“It’s a machine, and it’s money, and you just get put on this indie rock cart, and it’s embarrassing.” –Justin Vernon. Straight from the horse’s mouth, is the summation of the ironic structure of indie culture. Justin Vernon, or Bon Iver, is a patriarch of the current indie music system, the poster child for creating your own music the way you want it and not having any corporate managers or marketing analysts to take orders from. Even he is not safe though, because as soon as the music industry realized how lucratively the indie brand could be monetized they attempted to swallow it whole. However they signed with an independent label and thus were able to continue their fight as champions of independent and experimental music.
Beer, music, movies, television, almost anything you can think of, has two sides of its corporate coin: the industrial, corporate culture and the independent side. Think Coors and Budweiser vs craft brewing, think Cannes film festival vs summer block busters. There is a constant fight, at least in the US, and it’s never quite clear who is winning. It’s no wonder that we’re fighting these battles on every front, considering we were the creators of the declaration of independence and the world’s base camp of liberty and freedom. (Sorry, it was tough to get through that without laughing) But regardless of what state our actual freedoms are in, considering the state of rigged elections and constant violations of our privacy, we still try to fight for the underdogs and keep formulaic bullshit from winning our money ALL of the time. Which is why we love our indie culture.
It’s hard to say what the toughest front in this war is. Craft beer probably used to be the flagbearer for the independent fight against the warhorses of Budweiser and Miller/Coors, but once the baby boomers and their love children finally give up the battle for their mass produced ‘lagers’ that fight is all but done. The quality and variety of craft beer is too strong to battle against. Even the most hardened devotees of bud and natty light graduate college (or high school) some time, and from this point of view it looks like the vast majority of people under thirty or forty are not going to grab the corporate water anymore, because craft brewing is making that same beer, but leagues better and only narrowly more expensive. Same with independent movies. Sure it’s tough to get a project off the ground, shooting for free, writing on spec, acting for nothing. However if you can hit the big leagues in any way, you’re suddenly in Park City Utah or the French Riviera for film festivals full of hungry producers trying to throw money at you. It’s still a tough system, but there’s no argument anymore. Me, you and your twelve year old brother all know that Clerks was better than Pacific Rim, and that all the money in Michael Bay’s very deep pockets can’t buy talent or art.
The newest front, one that has been fighting an uphill battle for a few years now, is television. The cable and dish systems have been a hard nut to crack, and are fighting tooth and nail. The television industry works in such a conglomerated and subscriptive way that keeps people around for much longer than they should or want to be. The problem is it’s not an everyday decision. Every time you put on music, you have the choice between the corporate and the outsider. Every time you go to the liquor store you have the option to go for something new instead of another twelve pack of bud. Subscriptions are hard to break though, since they’re automatically billed for the next month, and there’s no cooler in front of you with Dish network on one side and Netflix on the other. Netflix wasn’t even supporting independent television for a long time, since they had to start with shows produced on actual cable networks to even be viable. Now, however, we have seen the new waves of programming from Netflix and other independent channels and they are showing just how expansive and innovative unhindered television can be. Shows like Silicon Valley and Veep on HBO are cuttingly witty and give us a not-as-satirical-as-it-seems view into the workings of places most of us only have a superficial knowledge of, and Netflix’s repertoire of shows produced in house is constantly being fleshed out, with shows like ‘Stranger Things’ and ‘Love’ giving us depth, emotionality and a punch of realism that cable TV has almost completely lost in the last few decades.
In addition to Netflix’s great host of originals, it seems that they are even willing to help out shows that they didn’t even produce. Recently ‘The Jamz’, a workplace sitcom about radio DJs in Chicago appeared on the service, but with only four episodes. With a little digging it comes out that this show was shot entirely without sponsorship, with no network at all, independent or otherwise. It’s an original take on an old genre, with a few mildly well-known actors but mostly totally new faces creating a fun atmosphere that will catch you off guard with hilarious gems scattered throughout the fast dialogue and unconventional relationships. Will ‘The Jamz’ be picked up by Netflix after this trial period? Will it sit with the rest of the shows that were dropped before their time, a la ‘Freaks and Geeks’ or ‘Firefly’? Who knows, but it shows a promising divergence in what only a few years ago was a business so streamlined and controlled that once your show got picked up by NBC or FOX, you went out and bought three Ferrari’s because you could be sure, good or bad, formulaic or downright pandering, that you were going to be on TV for a long, long time.
This article was written by Jake Perry, a writer for dusk magazine.