Indie rock

Three notable newspaper stories, in the past few days.

1. The Boston Globe, April 24. Indie rock is thriving. Terrific bands, exposure on TV shows, buzz spreading on the Internet, six-figure sales, which in the case of Death Cab for Cutie are now ten times larger than they used to be. All this largely without commercial radio play. ”The Internet is challenging the corporate clutch on both radio and retail,” says the founder of Kill Rock Stars, an independent label.

2. The New York Times, today (April 28). Radio won’t play current rock any more. Stations are changing their formats. They’ll play alternative-rock hits from the ’80s and ’90s, but not the current stuff.

3. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 27. For four years, the Three Rivers Arts Festival in Pittsburgh, which the story calls “a showcase of visual art,” has been “consciously programming music with equal artistic relevance.” What music is that? Alternative acts like Lucinda Williams and Sonic Youth. This isn’t music with a huge popular following. Sonic Youth is famous for noise and dissonance; the mainstream classical audience couldn’t handle its classical equivalent, should there be such a thing. (Its latest album, though, sounds a little more tame.) As a media partner, the festival enlisted WYEP, described as “a diminutive but influential listener-supported station” [my emphasis] that plays alternative music. (A very nice station, too. I was on it once, talking about the concerts I do with the Pittsburgh Symphony. They were completely sympathetic to classical music.)

What’s the moral here? Indie pop is art music. It’s not designed for a large audience. Increasingly, you won’t hear it on the radio. One radio station that plays has to be supported by its listeners. Indie pop is part of a Pittsburgh festival of visual art. Not that this is anything new to people who know pop. Rock bands were doing non-popular art music as far back as the late ’60s, if you count the Velvet Underground. But people in classical music often don’t seem to know this. They talk as if all pop was simple-minded junk for teens. While in fact pop has developed its own art music. This is a huge threat to classical music. Do we understand this? We talk about attracting a younger audience. But this younger audience already has art music of its own. Why do they need us?

When I first thought of writing all this, I was going to ask why the Three Rivers Festival doesn’t book any classical acts. But the answer is obvious, isn’t it? A better question would be this: What could classical music people (especially new music people) in Pittsburgh do to get these bookings?

(One caveat. Some of the pop acts at the Three Rivers Festival this summer might not be mass-market, but they’re lots of fun — Buckwheat Zydeco, for instance. But on the other hand, Cowboy Junkies, Aimee Mann, and Nanci Griffiths, also on this summer’s schedule, are quiet and serious.)

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