Monday, February 02, 2009

Monday Guest Post - The Opposite of Mainstream?

Welcome everyone to day two of the Mainstream Isn't So Bad 1st Annual Guest Writers Week! Yesterday Dr. Fu hit you up oh so tenderly with some ladies of soul, and today we switch gears to the world of folk. And to hold our hand while we enter this domain is fellow blogger Boyhowdy. One of his regular writing arenas is at Cover Lay Down, where "we believe that familiarity breeds contentment — that is, that coversongs create an especially powerful comfort zone for fans to discover new artists and composers." And that's exactly what he delivers: songs that we all know, from artists we're probably all familiar with, adapted and interpreted in the folk tradition. I'll be absolutely honest with you, I am amazed at some of the songs he pulls out of his hat. In addition to the great music, Boyhowdy brings a thoughtful gaze to bare on the subjects he writes about. Enjoy his post here, and then head over to his domain and discover for yourself the treasures he amasses.


Adaora Udoji and John Hockenberry, the hosts of WNYC public radio program
"The Takeaway", rehearse for a show

Hi, folks! Boyhowdy here, host of folk cover blog Cover Lay Down and a regular contributor to collaborative blog Star Maker Machine. I was honored to be a part of Sean's guest speaker project, while a few fellow folkbloggers hold down the fort over at my place.

And I hope no one minds, but I can't help but use my visit as an opportunity to muse on Sean's blog title, and consider what, if anything, we might imagine as the antithesis of "mainstream".

Because while I do harbor a secret appreciation for much mainstream music, and share as much as I can over at Star Maker Machine, I think the world in which many indie musicians and their promoters use the term as a straw man to justify their own legitimacy is coming to a close. And in a week where, as Pitchfork notes, three indie bands showed up on Billboard's top 20 sales charts, including Andrew Bird, who was surely helped along the way by a week's worth of free pre-release album streaming through NPR, I think it's worth taking a few paragraphs to ponder the false dichotomy that indie music, underground music, and other forms have historically used as a defense of, and claim to, a particular authenticity.

One way to say this is to note that, in many ways, Cover Lay Down, too, is the opposite of mainstream. We do fund drives, rather than running ads; we feature folk music, a genre which has never really been known for large sales and product placement. Cover songs may be the new driver of major motion picture soundtracks, but given the laws about copyright compensation, they don't generally profit artists much.

But that doesn't mean I can make a claim for indie status. Indie is a relatively new term, which still speaks more to commercial production and label dynamics than anything, but I think the very way in which indie, like grunge and punk before it, is on the cusp of being co-opted by "mainstream" culture speaks to the limitation of defining oneself in opposition to that crass mass culture.

Instead, I'd propose that in the real and rapidly fading world of mass media markets, the "opposite" of mainstream is not underground or indie, but is and has always been "public".

More astute people than I have noted, the word "public" has mostly negative connotations in the world at large – cf, for example, the way people react to the terms "public restroom" and "public school." But in the folkworld, the term public is an honorable term, both because of the way the concept of "public domain" honors the community ownership of folk songs and the folkways that carry them ever forward, and because of the way in which modern folk has, for the past few decades, continued to spread through culture through public radio stations.

My bias towards the public airwaves is probably stronger than most; it comes from both a lifetime of folk, and a decade or more of teaching and NPR listenership. And even as many folk programs and stations sell out – see, for example, Boston-based non-profit station WUMB, a bastion of folk in the midst of mainstream culture, which recently decided to shift slightly to a more commercial, predominantly "Contemporary Folk" format in order to survive -- and even as Sirius fragments radio into a thousand tiny market slivers, I think public radio deserves supporting. Blogs serve some local purpose which radio once served, it's true, but I think there's something productive and vital about local call-in shows, news that cares about your own backyard, cranky hosts that don't have to worry about what the station owners or network or advertisers might think...and, of course, those rare late-night folk shows, the ones that form a soundtrack to your late night drives, alone and in the darkness, the fiddles and slow acoustic guitars, the strum of old hands and broken voices taking you home again.

I live on the other end of the Massachusetts from WUMB; as such, my local radio station, WAMC, actually comes from across state lines, out of Albany. But it's having it's bi-annual fund drive this weekend, and though the New York Times reported last year that public radio listenership is on the rise, as the economy tightens, and public radio funding sources begin to dry up, it becomes even more important for us to send in those pennies, that the local airwaves can continue to speak for us, rather than be "public" in name and economics only. You're free to disagree, of course. But I'm a folkblogger, after all. And folk is about community, and community is local. And all of these, I think, are worth saving. After all, as our Star Maker Machine patron saint Joni Mitchell notes, you really don't know what you've got 'till its gone.

Here's a trifecta of my favorite modern indiefolk takes on some public domain music, just to show the breadth of possibility out there right now; if you like them, support the artists by seeking out both their coversongs and their originals. And don't forget to call your local radio station and make your pledge when it comes due. Without your help, in these tough economic times, we run a real risk of losing our community airwaves for good. Mainstream may not be so bad, but you wouldn't want to live in a world where mainstream was all we had, would you? Websites: Sam Amidon, Colin Meloy, The Avett Brothers

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