Didn’t See You There: The Growing Divide Between the Mainstream and Independent

Through the good, bad, and the ugly, 2010 was a fairly good year for both the alternative/independent scene and the mainstream. Lots of new artists, a slew of good albums, great songs…it turned out to be a good year on both sides.

Which is impressive, considering the two of them never ran near each other.

Honestly, 2010 was perhaps the least crossover-y year I’ve seen on record. I even did my research on this; aside from a few leftfield hits (“Bulletproof”, to name one), the year-end Billboard Hot 100 for 2010 was one of the most mainstreamed years in recent memory. Usually, the spread is more even; country gets a few in, a few rock songs chart, and there’s maybe a couple crossover hits, but there really wasn’t a sense of that this year.

That extends to the radio, too. I know that expecting to flip on Radio FM and hear Deerhunter is asking for too much, but there were plenty of crossover-ready artists ready to go. Any Top 40 station that put “Telephone” or “Only Girl In the World” in rotation would have definitely gone for Robyn’s “Dancing By Myself” (it even ranked on the Club chart). Any of the Gorillaz’s three singles for the past year would have made for a crossover hit in past years. Florence+the Machine kind-of had a crossover with “Dog Days Are Over”, but that came on the heels of her VMA performance, and died down a week or two later. As far as I know, the only song that really crossed over at all was The Black Keys’ “Tighten Up”. The lack of mainstream-alternative communication was not for lack of trying.

Looking at the mainstream side of the equation, boy is it mainstream. Of course, I’d expect nothing else, but this is the least experimental year I’ve come across. It’s not that it’s lacking new artists (Kesha, B.o.b, and Taio Cruz are all Top 10 members), but none of them are really anything new (Kesha/Cruz’s club-pop is more or less a license to print money, and B.o.b’s pop-bent rap isn’t exactly innovation). The mainstream is getting more insular.

On the flipside, alternative/independent circles have gotten big enough in their own right that they aren’t having to rely on mainstream appeal for popularity. A nonsense noise racket like Sleigh Bells would have struggled years ago to find an audience; nowadays, they can probably generate enough buzz to land a late night TV performance.

It’s not like the two of them ever got along (fun game: YouTube “[early-mid 90s breakthrough alternative band] VMAS [92-95]” and see how uncomfortable it is for at least one group), but there’s at least been an acquiesce between them. So, why the split?

A large part of it seems to be the internet. The mainstream circle hasn’t really grown or shrunk all that much (well, save the near total and complete loss of MTV), but independent music sources have spiked. There’s the “Love to hate’em” giant Pitchfork.com, but a bunch of others: Stereogum, DrownedInSound, and AbsolutePunk, just to name a very scattered few. These site support everyone from well established groups to artists filed under “You’ve never heard of them”. Then there are sites like IfYouMakeIt.com and Punknews.org, that cater to the little guys. Without internet resources, it’s doubtful that someone in Ohio (like me) could hear from up and coming East Coast groups, but there you have it. Indie isn’t breaking through as often because it doesn’t have to.

And if the indie is getting more indie, then the mainstream is getting, you guessed it, more mainstream. With the formal industry all but sinking from spending nearly a decade sucking at handling the internet, labels have gotten more antsy about in whom they invest. The industry’s out to make money; that doesn’t make them evil, but it does mean that they’re going to focus a helluvalot more attention on hitmakers and potential hitmakers than they will others. Right now, club pop is in vogue, mainstream rock (save two bad bands) is out, so guess which one labels/producers/hypemen give more coverage? Sure, old media (Rolling Stone, Billboard magazine, etc) give some good lip to independent artists, these guys are succumbing to artist’s Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and music blogs, meaning that unless they get the exclusive hook, their content can be easily ignored.

Does this change much for the fans? Well…not really. Music/music culture hounds like yours truly are having a booming time both in the mainstream, and the independent thanks to the wealth of information that’s available. The indie scene will continue to grow, but will still probably lack the numbers to make a major impact on the industry market. The pop music industry has set itself up for a nasty feedback loop, but that’s a different subject for a different time. Like perhaps next week. See ya!

About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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