As I sat in my living room anxiously watching the Grammy’s, I could not help but marvel at the number of independently-labeled musicians nominated for the category of Best New Artist. Just last year, indie artist Bon Iver went home with that coveted award, much to the dismay of fans of Nicki Minaj and Skrillex. A decade ago this trend toward nominating indie artists would have been nearly impossible. So what does this trend suggest? And why is it occurring?
In the past two decades, Billboard Hot 100 chart toppers have made a noticeable shift toward synthesized pop with fewer and fewer meaningful lyrics. Hip hop, disco, pop, rap, and techno have all slowly blended together into an unsavory mix that can be heard at almost every house party and club. Though cross-genre collaboration has always existed, never before have entire genres shifted to this extent of indistinguishability.
This was certainly not the case during the ‘80s and ‘90s when pop and hip hop had uniquely characteristic elements and were powerhouses. The lyrics that once went along with good hip hop and rap music can no longer be found within those genres today. The power that pop music once had in the ‘80s no longer exists. Nowadays, it is hard to ascertain whether the newest top 10 song is dubstep, pop, rap, or a mix of everything. All of this is done with expensive studios, the latest sound equipment, and ridiculous payouts from top record labels.
Even country music has taken the sad step of shifting, as a genre, toward more pop based music in an effort to generate revenue. Rather than staying true to their genre and creating music with any amount of artistic integrity, country artists have followed other Billboard artists toward a more synthesized approach to music. With well-known country artists releasing increasingly pop-based ballads, Americana, bluegrass, and folk have stepped in to fill the void felt by fans of old-country artists such as Hank Williams, Jr. and Johnny Cash. In a similar manner, the rest of indie music has started to fill the void left by hip-hop, pop, rap, and electronic/techno music.
Unlike their “mainstream” counterparts, independently labeled musicians have stuck to their roots to a much greater extent and refrained from being sucked into the black hole that is the Billboard Hot 100. Indie artists come into the music industry understanding the difficulty in becoming popular and thus focusing more on creating good music than simply making money. While every indie artist dreams of making it big, the main focus is on generating a loyal fan base which comes from creating meaningful music. Indie music continues to have the lyrics we can connect to emotionally whether we need to cry or celebrate. The same cannot be said for the Billboard Hot 100. The Academy has clearly realized this as seen in the increase in nominations of independently labeled artists for Grammy awards.
The rise in public support for indie music is visible in the increased popularity of music festivals ranging from the Newport Folk Festival—which has greatly expanded in recent years—to South by Southwest which hosts hundreds of bands every year and has seen attendance reach 300,000.
What is surprising about the success of indie artists is the simplicity with which many of them create their music. Crafting albums in rustic recording studios and basements, indie artists generally work with much lower budgets than those afforded by mainstream artists, yet create music that better connects with listeners emotionally.
It seems as if the revival of indie music is part of a greater musical renaissance that harkens back to the music of the mid-20th century. The greatest part of this renaissance is that it is being led by college students who have had it with the meaningless drivel that is the Billboard Hot 100. Do not get me wrong, there are certain popular artists that I love, but for the most part the music put out by top record labels does not appeal to me. And if the shift of indie music to the mainstream has indicated anything, I’m not the only one.