — Real Estate would show up on the same space as the Pixies or whoever was your big artist — and the bands you aligned yourself with were part of your identity,” says Chris Weingarten, contributing editor at Rolling Stone.
Obviously, assigning your own personal integrity to what bands you liked is a troubling idea. Music blogs loved binary discourse. Overrated! Underrated! Pitchfork even created their own show lampooning the petty prosaisms of your average Hipster Runoff screed. Hype took on this weird commodified quality; loving a record wasn’t nearly as affirming as hearing other people talk about a record. It was so much more stimulating to care about Smith Westerns libertine status and the posturing of their 8.4 than meeting the music on its own terms. As usual, the zeitgeist was more fun than the work, which may have been detrimental in the long run.
“I remember reading a huge piece on Vampire Weekend in Spin, and it had a sidebar mapping out exactly who the first blog was that wrote about Vampire Weekend was, and then the next blog that picked up on them, and then how they ended up getting signed for huge money to XL, all within about a month,” says Gill. “I think at a certain point the whole ‘firsties’ culture took over and that became the focus instead of any sort of quality control or any real voice in the curation of a blog.”
Vampire Weekend might not be the best example because they’ve proven to be far less disposable than other products of that era, but I absolutely do think there’s some truth to the eventual burnout of the hype/backlash cycle. People who read music blogs were disproportionately young, and optimistic enough to buy into a music blog’s product. But by 2012 publications like Pitchfork and Hipster Runoff had outgrown their roots and had left behind a long trail of carcasses. Tapes ‘n Tapes, No Age, the Pains of Being Pure at Heart, the list goes on. They were sold as superstars, and they were completely forgotten about by album three. Maybe it’s a learning experience, but at the time I remember feeling pretty deceived.
“[Pitchfork covers] whatever they deem to be cool or relevant at the moment, and then they just cover the hell out of that handful of artists that get their stamp of approval and everything else just gets ignored,” says Gill. “I'm sure in their mind it is more about what's relevant and what fits their agenda or narrative as a company than ‘trendiness,’ but it is sad, frustrating, and disheartening to see them cover a band like crazy and then turn their backs on them, which happens a lot.”
Today, Pitchfork is a Conde Nast company that covers TV, food, and other things that they’d never touch during their rowdier, bloggier days. Hipster Runoff no longer exists after Carles sold the domain for an easy $21,000. BrooklynVegan, Stereogum and Gorilla vs. Bear are still at it, though all of them operate without the authority they once had. Recent indie rock successes like Courtney Barnett look pretty inessential when compared to the hype surrounding major label releases like Blonde and The Life of Pablo. Bands are still getting critical acclaim, but an 8.5 to Viet Cong would’ve mattered a hell of a lot more a few years back.
There’s absolutely no question that we’re living in a post-blog era. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those early influential webzines were almost exclusively run by white men, and they showed a snobbish predilection for indie rock and a certain type of polysyllabic rap. Pitchfork’s shift from guitar/drums/bass superiority (and, unsurprisingly, the broadening of their staff to include more women and more people of color,) has made it easier for everyone to be a music lover on the internet. Maybe the decline of blog hype has more to do with a broader, nondiscriminatory cultural shift than anything else.
“I think what may have been the turning point is the move away from homepages and towards social traffic. Everything is based on people clicking in through social media and it’s just smarter business to cover Chance the Rapper or Rihanna since, duh, that’s what people actually want to read about,” says Weingarten. “The bigger issue, however, is that the principles that music blogs were founded on — underground, hip, collegiate, a self-satisfied sense of intelligence — have all melted away somewhat. The 20-somethings growing up in the Spotify age don’t have the same identity issues. I imagine they have all kinds of genres mushed together, both pop and obscurity, in their playlists. Which is why we have bands like Haim and Twenty One Pilots. They don’t need a music site to dictate a specific breed of cool. They are in a limitless, postmodern universe where your identity can be cobbled from tons of little pieces.”
Still, that’s left a pretty big hole in music journalism. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are one of the greatest laughingstocks in the history of misappropriated acclaim. But the also represented a success story that doesn’t exist anymore. No PR agency, no label, no expectations. The record leaked on indietorrents, trickled through a few key thresholds, and suddenly was getting christened as one of “the 50 most important recordings of the decade” (seriously.) Yeah, maybe they weren’t worthy of the attention, but at least somebody was getting lifted up.
“I think the energy still exists, but it focuses on artists that already have a lot of backing,” says Greenwald. “You have bands that already have major label deals, or have a publicist, or have some money behind them. Mitski put out a great album this year, but she ran a PR campaign. It wasn’t an undiscovered artist being found. I think journalists need to do a little more homework to seek out new artists that don’t have access to those resources, but obviously people don’t want to click on that so it makes more sense to rally around someone more established.”
“A consolidation of publications and voices in the post-blog era lead to a consolidation of tastes. A great example of this would be an act like Empress Of — while she has a genuine fanbase and is a well-reviewed artist, she hasn’t been able to cross over outside of hardcore indie music fans.” says Kris Petersen, DFA Records’ label manager. “There’s very little of a ‘musical middle class’ right now — and it seems the only way you can break out is with a combination of luck and good timing. For instance — Future Islands played on Letterman, then many high-profile SXSW gigs, then had a very well-received record. They’ve been a band for almost a decade at this point and made great records and toured heavily — but it was just clever, and likely accidental timing that led to their sudden increase in visibility. You are more affected by tech companies, advertising metrics and brands, and just pure luck than anything else at this point.”
Independent music still exists. Scenes are still supporting themselves in the great, grand, unfuckwithable DIY tradition, and the fact that sites like Pitchfork aren’t as keen to make them famous or rich should hardly be a discouraging factor. In many ways, indie rock has returned to its roots. A subsect of kids putting on their own shows for their own means. Our band could be your life.
But still, I can’t help but think about 1997 when Rolling Stone was touting Dylan’s Time Out of Mind over OK Computer, or 2001 when Jagger’s utterly forgettable Goddess in the Doorway was outranking Is This It. Music blogs were built by kids who felt disenfranchised by a complacent magazine rack, and were happy to write ridiculous paeans about the radical, real things they were feeling that they couldn’t find anywhere else. It worked. Today Pitchfork is the administration, rich with corporate money thanks to a decade of hustle. But what they proved remains true; an alternative voice must always exist. It might not be a blog, but with enough time, enough joy, and enough incubated dissent, a new generation will conquer the music media. Maybe that sounds crazy, but whatever, even Wavves and Best Coast made the cover of Spin.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from California currently living in (sigh) Brooklyn. He writes about music, politics, video games, pro wrestling, and whatever else interests him.
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