How did indie get so safe?

Has living in the Lucky Country increased our appetite for vanilla flavoured bands? EDWARD SHARP-PAUL reports.

Sound Alliance, FL’s parent company, recently conducted a survey, asking 1900 people between ages 18-29 about their values, their habits and their aspirations. The responses painted a stark but unsurprising picture of risk-averse comfort, a familiar 21st-Century malaise. According to the survey, the young adults of Australia are high-minded but lacking purpose, placing a high value on experiences, and yet too busy on Facebook to actually experience anything – not first-hand, anyway.

In light of these results, it’s worth wondering what such a status quo-leaning attitude means for the way we experience music, and the sort of music that we seek out. Does prosperity and stability lead to a soft-bellied musical environment? Are we paralysed by the almost limitless choice with which we are faced? Are we getting the music we deserve? I know those are rhetorical questions, but I’m going to go right ahead and say that the answers are “yes”, “yes” and “yes”.

And if this comes across as a “kids these days” nostalgia trip, it’s not. I’m not old enough for that.

The Lucky Country

Life in Australia is pretty good, all things considered. The sprawl mightn’t be your thing, but the living standards here are pretty excellent. Our location at the arse end of the world may be a source of embarrassment, but it has largely protected us from the poisonous ripples of the global economic downturn. Australia is politically stable, too – we might be faced with an uninspiring choice, but it’s still a choice. Rule of law, reasonably transparent public institutions, all good stuff. Culturally? I guess Cate Blanchett, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman are running shit on an international level, and if you really want to claim Baz Luhrmann, that’s OK as well. Musically, though?

Well, there are about two dozen Australian bands that can hold their own in a mid-afternoon slot at any given festival (Last Dinosaurs, The Rubens, et al), and a half dozen that could take second-to-top billing at that same festival (The Temper Trap, Tame Impala, et al). And then there’s Gotye. Given the calibre of international acts that Australia is able to attract, that’s pretty damn good. It’s a strong scene, quality-wise, but it’s hard to recall a time when Australian music was this toothless, bland and homogeneous. It’s hard to think of a disruptive, challenging band having any sort of wider impact on Australian music – The Drones, maybe, arguably. This is not to say that if a band has to be disruptive and challenging in order to not suck (this goes for all bands mentioned in this article – they have been chosen to illustrate a trend, rather than to imply that they themselves suck). It’s the lack of variety, of meaningful aesthetic choice, that sucks.

The tyranny of choice

There’s this thing called the internet, and you can find new bands all by yourself, if you want to. It’s full of Australian acts that are doing terrific things, who are nonetheless roundly ignored outside of more niche publications like FL sister site Mess+Noise. It’s never been easier to seek out new music, and yet rather than embrace this empowerment, audiences are more passive than ever before, more intimidated than they are excited by the possibilities.

What I’m trying to say is that Australia is not culturally and musically shit. Rather, we are risk-averse both in the creation and the consumption of music, and I suspect that this is largely down to the way we live.

Does material comfort lead to safe, dull music?

On the Sound Alliance survey, a quarter of respondents named their parents as role models. Which is lovely, obviously, and a positive reflection on the nation’s values, as banged on about by every politician in recent memory. However, if your future looks rosy, and your parents are your number-one role models, do you really need freaks like the Butthole Surfers to tell you what’s what? A fellow misfit like Morrissey to articulate your troubles and soothe your pain? Of course not. You need Cut Copy to pump you up for a gym session, and Lisa Mitchell to chill you out, after said gym session.

This alters the creative side of the equation, too. There is almost no social cost to starting a band – your parents won’t kick you out of the house, and it won’t cost you a white-collar job or a tertiary education. Again, this is obviously great, but it means that one can dabble in a career in music, while putting very little at stake. What exactly are you rebelling against when your parents cleared out the rumpus room to make room for your shitty punk band’s rehearsals? I’d argue that this diminished social cost has an effect on the sort of people that choose to actively pursue a career in music – the freaks and outsiders, with nothing to lose and a genuinely interesting perspective, are being crowded out, and the musical gene pool diluted.

The path for an unknown band has never been clearer. It goes like this:

1. Listen to triple j’s Hottest 100

2. Mimic the sound and aesthetic of roughly half the bands on the list

3. Create an Unearthed page

4. Wait.

You might have a needle-in-haystack chance of making it, but still one can’t underestimate the effect of young bands fretting over their “like” count rather than fulfilling the more primal urge of self-expression. I’m not talking boy-band levels of contrivance, merely the danger of becoming brand-aware at a stage where your aesthetic identity is not yet strong enough to resist the urge to compromise, to pander. If you know that the weird, dissonant guitar riff you just came up with might keep you off Home and Hosed, are you going to keep it? You’d have to be a right duffer. It’s not a huge deal, but there lies the road to compromise – before you know it, you’ve got your head all painted in Pepsi colours, and a duffel bag full of komplimentary fried chicken.

Is today’s music fulfilling today’s needs?

Without doubt, though, the biggest change has occurred in the way we consume music. Encouragingly, 93 per cent of Sound Alliance survey respondents reject materialism, favouring experiences over material possessions. Strangely though the same proportion of respondents used Facebook every day: are these online interactions the experiences that they so treasure? A diffuse, impersonal version of a social life, with none of the daunting challenges (but conversely none of the rich rewards) of real-life friendship? What would the soundtrack to such a life sound like? And where would it fit amongst the sponsored links and promotional offers that populate our lonely online existence? I’d argue that it would sound peppy, pleasant, and undemanding, rather like San Cisco, or Of Monsters And Men.

Pop quiz: When did you last listen to an album – CD, LP, mp3, stream, whatever – in its entirety? I mean, really listened. Not while exercising, while catching the train, while browsing an attractive friend-of-a-friend’s tumblr. When did you last listen to an album in its entirety at all, in any circumstance? If you can remember at all, well done. You are in the minority. The rest of you? I get it, you don’t have time: none of us do, and that’s part of the problem.

This is a broader cultural issue with particular implications for the act of listening to music, a purely indulgent leisure activity that doesn’t produce anything, and which can look suspiciously like sitting on your arse doing nothing. Furthermore, the value of such a pastime has plummeted, in line with the plummeting value of music itself.

When you don’t make a monetary investment in music, it’s far less likely that you will make the sort of time investment that might lead to an emotional investment. You stream an album at work while working through a backlog of emails: you give James Blake a spin, it doesn’t really jump out at you, you try something else, and it’s gone forever. Besides, it’s already done what you asked: it wafted through your distracted mind, and made your life a little more pleasant.


Music is a cultural pressure valve

In summary, times are good, too good to be rocking the boat. Good music can come from such an environment, but the really vital musical moments of the past 50 years have been borne of cultural schism.

Punk rock lanced the boil that had been festering under the skin of British society. The Keynesian post-war economic miracle had facilitated steady growth and nigh-on full employment for 30-odd years. It came crashing down in the ‘70s, and issues that were swept under the carpet in the good times came to the fore in the bad. The era was characterised by race riots, youth unemployment and an increasing sense of desperation, and yet Peter Frampton was all over the radio – the stylised swagger of glam and he soft-bellied escapism of Pink Floyd no longer cut it. The young were being sold a lie, and punk yelled “bullshit!” in a language that they understood. Grunge was a similar story, with Corporate America and hair metal playing the pantomime villain roles, and the cry of “bullshit!” was delivered in a north-eastern accent.

The counterculture of the ‘60s was the obverse of punk – it largely came about because times were good, rather than bad. The message was the same, though: your reality is not our reality – your culture is not our culture. It came about because the baby boomers, growing up in a time of unprecedented prosperity, couldn’t comprehend the asceticism of their parents, who had lived through food stamps, rations and, in Britain, bombing raids.

While we eulogise the music that we inherited from these great cultural schisms, it’s important to remember that we, the Lucky Country, never had to actually go through all that unpleasantness. It’s moments like these, though – bland, cosy periods of cultural consensus – that are most ripe for upheaval. It could be that a galvanising rebel song – the next ‘Anarchy in the UK’, the next ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – is just around the corner, ready to shake us out of our stupor. Of course, it could already be here, and we’ve all been too distracted to notice.