Is Classic Indie Rock An Oxymoron?

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Beloved US indie rockers Pavement recently announced that some of their first reunion shows will be in Australia early in 2010. This shouldn’t be a surprise to fans: the ground has been prepared for a triumphant Pavement return for many years.

Back in 2002 — only two and a bit years after this quintessential 90s band called it quits — Matador Records began reissuing their back catalogue. In "deluxe" form, loaded with extra b-sides and live sessions, Pavement’s four major records were reissued in order of original release. They were released every two years, right up to Brighten the Corners in 2008. (Terror Twilight, their final, unloved studio album, has yet to be rereleased and there seem to be no immediate plans to do so. Ouch.)

The weekly slew of reissues represents the last hurrah of record labels as we have known them. In a pure business sense, rereleasing material is a quicker way to make a buck than investing in a new artist and new recordings. It’s an old trick. Jazz labels have been doing it forever. It happened with the transition from vinyl to CD too.

But just as important, in today’s reissue market, is an attempt to resurrect the effect associated with the compact disc and vinyl album. The album, with its associations of materiality and its standing as the true form for rock music, is fast becoming a fetish object, a kind of safety blanket to carry with us into the future of online music purchases and "virtual albums".

It’s worth noting, then, that the albums that are rereleased are ones we’ve come to know as albums, either on vinyl or CD. No rereleases of your MP3 favourites have been announced yet. That seems absurd.

CD reissues like the Pavement back-catalogue mark highpoints for "elders" of the indie scene and provide reference points for moaning about commercialisation and abandonment of the classics. It’s archetypal myth: a golden age is followed by a lapse and a fallen postlapsarian present.

In this scheme, the beloved, reissued albums work as touchstones for younger members of the scene. Of indie rock and electronic music, as of punk before them, a canon has been manufactured which the young’uns must learn and acknowledge as they attempt to return the sound to the source. Bowing towards the altar of Steve Malkmus, we remember that "One must know one’s roots". Historical consciousness is one thing — using it as a marketing hook is another.

Despondent feelings about the current malaise of music often conflate medium, form and content. Those who got to know music before MP3s often formed intense attachments to specific albums. There’s a particular kind of fatigue many listeners report today: "180GB of music and nothing worth hearing". The relative expense and limited availability of new releases pre-MP3 meant that the experience was different, its pace slower, the horizon of the event of new music often spread out over weeks.

I remember albums that entirely colonised my listening: partly because I could only afford to buy one CD every few weeks, partly because the CD stores stocking the stuff I liked were a couple of hours and a train ticket away. No longer is this physical access so important, as tracks — emphasis on single tracks — are available online.

This preference for track-by-track sales online does not mean the LP will disappear immediately or indeed that it is not the best way to hear certain types of music. Artists won’t cease crafting suites of songs that sit together and labels and tech companies will most certainly try to repackage the album as a digital product. We’re in a period of transition, however, which explains why "classic albums" from the heyday of indie rock continue to reappear on shelves.

Retrospectively, Pavement’s Wowee Zowee is said to be from a "simpler time," when indie rock was indie rock. A tradition to be proud of — in that especially awkward, cynical, ironic way the indie rock audience prefers.

This rubric of transition can help us understand the noughties as they slip away. While the first challenge of Napster — which more or less came to full force 10 years ago — was unprecedented for the music industry, disputes continue to present themselves in new forms.

But 10 years is a long time for an industry to remain "in transition". What seems to be the result of this transition is a confluence of new technical arrangements and deepening niches. It is harder than ever to feel "on top" of music, as reissues and new releases sprawl in every direction, all of them readily available and all of them instantly discussed by blogs, online publications and in print.

Simon Reynolds’s recent reflections on diffusion and lack of consensus in the music industry of today resonate. I share with Reynolds this sense of exhaustion. Today we face not only a long list of new releases each week but also reissues and online postings of old material. We no longer have a recognisable core of albums that people hear and hold to be important. Niche listeners are well served — flush with music to make them swoon — but it is getting mighty hard to find a way out of these niches.

This is why the return of a band like Pavement can be so exciting for so many. Here is a band that we know! A band that can be located within a genre, a band that was well received, was influential — all of this is clear, if not entirely without contention.

This relief that we might find in the familiar is heightened because right now, it’s hard to know which artists we’ll be taking from this decade to the next. Arcade Fire might be the closest thing to a consensus Big Name outside the pop charts but they have been quiet for a while and suffered somewhat from the poor reception of their second LP, Neon Bible. Are they the "next Pavement"? And if so, how long will it take for their greatest hits to get repackaged and reissued?

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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