Rhapsodies of the ‘Golden Era’

Andrew Cothren

For those of us who worship at the altar of pop culture, it’s easy to suffer crises of faith. We look at television ratings and see crime dramas and reality shows dominating the landscape while critically acclaimed comedies stand constantly at the brink of cancellation. We look at box office returns, where sequels and CGI-heavy blockbusters make hundreds of millions at the expense of smaller, more original films. We shake our heads when manufactured hits (or their inevitable Glee a capella cover versions) come across our radio airwaves.


         However, in spite of these and other misfortunes, we are, at this very moment, in the midst of a golden age in the world of music. Artists are taking bigger risks and reaping larger rewards, and consumers now enjoy unlimited access to the musicians they love. Never before has the playing field been so level.


         Despite the well-publicized struggles of the record industry, smaller artists have recently enjoyed unprecedented success. In the past 20  months alone, three bands on independent labels (Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire, and Cake) have had albums debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 chart. The Suburbs, Arcade Fire’s top-seller, also became the first independent rock album in history to win Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. The Decemberists, who cut their teeth for years on smaller labels like Hush Records and Kill Rock Stars, reached the top spot with The King is Dead, their third album for Capitol Records. Other “indie” artists like Grizzly Bear, Sufjan Stevens, Fleet Foxes, and Band of Horses have all cracked the Top 10.


         So how is it in an age that, at first glance, seems to award mediocrity and formula, these artists have all become hugely successful? It’s due in no small part to the evolution of the listener’s access to music. Forty years ago, radio was the dominant promotional platform, making or breaking artists while turning DJs into recognizable celebrities. The music one could listen to was limited to what was in a station’s rotation, or what was in the record store just down the block. Then, with the advent of the music video, the visual became just as important in the formula for success as the music itself. The age of MTV was a slightly less discriminating one; a band needed only a camera and a catchy tune to get their songs out to the listening public.


         When Nirvana’s Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson from the top of the charts in early 1992, largely behind the strength of the music video for lead single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, it was heralded as a revolutionary moment, one which opened the door for independent music. Artists from regional scenes, like the alternative and grunge of the Pacific Northwest or the hip-hop of the East and West Coasts, who had previously relied on word-of-mouth to establish a fan base, could now be commercially viable and reach fans in faraway areas beyond their unofficial borders. Independent labels like Merge, Stones Throw, and Sub Pop became as beloved as the bands on their respective rosters.


         The profound, game-changing impact of Nevermind is, however, now a thing of the past thanks to our most recent mode of access: the Internet. Artists no longer need a fresh new single or a memorable music video to become household names. The blogosphere is now the ultimate trendsetting machinery, responsible for success stories like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, a Brooklyn-based band whose debut, self-released album became a mini phenomenon when it was released in 2005, selling over 125,000 copies in the U.S. thanks to promotion and good reviews from blogs like Pitchfork.


While the music journalism of years past maintained, for the most part, a lack of overt bias, influential bloggers and online critics can now be flag-bearers for their favorite musicians. Websites like Pitchfork even organize and sponsor their own music festivals.     


That’s not to say that the Internet Age only rewards those with the soapboxes; everyday consumers also have near-unlimited access and influence. With just a few mouse clicks, someone can download (always legally and above board, of course) the entire discography of nearly any artist they can think of. Social networking has also been an effective tool, allowing bands face time with their fans and giving users the opportunity to share music they love with the world, even through an act as simple as posting lyrics on one’s Facebook status.


          The increasing success of independent artists and labels is beginning to have an effect on the mainstream, slowly pulling creative license towards musicians and away from record executives. Someone like Kanye West, for example, could easily coast by with catchy, poppy songs for the rest of his career, yet most of the music he’s made since becoming a superstar is dark, dense, and, for the most part, far from radio-friendly. He, and others, have parlayed financial triumph into artistic freedom.


         Of course, no discussion of modern music would be complete without requisite mention of Radiohead. Only in this “golden age” could one of the biggest bands in the world announce an album, In Rainbows, mere days before its release, then allow fans to name their own price to purchase it, a move undoubtedly influenced by the newfound successes of Internet-promoted independent artists. The album’s release has had a ripple effect of its own. For example, most of the sales that made Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs a success came via reduced-price deals in huge online marketplaces like Amazon.com and the iTunes Store. In the ‘90s, a band of Arcade Fire’s stature reaching the top of the charts would have been as big a deal as Nevermind was, but with the increased control that artists and labels have over the pricing and marketing of their albums post-In Rainbows, it is more a pleasant surprise than a decade-defining moment.


         This brave new world of independent success and unlimited access is not without its flaws and detractors. Comedian Patton Oswalt argued in an essay for Wired that the sheer volume of available pop culture lessens its importance and impact. After Arcade Fire’s historic Grammy win, “Who is Arcade Fire?”, a Website devoted to indignant Twitter outbursts about the award, sprung up, proving that we haven’t quite arrived at the moment where the line between indie and mainstream has been completely demolished.


         Perhaps part of being in a cultural “golden age” is a lack of awareness of the fact that one is going on at all. Perhaps the term “golden age” is overused and more than a little hyperbolic. However you define it, though, there has never been a better time to listen to music, and we have never had so much say in making the soundtracks to our lives.


Author bio:

Andrew Cothren is a Brooklyn-dweller whose short fiction has been published or is upcoming in Eleven Eleven, The Legendary, and Drunken Boat. More of his work can be found at andrewcothren.com.

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Julio Enriquez, Flickr
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