Judging by all of the successful shows at the Troc, TLA, North Star and First Unitarian Church, it's obvious that indie rock is alive and well in Philadelphia. Every day of the week, hundreds show up to check out artists such as Denali, The Appleseed Cast, Minus the Bear or Hot Rod Circuit. But it seems that most of these attendees come from the same pool of people. If you're not already a part of "the scene," you probably think Death Cab For Cutie is some snuff film from the 70's. Why do so many indie bands have no problem drawing healthy crowds, but never seem to capture the attention of the masses?
Some artists have managed to make the switch. Bands such as Thursday, Thrice and The Used recently have become popular with mainstream audiences. But these groups have landed deals with major labels thanks to the recent teenage post-punk/screamo craze. In order to make big bucks with major labels, indie bands must be at the pinnacle of what is trendy amongst "the underground."
The mainstream clearly draws directly from the underground -- that which is massively popular in indie culture eventually becomes popular with the masses. When NOFX first hit the scene two decades ago, who would have thought that skate-punk sound would eventually morph into the poppy Blink-182? Likewise, rap acts like Nelly and P. Diddy could not have become Billboard chart champions if it wasn't for the surge in popularity of underground political and gangsta rap in the late '90s.
Sadly, some struggling indie bands alter their style just to get noticed. Jimmy Eat World, who built up a large punk following with their first indie release, Static Prevails, were picked up by Capitol in 1999. The band slipped through the cracks at the enormous label and received little attention from the publicity department. Their brilliant sophomore effort, Clarity, was a commercial flop, and Capitol dropped them. After adopting a pop-punk sound, however, Dreamworks bought and promoted their third album, Bleed American (later renamed Jimmy Eat World after the Sept. 11 attacks). The label catapulted the band to success due to incessant advertising -- leading to MTV playing "The Middle" every 45 seconds.
So, why is a band like Denali still unknown to most of the public? After all, they write beautiful, accessible songs that any fan of Radiohead, Tori Amos or the Deftones would adore. Their live performances are breathtaking, and they look like rock stars. What prevents them from reaching the majority is simply a lack of financial backing from a major record label, and what prevents them from signing with a major is the fact that they are not part of a specific rising trend within the "indie" scene.
The five companies which control 80 percent of the wholesale market (Warner, EMI, UMG, BMG and Sony) will continue to take advantage of the trendy indies by marketing them as "buzz bands," selling their albums for $8-$10 at superstores like Best Buy. The fates of these indie-mainstream crossover bands are uncertain. Many, as it seems for Jimmy Eat World, collapse once their niche loses steam with the mainstream. Others, like Saves the Day, may slowly putter out until they are a vague reflection of what they once were. A few rare acts, like R.E.M., may transcend above the industry's trends and emerge as genuine rock stars.
But one thing is for certain: the true indie rock scene is thriving, independent from what is happening in mainstream culture. Too bad most people believe all they need is what they already know, uninterested in working to discover the amazing bands the "scene" has to offer.