How to Make Indie Music Pay

Three albums come out today; all of them might be called "Indie" releases; they will be promoted and marketed heavily at Indie record stores and compete on the same Indie charts this week.

Needless to say the genre is almost meaningless as a description of the music. One of the bands is from Brazil, one is on a major label, and the third is on a label nobody’s even heard of. And one band makes club-ready synth-punk, while another makes clever ’80s-inspired dance-rock, and the third makes dense, harmony-laden classic rock-inspired power pop. How can three such disparate bands be part of the same scene?

Of course the designation "Indie" never stood for a genre. It stood for a way of doing business–independent of the major record labels. Now that most music is fated to be "independent," for better or worse, the term Indie has lost its capability to describe even the business of making music. These three bands–known as Black Kids, CSS and Dr. Dog, respectively, tell a lot of that story.

Last fall, hype about Black Kids built (mainly on the Web) to a fever pitch around spawning an army of fervent boosters in the world of indie blogs, then almost immediately a fervent backlash, and then of course a bidding war.

The Jacksonville, Fla. five-piece makes manic dance rock, tangled, reverb-y guitar accented with bright, dueling keyboard bleeps, and above it all, singer/guitarist Reggie Youngblood’s high, melodramatic warble tossing out offhand wit, and sounding alternately like the Cure’s Robert Smith and the Killers’ Brandon Flowers. The music too vacillates between a dark yet infectious new wave and a treacly wax museum version of same. Youngblood and his sister Ali are the only African Americans in the coed quintet, which of course only adds to the band name’s attempted provocation.

But how the band sounds is secondary to why their debut album "Partie Traumatic" is coming out on Columbia today when a year ago, they were just some band with a MySpace page that featured a few demos, playing shows to a handful of locals.

Then in August, following a (reportedly) great show in Athens, GA, websites and then regular publications starting waxing seriously enthusiastic about the band. First Pitchfork, then NME, and Vice, and then even The New York Times got in on the game.

No label, no album, nothing but that MySpace page and an exponentially increasing interest in downloading those demos, titled "Wizard of Ahhs" (the band is fond of such punning).

By the time October and the CMJ festival rolled around, Black Kids packed houses, got lips flapping, and delivered reasonably well on their promise. But the backlash had already begun. Writers and bloggers, convinced that Black Kids, like none before them, represented the frothy-mouthed unthinking that was dominating all conversations about pop music on the Internet, called bullshit.

But it was too late. Bullshit or not, word was spreading about the band. Columbia snagged them in the end, and they got the Arcade Fire’s management team. They were shipped off the England to record their debut with former Suede guitarist Bernard Butler and bask in the ever-enthused British audiences who, as we all know, will get excited about absolutely anything.

"Partie Traumatic" basks as well in the glory of a winning formula.

It recycles every last one of those demos (they’re the best songs on the album) and several more tracks the band had completed before any of the attention was thrust on them.

From the nonstop pummeling on "Hit the Heartbrakes" to the infectiousness of "I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You," which melds count-offs, New Order synths, and cracking vocals ("He’s got two left feet and he / bites my moves") Butler sonically turned down the band’s playfulness in favor of unrelentingly caffeinated tunes, dense with backing choruses, sing-along hooks and marching beats.

What makes this better or worse or more or less memorable than Franz Ferdinand or Art Brut or any number of revivalist bands, mining the 80s for kitschy catchiness? Who cares? Let’s get this thing on a sitcom!

Of course all that nonchalance only papers over the hype and the backlash, the two moments that are inevitable when you engage in all the exquisite posturing necessary to be on the right side of the history of music this week. Those bloggers are already blathering about the eighth generation of "next big thing," desperately promiscuous with their taste and stamps of approval. And really all that hot air is just free marketing for Columbia Records.

Black Kids manage to defy hype and backlash, with a bouncy, fun piece of confection and a piece of the pie. The difference between this band and its heartily felt influences (the Smiths, the Cure) is that Black Kids have plenty of pop smarts (or at least know how to mine a hook) but zero pathos. Morrissey’s "Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now" won’t sell Sentras.

In one early review of the "Partie Traumatic" a writer actually suggested: "They ought to sell iPods with this permanently burned into the memory so you’ll never lose it."

Don’t worry. Their team is on the case. In an interview with Billboard, somebody on their press team claimed the band members "love licensing."

In the midst of the hype, MTV writer James Montgomery wrote a great piece about how the swirl of attention and worry over bands like Black Kids and Vampire Weekend, bands barely out of the gate, ignores the history of fantastic bands that needed time and failure to achieve greatness. And Montgomery singled out buzz bands that had gone sour on second outings, like Arcade Fire and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, but he could just as easily have been predicting the sophomore slop of CSS’s "Donkey."

The coed Brazilian art-pop combo is one of many precursors to Black Kids. Lauded on the Web, built to mythic status on blogs, and eventually granted a choice deal with mega-indie Sub Pop (in a joint deal with Warner). CSS (Cansei de Ser Sexy, or, I Got Tired of Being Sexy) rose nearly as fast as Black Kids, inspired nearly as much hyperbolism, and even got the licensing deals (with Apple, among others). Yet with their latest, "Donkey," CSS show that today’s crop of buzz bands may need more than hype alone.

The band’s complacency can only have evolved from getting it all way too fast: two years of touring, partying, being somebodies, getting Gwen Stefani’s producer.

But the harshest criticisms seem out of place. The band’s sound is frenetic, almost spazzy club-punk, a messy mix of lo-fi electro synths and stabbing guitar. Infused with pop culture reference, clever double-entendre, and tales of parties, dancing, drinking, and other important activities, CSS were great fun, and got lumped into a micro-trend called "new rave," which didn’t really have legs. On "Donkey," CSS sounds tired, it’s hooks stale, its shtick shallow, and its energy sapped. Perhaps two years of touring has eroded the originary spark, or perhaps there simply wasn’t much to work with from the beginning.

It’s a shame because there seemed to be some real art at work on the band’s debut. Here’s hoping they bought a studio with their advance, so we might get to hear what they sound like in a few years, when they start getting good.

Another band whose release is notable this week is Dr. Dog. Not a lot of blogs have chatted them up, even though they’ve been turning out stellar power-pop inflected Americana-rock for most of the last decade. 2004′s "Easy Beat" was a perfect Beatles ode, and last year’s "We All Belong" a nuanced, heady evocation of retro mastery but also of contemporary experimentalism. The new one is called "Fate," and though its tracks chug along a fair bit slower than Black Kids or CSS, there are some terrific tunes here, tunes that took time
to gestate and emerge, songs where the choruses go deep, the harmonies rise high, and the threads of influence stretch far.

Plenty of critics dismiss the band’s backward looking, though it seems if you look back the precisely correct amount of time you’ll get a medal, but look to far (or not far enough) and you’re screwed. On "Fate" you can hear some full-sot Nilsson, plenty of full-speed-anachronistic Band, but also plenty of Dr. Dog’s own recipe. And it’s a lovely recipe that won’t sell chain restaurants or computers or sitcoms. It may not be your cup of tea musically, but it’s worth noting because it’s made for something more than selling something else.