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The sheer volume of music recalls the early days of punk in another way. Not because there were a lot of bands. Back then, limited distribution and difficulty discovering bands meant you really had to dig and become something of an obsessive. The same is true these days, though, for different reasons.
"With no barrier to entry, what it really means is not more great bands than there were in the late '80s; it means around the same number, but you have to wade through 20 times more bands to find them," says Jack Rabid of the '80s band Springhouse, now editor of long-lived iconic magazine The Big Takeover. "When it becomes a lifestyle — when your parents buy your gear and everything is done by Facebook and Bandcamp for free — it becomes harder and harder to stand out even if your music would."
At least you don't have to trust a critic, buy a CD, or listen to the radio to discover a crappy band. Everyone's empowered to make up their own mind. And that seems to be working just fine for most people.
"Music is just as popular as it has ever been. It's just that people aren't paying for it anymore, so bands are forced to do things on their own now," says Supersuckers frontman Eddie Spaghetti. "And if you're going to make a living at it, you're going to have to get creative, for sure."
That may mean strange lineups — like former Squirrel Nut Zipper Stu Cole's garage-soul band Fantastico, which features two drummers, a singer/guitarist, and two female vocalists. Or shambling rockers He's My Brother, She's My Sister, who boast (besides the harmonizing siblings) a tap-dancer playing a snare drum. Wye Oak's Andy Stack plays keyboards while he drums, and keyboard/violinist Andrew Bird is so proficient layering loops that he improvises whole symphonies in real time, even while playing solo.
In the end, it comes down to getting in front of people and giving them a reason to come. It's even truer today when touring is a band's lifeblood, but it's been that way before. Nothing can ever compare with a live show. "The only way to really feel the rollercoaster is to get on," Spaghetti says.
When Watt was in the Minutemen, they split the world in two halves — gigs and fliers. Anything that wasn't a gig was a flier — interviews, publicity photos, records, show fliers.
"They were all to get people to the gig, because that's where we felt we had the most control. The least middle men, less filter," Watt says. "Back in the old days, before the recording medium, you literally had to play it for people. Selling the medium as a piece of merchandise is only about 100 years old. All the other times, it was performance-based, so it's kind like of returning the minstrels to the people."
Though some bemoan the overabundance of musical product, Watt laughs: "You want it the other way around? 'Oh, no, I have too much to listen to, too much to decide if I like it or not.'"
Who's against competition? It may be responsible for the short shelf-life of recent revival trends — post-rock, garage, psych, and shoegaze — leading them to succumb under the weight of all the quick-to-the-trough trend-hoppers. Those failures hastened fair-weather rockers on their way, as most seemed to have bought banjos or programmable drum machines and moved along in the last few years. More and more of late, artists are staking out their own idiosyncratic territory.
"It's almost a chance for rebirth, like we've got a clean slate in a sense you have to reinvent yourselves," says Rachel Kolar of He's My Brother, She's My Sister. "It forces you to be creative, because if there isn't a radio station playing a lot of good rock 'n' roll, it forces you, like, 'How can I still be heard? How can I still be noticed as being innovative, doing something that really speaks to the people but also advances our sense of what rock 'n' rock music is?'"
There seems little doubt that Nirvana wouldn't have happened had the majors not been actively seeking to capitalize on underground rock for years. The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Swans, the Pixies, and Sonic Youth all had their major-label shots, but something about the band, the album, and the timing clicked, making Nevermind a perfect storm.
"Nirvana really went for it. They had the machinery in place, and they really went for it. They made a great record — but it's a really great commercial record," Wurster says. "It was really produced, really pro-sounding. And the bands you mentioned, none of them made an album that sounded like that."
The times have changed dramatically enough that big-money labels no longer may be necessary to catalyze a revolution. (Though once it happens, you can be sure they'll be there, checkbooks out.)
It was Merge Records, the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, label co-founded by Superchunk's Mac McCaughan, whose band Arcade Fire won the Grammy last year for best album. This year, Bon Iver (on Indiana indie Jagjaguwar) won the Best New Artist and Best Alternative Album Grammies for his chart-topping disc, Bon Iver.