Tuesday, December 04, 2012

On indie culture, putting birds on things and Tightrope’s Best Canadian Essays 2012

(This is a modified version of my November 28, 2012 reading as part of Tightrope Book’s Fall 2012 launch for Best Canadian Essays 2012.)

Last year I wrote about indie culture and how it went mainstream without really trying for Broken Pencil. My essay focused on authenticity versus transparency. So, for example, Louis C.K. made $1 million dollars in 12 days selling his last comedy special for $5 through his website. How do we know this? Because he was kind enough to tell us. That’s transparency in action.

Now is Mr. C.K. authentic? Maybe. Maybe not. To be honest, I’m at that age where I don’t really know anymore. And this would bother me, except that no one really knows anymore. Authenticity is a slippery concept, it’s a moving target measured with notoriously faulty equipment. That is to say, authenticity is measured by human beings. And we are very unreliable.

The problem is that authenticity is far sexier than transparency. Transparency is a spreadsheet full of earnings. I’m thinking of Zoe Keating, an indie musician who created a publically viewable Google Doc of her income.

Authenticity, meanwhile, is Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil at a crossroads. Authenticity is Lou Reed releasing Metal Machine Music as a way of giving his record label the middle finger. (And most of his fans too).

What we often forgot is that transparency takes bravery. Maybe even more bravery than Metal Machine Music. That’s because with transparency, you leave the job of interpretation in the hands of your fans. Authenticity can be spun, shaped, cultivated and managed. That’s not to say that transparency makes the end result more or less authentic. But it does demystify the conditions under which culture is created, which is what indie culture is all about.

Indie, as you might recall, is short for independent from the mainstream. Indie means more than simply putting a bird on it.

The other benefit of transparency is that it helps other artists. Zoe Keating makes almost nothing from Spotify, for example, which is probably a helpful thing to know if you’re a musician.

So, in the spirit of transparency, I will mention that I received $2000 from the Ontario Arts Council for my essay, which originally appeared in Broken Pencil. That sounds like a lot, but writing an essay is plenty of work, especially if you do it correctly. I was paid considerably less for being included in this book – I received two copies of the anthology.

So there you go. I walked the walk. I was brave and transparent. I’ll leave the job of interpretation to my fans.

Please buy the anthology. Or buy me a beer. Or both. Just do whatever feels most authentic to you.

(Special thanks to Broken Pencil for publishing the article in the first place. Extra special thanks to Lindsay Gibb for being such a wonderful editor. Also thanks to Christopher Doda and Ray Robertson for putting together such a fantastic anthology. And super thanks to everyone at Tightrope books.)