Dispatch March 2009

The Hipster Depression

What happens to fledgling bands when the market goes bust?

In 2005, the celebrated indie rock pioneer Ian Svenonius wrote a brilliant commentary for American Public Media’s Markeptlace on “Rock, real estate, and Alan Greenspan.” His argument, briefly, was that skyrocketing real estate prices had led to the rise of electroclash and the psychedelic folk revival, two fringe genres that flourished because, well, neither of them required a lot of expensive real estate. Fans could pack tiny, dingy venues on the edge of various downtowns, and the young people who sustain unpopular popular music could afford the modest cover charges and the watered-down alcoholic beverages. With his trademark wit, Svenonius’s commentary reminded us that bohemia isn’t an alternate reality that defies economic logic. Rather, it is a product of a much larger set of impersonal economic forces—gentrification, targeted advertising, the nightlife industry—and as such it is susceptible to quasi-Marxist analysis. Which leads us to the inevitable question: will the downturn spell doom for the hipster economy?    

The SXSW Music Festival, which ran last week, offers a rare opportunity for a broader look at the state of alt-culture. In 2007 and 2008, I attended as a fan, eagerly chasing around various buzzed-about bands, most of which I’ve since forgotten. This year, however, I spent the week with a notebook in hand, and it quickly became clear that grim times are ahead.

Every year, SXSW, or Southby, invites dozens of musical ensembles to attend its annual festival in Austin, Texas, which has served for years now as a kind of harvesting season for the youth culture industries. The vast majority of the bands are obscure, and the festival represents a rare opportunity for them to perform for and impress a concentrated crush of music professionals, including the all-important A&Rs and booking agents as well as downtrodden members of the music press, who are always on the hunt for the next Animal Collective or Arcade Fire. To maximize their exposure, bands to try to play at least one gig a day, ranging from official showcases to unofficial day parties, and so you’ll often see musicians wandering around the city looking dazed and exhausted.

Austin is a low-key bohemian paradise, swarming with armies of students and off-kilter young adults. In the past, there has been a carnival-like atmosphere surrounding Southby, minus the clowns. As a general rule, professionals shell out for badges, which give their owners privileged access to official showcases, extended concerts during which the mostly-young musicians—many of them barely out of high school, some, including the members of the justly celebrated fiasco still in high school—struggle to stand out in bills that generally include half a dozen other bands. Yet for the last two years, the venues were so mobbed by people that even badge-holders had to wait for an unendurably long time to get into the most anticipated shows.

Though I can’t speak to the official statistics, a friend at the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau told me that preliminary data suggests that turnout held up well this year. But I also noticed that I was able to get into shows with far less difficulty than in the past, and that the venues didn’t feel as packed with tattooed humanity. Granted, it could be that I wasn’t watching the right bands, but my impression was reinforced when other friends celebrated the pleasantly sedate quality of this year’s gathering.

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Reihan Salam is an Atlantic associate editor.

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