Last Tuesday, Arcade Fire's sophomore release Neon Bible debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. The following day, a Modest Mouse song was covered by the cast of American Idol in a thinly disguised car commercial. Today, almost a week later, it's time to re-ask an old question: Do you really want your favorite cult indie artist to be commercially successful?
It's an honest question, if not a politically correct one. The "right" answer, of course, is yes–only a music nerd hipster asshole would answer no. But is it the honest answer? Do people who consciously seek out music not readily available via mainstream channels really want bands they like to have mainstream-type sales, radio airplay, and TV appearances? Put another way: When "Float On" is featured in a cheesy, unintentionally hilarious music video on the country's most successful TV show, does it enhance or detract from your enjoyment of the song?
Put yet another way: Can you be glad that a quality artist is being rewarded for good work while liking him a little less because of it?
At the risk of having a Crosstalk with myself, I think the answer boils down to abstract vs. personal points of view. In the abstract, I think Band X selling a million records is wonderful. People are exposed to worthwhile music, which makes our society better. Good art is rewarded over bad art, making it easier to sell more examples of good art in the future. And it raises the bar for what is possible in the marketplace, encouraging innovation, stimulation, and the ever-elusive highest common denominator. From a personal perspective, however, Band X selling a million records can be a major pain in the ass. It means they will play theaters or arenas instead of bars on their next tour, and most of your fellow concert-goers won't care about the band nearly as much as calling up everybody they know and yammering on about how awesome the concert they aren't watching is. Higher demand will drive up ticket prices, too, meaning you pay more for a less satisfying experience. Oh, and if radio repetition doesn't suck your favorite songs dry, the unintentionally hilarious covers on popular TV shows will.
Popularity should never make you like a band less, but it inevitably makes you enjoy the experience of liking that band less. That's the problem with liking music defined by it's supposed autonomy from the mainstream—the "indie" part is equally important to the "music" part. "Indie" is actually the wrong word here–"cult" is more appropriate since obscurity, not non-corporate affiliation, is probably the more important aesthetic value. Contrary to the abstract point of view, the relevance other people's opinion of the music you like has to you personally is almost always negative. It's very nice that Jill from Menasha, Wis. wanted to buy Neon Bible after Win Butler smashed his guitar on Saturday Night Live, but her enjoyment doesn't help you understand Arcade Fire any better. It might mean something in the "pop culture at large" sense, but most of us really only care (or can accurately gauge) what is affecting our friends anyway. As Arcade Fire's (or any band's) audience grows, your connection becomes less significant. Ten years ago you could paint the average Modest Mouse fan in broad strokes fairly easily. Basically, it was the type of person who haunted small record stores and drove hundreds of miles for shows in dive bars in the middle of the week. Now, a Modest Mouse fan can be anybody, and therefore it's no longer something that will bond you to a complete stranger. It's like being a fan of pizza or NFL football. (Or The Beatles.) That doesn't mean you stop buying Modest Mouse records, just that you no longer assume buying Modest Mouse records means anything.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, there is a lot right with it. But it illustrates the difference between being a music liker and a music lover. I'd say 95 percent of the world are music likers. They like playing music while driving, cleaning the house, exercising, drinking, working, and pretty much any other activity that music can accompany without being the sole focus. Music likers buy 10 CDs (at most) every year, and it's usually stuff they hear everyday on the local top 40 station or greatest hits collections by classic rock bands. Music likers don't read music magazines or get into arguments about music trivia. They like music, but it's not something worth putting too much thought into. The remaining 5 percent are music lovers. These people are irrational fans,(short for fanatic) and they buy CDs every week, read music mags, and seek out passionate discussions about music. These people will judge you based on your CD collection (whether they admit it or not), and they can sniff each other out based on the ability to name bass players and/or pre-1980 prog/funk/metal/soul artists. (The like-love split isn't specific to music. It applies to everything: movies, TV, books, fine art, theater, food, beer, whatever. The world is geared to likers, not lovers, which is why popular stuff generally is likeable in the easiest and most obvious senses.) It's natural for fans to seek out the obscure, the esoteric, the strange, because that stuff literally wouldn't exist without them. When an artist is able to go beyond lovers to reach likers, it is a victory in the pop culture wars. But, personally, it also kinda sucks.