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The local indie music scene is at least more than a rumor. At one time in the nineties the indie scene seemed much more high profile because the focus of the scene was on bands that were getting signed out of Sacramento to major labels. By the end of the decade the list was pretty extensive of local acts who signed deals, although only a few acts were able to go far in the music biz.
These days not many people are hanging on the edge of their seats waiting to find out which local acts might be getting signed. There are more rumors about new apps that will help you track down indie artists and night clubs than indie artists themselves. That's because there are now more bands than fans, thanks to techonological tools that have helped expand the world of indie artists who have no intention of ever getting signed to any label. So how does an indie artist stand out in the sprawling population of indie artists?
One of the answers comes from Michele Jennae, who I recently interviewed for SacTV.com. She's the Editor-in-chief of The Indie Times, a local website that explores indie arts, music and writing. In our interview called "Tips for Indie Bands" Michele points out that indie artists need to engage with their fans somehow beyond the music. She mentions how The Kimberly Trip and Bay Area band Junkyard Academy use humor to engage their audience. It also helps that both bands create lyrically rich songs that give their fans something to talk about on social media networks. Bands that do the same thing a million other bands do are likely to get lost in the shuffle.
In another interview I did with Michele Jennae, she mentions how "indie" does not mean being alone, as we both agree that the spirit of indie music is more about reaching out to a community. There are different levels of independent art, and it is completely valid for a do-it-yourself solo artist to handle every aspect of music making and the business of selling music, but most artists can't handle that full spectrum of tasks. Most artists would rather concentrate on the creative side of songwriting and performance and let someone else handle the business. Then there are indie artists who think the same way, but want to learn about the business side from professionals. Michele helps indie artists with her classes about integrating social media, especially Twitter, with music marketing.
Internet radio station Hotmix106.com, which is owned by Cory Marcus here in Sacramento, gives Michele a chance to reach indie music fans. Michele's shows are every Tuesday and Thursday from 9am to 10:30am in which she plays an eclectic mix of music. The station pays songwriters through BMI and ASCAP and artists through SoundExchange. I recently found out that SoundExchange has set aside $60 million for 50,000 artists that are owed money for their music being played on internet radio, but the artists haven't yet filled out the paperwork with SoundExchange to recieve payment. So is the indie music world financially dead? No, it just needs to get more organized. Granted, every spin pays a fraction of a penny, but once all the players get their act together, it could be possible some day to make a living off indie radio hits.
I lean toward the optimistic side because I'm one of those zillions of indie artists. I'm a little different than most of them because I've worked in the radio biz and understand how that game works with major labels, who control most of the music on the national charts. It's not just a grumpy opinion that the quality of major label music has declined incredibly the past decade, which can be measured by falling music sales, shrinking radio audiences and a recent scientific study that proved popular music has much less diversity than in the past. All you have to do is be a musician or a diehard music fan to know that a lot of popular hits these days are based on the same four chords over and over. I believe that major labels, not so much artists, deliberately put out redundant music that mimics other hits because they think that's what sells.
Yet the uncreative bean counters who decide on what gets released have less and less beans to count every year. I believe that due to the diminshing state of the music and radio industries, at some point they will both turn more to the indie world for solutions. Major labels already look to YouTube to find rising stars, now that YouTube has become more important than radio to young people for finding new music. If you study the history of indie music, you'll learn that for the past century it's been the indie world that has fueled the overall music world with new sounds that created sales booms, which is exactly how rock and roll became big in the fifties.
It's no rumor or joke that you can find much more diverse music on sites like ReverbNation, which hosts over a million indie artists from around the world. You can also get paid pennies to listen to new indie music on Slicethepie.com, where you will also likely hear more enjoyable indie music than what's on commercial radio. The reason these sites, along with internet and public radio shows - and YouTube - are much more interesting than commercial radio is because they let the listener be the explorer instead of just an absorber of the same narrow list of songs over and over. Perhaps commercial radio wouldn't be so terribly boring if the songs had deeper lyrics or more innovative sounds than the same old predictable formulas that have been pounded in heavy rotation for over a decade.
While I don't think the commercial music world will ever completely implode, I think it will continue to erode until it moves away from copycat artists and disposable songs that simply mimic other hits of the past. The power of lyrics to open minds and explore the imagination is indie's greatest asset. I also think artists who understand how to create music outside of burnt formulas yet can mix tradition with innovation will help define successful indie music on the road that lies ahead. Even though we are currently in a tech-driven phase of the indie revolution, where gadgets, platforms, video games and apps are stealing the pop culture spotlight, at some point the emphasis will shift to imaginative indie artists who stand out with unique music.