Indie Music That’s All But Neutral

I really like Neutral Milk Hotel’s album, In The Aeroplane Over the Sea. What mesmerized me the most was the unique and mostly upbeat folk sound of each song, intertwined with the heavy, vivid, and solemn lyrics; along with the eeriness of some of the instruments added in.

Each song has many components in it- and while the songs seems simple and easy to follow (many times riffs are just repeated), there are different instruments highlighted throughout, sometimes in strange lengths and overlays. Skilled band member and mix-board translator, Laura Carter mentioned that with “so much was happening onstage that without someone helping [the soundman would get confused].” Listening to “Communist Daughter” at first sounds like a quiet warm-up– gritty guitar (or maybe accordion) notes fill the background as an acoustic guitar and trumpet simply play over it. The song ends with the weird mix of electronic overlay and fades without any melody from the guitar or trumpet. This odd complexity comes from one, the musical instincts of the band; and two, their freedom from mainstream institutional forces. Cooper writes that “…chaos was a friend to the band.” They placed that chaos purposefully in the songs, (and sometimes mistakenly in live performances), to have a sound independent from others that is also open to more musical interpretation. A major studio wouldn’t give that band so much creative leeway in production and performance.

If the music doesn’t hit your emotions, the lyrics will. I believe the lyrics of all their songs prove their title of “indie”. First off, many of the songs juxtapose music and words- for instance, “Holland, 1945”. The catchy and upbeat, folk-rock sound is contrasted as one listens to the lyrics more closely. As the song sings about what I assume to be World War II, the last stanza goes:

‘And here’s where your mother sleeps
And here is the room where your brothers were born
Indentions in the sheets
Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore
And it’s so sad to see the world agree
That they’d rather see their faces fill with flies
All when I’d want to keep white roses in their eyes’

It’s full of emotion, of sadness and yearning; which I think is emphasized when sung against the unique/’happier’ music. Lines of death and war are not very common in mainstream music- moreover lyrics that make the listener think about this troubling theme and interpret it for themself. An emotionally heavy song that lends much interpretation is “Two-headed Boy Pt. 2”. It focuses on the lyrics as there’s only guitar and singing, with some ambient sounds. Personally, I had to listen to the song three times, and look up the lyrics until I formed my opinion about the theme. This in itself is “indie”, the media text is engaging with the audience, spurring thought and dialogue. (I had to ask my roommate what she thought of it after playing it for her!) None of this could be done as successfully without being independent from the mainstream.

Three Indie Peas in a Pod

Indie music is quite similar to indie films and television when it comes to the relationship between institutional independence and indie aesthetics. We’ve learned that there are common aesthetic elements within the indie culture that are prized and utilized in texts (such as unique narratives, characters, and dialogue) because the media producers are free from major institutional guidelines. While indie music may not have these same elements, they still have aesthetic freedoms that come naturally from being independent from major industries (in this case, major labels and record companies).

Hesmondhalgh states that one of the successes of post-punk (and the growth of an indie music culture) was “the commitment to independent production and distribution [that it] transcended romantic notions of musical creativity.” Beginning indie music producers worked to be independent from both major producers (who knew what profitable music was at the time, and they made it) and distributors (again, looking for profit- they wanted to sell music that would please the masses for the most money). Without constraints of the industry, indie music could go in any way it wanted to. Indie culture flourished within these independent bands, whether in music quality, genre, lyrics/themes, and/or social and political commentary. This is similar to indie film and TV, where the indie culture grew from a collective agreement on opposition of the mainstream’s conservative aesthetics.

Indie music being unrestricted from major institutions has its struggles as well, just as television and film do. Indie producers want the creative freedom they earn from risking popularity and profit that they could’ve ensured with “selling-out” to a major company. Plus, indie bands have to constantly work against the mainstream and simultaneously keep an exclusive distance from mass audiences to stay in its indie culture. (This cultural ideal isn’t as prominent in indie TV, but for indie film this exclusiveness is an element.) But then how does an indie band or production studio make profit? This is where the shaky middle ground of “micro-independents” and “mini-majors” come into consideration of struggling media producers.

I think it’s very hard to be a true indie artist, since there are not many functions (that I know of) that will help an aspiring indie musician to gain popularity. (And could they even keep that popularity without signing onto a big label?) Separating from major industry influence definitely shapes aesthetics, just as with other indie media; but I believe the music culture keeps broadening so that there are more successful “indie” artists and less common and agreed-upon indie music aesthetics.

Indie bands can be so far from the mainstream that they could seem nonexistent. But that’s what makes them indie right? c:

Cut Out That Audio!

For my group’s video essay, we’ll be using lots of clips- but we’ll mostly just need them for the visual aspects, not audio. So I found out how to delete the video’s audio when working in Windows Movie Maker.

This blog post does a great job in explaining how to remove sound from videos- and even how to cut audio selectively (which is a bit harder, but certainly understandable if you take it step-by-step!) From there, any music or narration overlay can be added and not affected by the video source’s audio.

Hope this helps!

 

 

TV Loves Desilu

There are many ways, according to Schatz, that Desilu functioned independently from the major networks during the 1950s. These ways could be similarly compared to the strategies of independent film institutionally as well.

Luckily, during Desilu’s time, TV was still in an experimental phase- advertising, networks, and talents still worked together, but the ties between them were not as strong as they are today. From the beginning of their I Love Lucy venture, Desilu took much of production creative and institutional control in their own hands; being able to bargain with the networks because of the uncertain state of the developing TV business. This is how they stayed independent from network’s (and incidentally ad agencies’) regulations.

First, Desilu aided in the popularity of the “telefilm” program; a higher production valued show that was filmed first (not just broadcasted live) with new technologies. Arnaz took time to figure out how to “economize on camera setups… [so to] reduce the budget.” So he asked his inventive Hollywood cinematographer friend, Karl Freund, to help out. We still see this today with indie film:  an effort to try to keep a quality feel to a movie (top production values) but within a limited budget, and with cheap help of friends.

After the success of the first season of independently produced I Love Lucy, indie TV held more leeway with networks. New negotiations between producers, advertisers and networks began regarding scheduling and syndication. Desilu made a brilliant move to use I Love Lucy as a lead-in for another one of his sneakily purchased program December Bride, and test-run a different series during the summer. From there, after a number of episodes were aired, and syndication brought in more profits to the indie producers. Unlike indie film, TV has different strategies of distribution- where a film may find success showing a certain festival; shows must utilize airtimes and reruns for profit.

Eventually, as major studios introduced “deficit financing” into the television business, indie companies either had to pay for productions the major’s way, or get taken out altogether. Luckily (again) by this time, Desilu had enough power and money to continue on independently. Arnaz “wanted to experiment with different programming forms”, but when attempting to sell these creations to networks, they declined them. This is the film equivalent of an ‘avant garde’ film vs. a crossover. Both can be independently made, but only the crossover will be distributed to mass audiences. With TV, the audience may is arguably higher than a movie’s, raising the risk in delivering overly “innovative and sophisticated” shows.

Desilu influenced the television in its early years, with its independent innovation and determination. Just like indie film, it had the power to redefine the business’ formulas and production norms, and it did. Today, television may thank Desilu for that!

Trouble in Texas

The South by Southwest conference (an ever-growing media convention in Austin, TX) has been quite an influential festival in regard to indie films since the 90’s. Yet despite the rise in popularity, and the “buzz” that successful indie films get at this festival, not all go on in further fame and profit. Challenges face these Texas indie filmmakers, though not just at SXSW, or just to Texas films. One of the challenges mentioned in our reading that could happen to any indie auteur is the tricky balance of having a meaningful, artistic indie film, but simultaneously keep a commercial Hollywood mind so that it would sell for wide distribution.

For example, Austin-based writer/director Bryan Poyser created The Bounceback which was very successful at the many film festivals it was shown at. Nevertheless, his movie has still not been picked up by a distributor because companies “feared the cast was not starry enough to attract large audiences”. This may be the only unwanted “indie” part of the movie. From just watching the trailer below, it seems to have elements that would grant a wide audience appeal. There is a wide array of characters, sex/desire is a big theme throughout, and its message doesn’t look to be extremely “artsy” (overtly controversial or confusing). We have seen these elements in the popular and successful indie films that are risqué (sex, lies and videotape; Secretary). And in more recent rom-coms like Juno—a movie with a quirky feel that seems similar to the “Keep Austin Weird” setting of The Bounceback.

We’ve learned how difficult it is to keep on the fine line of Hollywood profitability and indie’s unique, influential style within an independent film. Many indie filmmakers want to be out of the celebrity spotlight, putting their creation first, but they also need motivation- both with money and notability- to continue producing. Take Soderbergh for example: his paradoxical status with his films kept him a known filmmaker, with known films, but didn’t make him necessarily “Hollywood famous”. This is one challenge indie filmmakers must deal with, if they want to stay inherently “indie”. While the chasm between purely Hollywood and completely indie is closing (indie films are becoming more mainstream, popular, and accessible to more audiences), it still exists. And it’s sometimes leaving indie filmmakers without the monetary achievement they deserve. (Let’s hope DIY distribution gets these wonderful indie filmmakers the chance for the profits and popularity they want and need!)

Important “Indie” Institutions

There are institutions within independent cinema that help form “indie” into a cultural category. Newman’s “institutions” includes the “venues of the cinematic experience and the discourses through which they are experienced” (51). More specifically, this means the film festivals and the road indie films take to get to there and beyond (through the selection committees and further distribution).

Film festivals are a huge contribution to “indie” as a cultural category. Within the festivals are selection committees, which are the central group determining if a film is exceptionally “indie” to be shown. This in itself reinforces the indie’s cultural category by choosing films that coincide with the collective agreement on qualities of independent film (their culture) and what they believe to be “hits” within their own group of festival attendees. These festivals also run as a type of “art house”, where auteurs are king, and creating provocative films for a higher-brow audience is their specialty.

By keeping the film festivals separate (as much as possible) from Hollywood culture; “indie” institutions deviated into their own sphere of culture. Though after the independent mini-major movie sex, lies, and videotape emerged from a more risk-taking era of production; Hollywood began to notice the unique festivals- and the ‘”synthesis of…clashing cultures”’ happened (70). While this did not harm the separate identity of film festivals from Hollywood, it did create the cultures in a parallel to each other as well. Now indie institutions work in relation to Hollywood: by exhibiting alternative and artsy films unalike to majors, while using Hollywood to their advantage to reach more audiences and become popular (though simultaneously not mainstream!).

Aside from the major film festivals Newman mentioned (Sundance and Telluride), I feel that the film festivals that are in a sense extremely indie- by being unheard of, small, low budget, etc. – should be added to contributing to “indie” as a cultural category. During another well-known conference, South by Southwest, I found myself not at its film screenings but at a tiny “indie” film festival (RxSM) of 25ish people. Boasting that it’s “underground”, this festival had movies that didn’t make it to Sundance, SxSW, or other large events because of various reasons. Nevertheless, the movies I watched that day were wonderful indie art! Some commented on politics, others on culture, all were character driven and narratively different. Although far from Hollywood it could still be a starting institution for independent films. It upheld indie culture with its selection of movies and created much discussion (at least between the 25-man audience) after the festival.

Though different indie festivals, both had selection committees and nominations

Though different indie festivals, both had selection committees and nominations–perpetuating indie culture to their own audiences

The Understandable Uniqueness of Buffalo ’66

Audiences view independent films in a different light; there is no doubt about that. Through particular viewing strategies utilized by audiences, (and with the guidance of indie’s alternativeness from Hollywood films in many factors), indie film becomes a cultural category. Cultural value comes from indie cinema’s dual use of “resisting and perpetuating the dominant ideology” from major films (Newman, 3). From there, expectations grew on producers and exhibitors, leaving the audience with common viewing strategies that Newman lists as: “

  1. Characters are emblems
  2. Form is a game
  3. When in doubt, read as anti-Hollywood” (Newman, 29)

In explaining how these contribute to the formation of indie film’s cultural category, I will focus on strategies 1 and 2 in relation to the movie Buffalo ’66.

To portray the characters as emblems, or badges of reality, indie movies form their characters with the unique complexity of every human. This in turn allows for social relation, interaction, and discussion between audiences and film. Buffalo ’66 creates this through its main character, Billy (amongst a very real-feeling cast), who are socially identifiable. Billy, while at first jarringly violent, has realistic and justifiable views and emotions once we see and understand his rough childhood. He is someone that does seems out of reach, in fact, audiences may connect with Billy on many emotion levels for various reasons. The depth of the characters allows for this personal connection, as well as an outlet for cultural and social discussion.

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Aesthetically, Buffalo ’66 has experimental qualities within its narrative, mise-en-scene, and more forms. As exhibitors employ Newman’s second viewing strategy of seeing “form as a game”, they overcome the confusing or strange aspects and figure out the purpose and contribution the form had/has. For example, Buffalo ‘66’s scenes with flashbacks are odd and helpful at the same time. They appear suddenly and briefly, through a window out of Billy’s head. Considering that Billy is having these troubling thoughts of his past right then, and the audiences gets to experience them too, bringing another level of relation between the two.

These unique distinctions are common among indie films, whether when producers create or viewers watch. They become the coherence between indie films as a culture. While producers keep the audience in mind, the audience understands the producer’s mind when viewing an indie film. This relationship through the viewing strategies helps define indie cinema as a cultural category; and further cultural, social, and even political discussion.