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.

If Svenonious was right and indie rock flourished during a real estate boom, will indie rock die during a bust? I’ve spent the last several months pondering this vitally important question, and it occurs to me that we’re likely to see something subtly different. Whereas electroclash and psychedelic folk flourish in tiny spaces, perhaps the orchestral pop of Beirut will take advantage of newly-inexpensive real estate. Bands have been shrinking—from the ubiquitous power-pop trios to one-mand bands like Say Hi and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone—but perhaps know they will start growing as laid-off creative class professionals and unemployable recent grads embrace the rock and roll lifestyle as their least bad alternative.

I did see some evidence for this. My two favorite performances were by bands that make expansive music. The Dirty Projectors, a band that plays a highly experimental and demanding brand of white soul, has expanded from a four-piece to a six-piece, and the set I saw on Thursday night was easily the best musical performance I’ve seen in a decade and a half of concert-going. The band’s youthful sloppiness has given way to taut paramilitary precision, and one can’t help but think that The Dirty Projectors are in thrall to some mesmerizing guru. My other favorite, The Harlem Shakes, consists of five neatly-pressed and polite members, who have a riotous energy on stage. I’m a little biased in favor of the Shakes: their music closely resembles the genre-hopping pop of the early 1990s acts that defined my adolescence, like Grandaddy and Cornershop and Beck. (And as it turns out, the band’s 24-year-old lead vocalist, Alexander Benaim, with whom I spent several hours talking about pragmatism, friendship, and the television sitcom Martin, is one of the best writers and critics of his generation. Apart from playing infectious music, Benaim writes criticism for the Village Voice.)

It certainly looks as though The Dirty Projectors and The Harlem Shakes will have an excellent 2009. But it’s not yet clear what will happen to the dozens of other young bands that will try to eke out a living on tour. In Austin, it often seems as though every server in every restaurant is in a band that was at one point or another a critical darling, which is part of the city’s charm. This, of course, suggests that not every celebrated musician is ready—or able—to quit their day job. One source of optimism is that that city-dwellers will spend more on live music as other entertainment options dry up. And taking a page from Svenonius, we can at least be sure that the dingy bars and nightclubs that keep outsider music alive won’t be turned into condominiums any time soon.