Anton Corbijn While Montreal's Arcade Fire have been known to think worldly…
- Posted on Feb 16th 2011 4:00PM by Joshua Ostroff
Dave Hogan, Getty Images
The insta-viral Who Is Arcade Fire? Tumblr made this crystal clear with its collection of confused tweets: "The grammy people have lost their mind...who are the suburbs and how in heck did they win album, of the year...smh." After googling that last acronym, I, too, was shaking my head.
Butler referenced the online WTFs as he accepted his Brit awards: "We're called Arcade Fire," he quipped. "Check it out on Google."
Now nobody should be surprised that Dog the Bounty Hunter might tweet "Who the he'll is that Fire who?" after the Grammys' Best Album was announced -- or that Kanye West tweeted "There is hope!!! I feel like we all won when something like this happens!"
But the overall reaction underlies the fact that the biggest indie band in the world -- even one who headlines mammoth festivals like Coachella and Bonarroo, sells out multi-night stands at Madison Square Gardens, tops US, UK and Canadian pop charts while winning best album awards -- can still be obscure to a huge percentage of the population.
Arcade Fire's success had already prompted too much hipster handwringing -- the hateration began back when their last album 'Neon Bible' dared to sound different from 'Funeral' -- and these new industry awards, which will likely be bolstered by a Juno win in Toronto next month, will only add further fuel to the fire.
But while we're burning stuff, let's toss in the current notion of "indie" while we're at it.
As much as Arcade Fire has proudly proclaimed their indie-ness -- signed to Merge, own their recordings, share management with up-and-comer Paul McCartney ... oh wait -- they've also set themselves up for backlash by growing to U2 size. (Bloggers and tweeters must be already sharpening their keyboards in preparation for the two bands' co-headlining concert in Moncton, N.B. next July.)
Former collaborator, film director Vincent Moon, recently attacked their indie bona fides and slammed them for being, gasp, "a mainstream band." He wasn't the first, or the last to lob this meaningless insult.
But if "indie" is inextricably tied to label business practices, than it's really not about the art at all.
As much as "alternative" was a marketing catch-all in the 1990s, it at least described the music's alternative-to-mainstream sound rather than its funding. Besides, Nirvana may have made Sub Pop famous, but 'Bleach' didn't overthrow hair metal and unseat Michael Jackson. That was 'Nevermind,' which came out on a major label which gave it the momentum to change the music world.
Nowadays, indie labels can obviously make bigger waves -- as evidenced by Arcade Fire debuting at No. 1 on Billboard, as well as the fact that 'The Suburbs' is actually the third "indie" album to win the top Grammy, after Robert Plant and Allison Krauss' 'Raising Sand' on Rounder Records and Taylor Swift's 'Fearless' on Big Machine. What? You didn't know Kanye's arch-nemesis and Led Zepplin's former lead singer were indie too?
Let us also not forget that Arcade Fire make a ton of money singing "businessmen, they drink my blood."
Oh, and Best New Artist nominee Drake owns his masters, too, and is only distributed by Universal. Technically, he's signed to his management team's independent one-artist label Aspire which is then licensed through Lil Wayne's Young Money imprint and then Cash Money records before finally making it to major-label status. Justin Bieber is first signed to his manager's RBMG label and then licensed to Universal just as Eminem is signed to his own Shady Records label and then Dr Dre's Aftermath and only then does Interscope take its cut.
Now that Arcade Fire's award wins have brought indie-dom inextricably into the mainstream, the band has the chance to lead the indie world away from fixating on financials and back towards promoting an alternative artistic aesthetic.
What does that mean exactly?
Indie is arguably like pornography -- you'll known it when you hear it it. But ultimately, it shouldn't be about label funding -- after all, an indie business is still a business -- but rather a convenient catch-all for music which offers, yes, an alternative to the mainstream pop world dominated by the likes of Nickelback, Rhianna, Katy Perry and Bieber, none of whom would have inspired a "Who is...?" Tumblr if they'd won.
But Arcade Fire won, and alongside the confused status updates was a massive spike in Google searches as well as a matching increase in album sales. 'The Suburbs' saw a 500 percent surge in the UK and on iTunes the album is number three in the US, number two in the UK and number one in Canada. The full North American sales bump will be measured by SoundScan next week.
When bands like Arcade Fire bring their music to the masses, it serves to diversify everyone's earbuds and reshape what mainstream means by bringing ever-weirder artists along in their wake. "We're the grain of pepper in the salt shaker," guitarist Richard Reed Parry told UK paper the Guardian about the mainstream. "We don't belong in this world, but we fell into it and we will go into the middle of it and do what we do and put our hearts into it. Because that's all we know how to do."
But that was before the Grammys. Now we'll see if they're actually ready to start a revolution from the inside, or if the clichéd Cobain-esque concerns about blood-drinking businessmen will make them douse their own flames.