“Chillwave is the pinnacle of the snoozification of indie music…”
Six months ago, I wrote off the chillwave hype as just a passing fad, but as this year has progressed, I’ve realized the phenomenon is much more than a anomalous blip. I don’t find the music encompassing chillwave particularly impressive, though some of it is very nice when I’m in the right mood, but in terms of discerning the current state of music, chillwave turns out to be pretty damn fascinating.
First of all, the nature of the genre is rather unique. Typically in the history of pop music, genres emerge either from a single artist inventing a new style and others copycatting, or due to various people in one geographic location or scene co-inventing an aesthetic together. With chillwave, various artists in completely different locations having no ties to one another coincidentally developed respective sounds that were similar enough to be grouped together by people observing them on the Internet. Certainly these artists have some common bonds in terms of influences, but for an entire genre to come into existence and predominance this quickly from this sort of origin is previously unheard of and it marks the beginning of a new, “post-blog” era in music.
Welcome To The Post-Blog Era
Before this music blog/Internet/Indie revolution happened, a very small handful of people decided what most people would get to hear. Label execs and old school music journalists guessed what would be in fashion and fed it to listeners who only had few options in terms of sources to discover new music. Once the Internet changed that, there was promise of more freedom for music listeners, and with the barriers to entry tumbling down in journalism, it seemed there would be endless voices and opinions to aid people in finding the music they enjoyed most. All of that came to pass, but with an ever-growing amount of voices and options out there, the problem has shifted from not enough choice to an over-abundance. Which of the five billion blogs does a random person go to for finding new music they like?
With an overload of information, people have migrated towards the sources that could make sense of all of that data best, or the ones they recognize most. So in the last few years, even though a new blog is born every second, the amount of people with influence in the world of indie has coalesced into fewer and fewer hands. Power has been consolidated into three general groups: you have aggregators like Hypemachine and Elbows, you have the sites with the most comprehensive and quickest press releases, like Largehearted Boy, Brooklyn Vegan, and Pitchfork, and then you have tastemakers who have been the most successful at chasing down the zeitgeist of indie, like Hipster Runoff, Gorilla Vs Bear, and again Pitchfork. But that’s pretty much it, because if an artist isn’t doing well in those three spheres of influence, then most people won’t ever hear of them.
Looking back, the blog era didn’t end up changing music journalism as fundamentally as some thought, it more forced a changing of the guard. What is happening is a solidification and amplification of the most successful of the blog-era journalists. The trend will now shift towards conglomeration. Case and point, for a while I have thought there has been an enormous opportunity to create a viable alternative to compete with Pitchfork, if someone with the resources and understanding went out and just drafted all of the best music bloggers, putting them together on one website. It seems so simple, but it appears the only other person who thought of it was Pitchfork, who made another brilliant move in creating their potential competition themselves. Next week, Pitchfork will unveil Altered Zones, which is exactly what I just described: a central-website with a staff of hand-picked bloggers.
Back to chillwave…
It is the first example of a genre popularized by this new, post-blog regime. Hipster Runoff, Gorilla Vs Bear, and Pitchfork all but colluded in coming together and creating a successful music fashion by themselves. A musician’s career in the indie world can be made overnight by one of these three websites, and chillwave’s ascension is empirically irrefutable evidence to that effect.
But chillwave wasn’t simply an arbitrary occurrence. It isn’t a case of those with influence shoving something down everyone else’s throats. Those websites have become the primary tastemakers because they know what they are doing. As indie music has continually become more popular, these sites have backed records that they believed would have the broadest coalition of indie music fans. The music they endorse may not be mainstream in popular culture on the whole, but they rarely give their blessing to music that couldn’t at least become popular among indie fans. And chillwave appeals to so many different cross sections of indie listeners. The lo-fi kids can get into it, but so can electronic and electro peeps. It’s got that fashionable beachy vibe. It’s psychedelic, but nice and melodic, even containing a strong ’80s thread. It’s as if the genre was put together purposely to be the most commercially viable indie genre ever.
Of course, this race to the lowest common denominator is nothing new. And if chillwave is the worst of it, than indie may never die. I mean, think about what grunge morphed into six or seven years down the line. Indie music is still not as mainstream as previous major pop music movements, and it’s in the nature of indie listeners to enjoy a much wider range of styles than mainstream listeners, so there are limitations to how watered down things can get.
In addition, it’s not just a matter of indie getting too popular either. There are also fundamental changes in the way people listen to music and the way people make music that has driven us to this chillwave era.
Before everyone could steal whatever record they wanted, most people could only afford to buy so many, and they spent a lot more time with their music. These days kids are blowing through as much music as quickly as possible to find the next buzzband, and if a record doesn’t have a track that can catch someone’s attention right away, it can easily get overlooked. The successful music websites understand this and play to it, thus forcing musicians to play to it as well in order to break out from the other 5 billion musicians.
The audience is now the entertainer. Reality music has arrived.
And that’s the other side of the coin. The barrier to entry has faded away to become a musician just the same as it has to become a journalist, making chillwave the first confluence of these parallel shifts. Everyone is trying to stand out in an extremely saturated market, and that situation dictates the nature of what emerges. Any retard can download a cracked version of Ableton Live and be a chillwave-star. Talent is less a prerequisite to becoming a musician now than it ever has before. There is a dumbing down happening simultaneously in both indie music listeners and indie music makers, so the indie music journalists succeeding are simply giving people exactly what they want.
I’m not sure if that mostly accounts for how boring mainstream indie releases have become lately or not, but things have definitely gotten mundane. And that gives chillwave even more momentum: lack of competition. Chillwave is the pinnacle of the snoozification of indie music, and there aren’t many other major trends happening at the moment.
Ultimately though, I find all of these developments to be natural, not necessarily negative. Music works in cyclical ways, and when a lull in interesting sounds happens, it usually leads to something completely new breaking out. Either indie will find a way to renew itself or something different and better will come along. And as far as boring music goes, again, we could do a lot worse.
The Summer Generation
There is something more cultural than musical that helps sustain chillwave as well. With everything in the news so dramatically full of conflict, a cultural backlash of people who are apathetic to those events has emerged. Unlike the ’90′s generation, kids today just want to chill out and be happy. This generation doesn’t care about protest songs, they want something to casually listen to while they are hanging by the pool.
So in absence of popular indie trends that I prefer, I’m just going to go ahead and ride the chillwave for the rest of the summer. Hopefully by autumn there will be some more compelling national releases than the bulk of what has come out so far this year, and if not, there’s still plenty of good stuff out there if you dig deep enough, but there sure is a lot of junk to sift through as well.
Here are a couple of my fave chillwave jams, coincidentally from relatively local acts:
I touched on a lot of different subjects above, so I thought I would post of a few references that I recommend you check out to dig deeper into these topics. First, if you are clueless about the genre of chillwave, this is a piece to give you a primer, though I’m not sure I agree with all of their characterizations:
Carles of Hipster Runoff popularized the “chillwave” term, and here is his most recent piece discussing it and the state of indie music:
Here’s a little something further explaining the “post-blog era” with a more thorough examination of why this has happened:
On the subject of what the barrier to entry collapsing for musicians has done to music, Atlanta’s own Eric Guenther (From Exile) dropped a rant on Metalsucks a few months ago addressing that very subject:
Finally, I want to thank Kill Your Darlings ATL for helping me edit this piece.
- Posted by Davy Minor on July 1, 2010 at 3:52 am