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TikTok Has Been Putting the Spotlight on Indie Bands, and Some Fans Aren’t Happy About It

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Remember when Phoebe Bridgers smashed a guitar on SNL, and then a bunch of dudes got on her case about it on the internet? Even though she’s not exactly the first person to smash a guitar. I’m finding parallels between that reaction, and the reaction some indieheads are having regarding TikTok’s part in bolstering the popularity of indie bands. There’s a certain level of gatekeeping that fans (or random people on the internet) like to do about what’s acceptable in the music industry. And what’s acceptable, tends to be whatever it “used to be” or the way it was when it “was cool”—which, you know, is almost always when said person was in their teens and early 20s. The thing is, culture shifts constantly, and the way we consume media shifts with it. For every new way of doing things, there’s someone saying it will never work or it’s the wrong way.

Take this 1946 quote about television, from an executive at 20th Century Fox:

“Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

Which is all to say, we get it. Change can be scary. Which brings us to TikiTok and indie music. Regardless of whether or not you think the app itself is a lame, insipid thing, there’s a direct link between the revival of certain bands, and how much their songs blew up on TikTok. Whereas these bands were once little gems hidden away from the public eye, they’re now on the forefront of your ‘For You Page.’ Which begs the question: Is this the future of finding new indie music? And if so, is this a “good” thing for these bands? Or would they be better off anywhere other than TikTok?

The new search engine

Back in my day (said while shaking a fist at a cloud), there wasn’t anything remotely similar to TikTok for people to find music on. Pandora was fairly popular, and Spotify was still refining its ‘Discover’ feature. YouTube’s algorithm was less … obnoxious, and more tailored to your tastes. But regardless of whatever apps were out there, my friends and I still used iPods, CDs, and the radio to find new bands.

The closest predecessor to TikTok I can think of was Vine: even compacted into six seconds, a good song could catch the attention and interest of viewers quite easily. Thanks to Vine, many obscure-ish acts (such as The Garden) gained traction, while the beats community really took off.

Tomppabeats was in most rotations, especially this song in particular.

And since TikTok was more or less a spiritual successor to Vine, it makes sense that it’s become a new way for people to share and discover music. Often this manifests in a particular song working well for a new trend, that trend taking off, and then boom, that song is everywhere. When it happens to a band that’s already popular, well, that’s one thing.

But when it happens to an indie band, it’s a much grander occasion.

Revitalizations and remasters

When indie bands get new fans on TikTok, it doesn’t matter how long they’ve been around the block—all of a sudden, they become one of the most listened-to artists of the month. This can be a little jarring for longtime fans of these bands, who now have to grapple with a new generation’s zeal for them, and whatever that zeal may entail.

I, for one, had my entire adolescence defined by Surf Curse and their contemporaries (bands like Slow Hollows, Frankie Flowers, and all the other punk geeks of LA). “Freaks” used to be the song we listened to on our way home from a show, the song that reminded me of the people I had crushes on and inspired a fire in my feet that made me want to dance.

But it was just one of many good songs, and it never had a music video to accompany it. Until just seven months ago. This music video was made BECAUSE of TikTok, and because “Freaks” blew up the way it did. Surf Curse even put together a remix EP for the song—and Travis Barker has a track on it, too. It can be a bewildering thing for these bands to grapple with, and both members of Surf Curse (Jacob Rubeck and Nick Rattigan), while appreciative, are still blown away that it happened at all.

And as long as the app is running, there’s no chance this will slow down, either. Just a few days ago, the small Boston act Vundabar dropped a new music video for their viral song, “Alien Blues”:

Just like with “Freaks,” “Alien Blues” is a pretty old song, written not too long after the members of Vundabar graduated high school. But the song has gotten so popular, the band decided to make a music video for it to keep up with the times, even though they have new music coming out soon. And why not? They played live for Seth Meyers recently, so why not ride the high while it lasts?

Yeah, why not?

Ultimately, the pros seem to outweigh the cons, in most cases, for the musicians. Bands that were already beloved on smaller scales now have the opportunity to blow up on larger ones, and that will introduce them to folks who love their music but wouldn’t have found them otherwise. For their part, Surf Curse understands why “Freaks,” in particular, took off: it was written when they were eighteen, and the feelings that eighteen-year-olds feel are timeless.

However, there are things to be vigilant of. Adam Schulz, Surf Curse’s A&R rep at Atlantic Records, had this to say:

The biggest challenge is building a story outside of TikTok. A lot of records that work on TikTok never escape the platform. Fortunately, ‘Freaks’ was a sticky record in the L.A. indie rock scene and the band had a dedicated following long before the TikTok moment, so we had a foundation to work from.

Adam Schulz, the LA Times

Furthermore, Surf Curse is a bit wary of their success, hoping that this brief deluge into the past won’t ground them there. Indeed, while it’s remarkable that TikTok can revitalize old tunes, the nature of TikTok trends is something like a swarm: all-encompassing and incessant. Some aren’t so sure how they feel about these swarms, such as beloved indie singer Mitski, who was already bothered by her newfound fame before TikTok found her.

Therefore, these bands must be level-headed when engaging with this new fame. Vundabar, I think, is wise to indulge, since they do have new music coming out, and engaging with the fanfare of “Alien Blues” might help the new album gain more attention. But SALES, another indie band who’s found newfound popularity with their song “Pope Is A Rockstar,” has been going about it another way: by being lowkey AF.

Although the song has been everywhere as of late (having been mistakenly misnomered as “Go Little Rockstar”), the humble duo that is SALES hasn’t delved too deep into the fanfare, save for one affectionate post and this music video. Aside from these casual drops, they’ve continued to do their thing and not let it get to them, and I think that’s probably the best way to deal with all this attention.

As For The Fans…

There’s a joke in Austin, Texas—a place that exploded in popularity and left many longer transplants salty about the infusion of new people. It goes, “Oh, you moved here on Friday? That’s too bad. I moved here on Thursday, that’s when it was still cool.”

Yes, indie music fans like to feel like they have this secret little band that’s amazing, with only a select few people knowing about it. Like they put in the work—why should a bunch of kids on TikTok get to find them by accident? I get it. But hey, we can’t gatekeep our faves forever. They don’t belong to us. Set them free. Let them enjoy the spotlight, and whatever benefits that may come their way. Hopefully, they’ll know how to navigate the storm, whether by embracing it or charting a course in the opposite direction.

When I look at the backlash about indie musicians getting some success through TikTok, it bums me out. As fans, we have an obligation to not be complete tools about the things we love. It makes things more awkward for our favorite creators, and only ages us more, as we shake our fists at the kids on our lawns.

You don’t have to “get with” the times, but try to acknowledge that they are changing, and this is a new phenomenon that, for the time being, is more positive than negative for our favorite bands. Let’s just hope it stays that way.

(Featured image: tommpabeats)

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Madeline (she/her) is a writer and dog mom. She aims to use her writing to positively represent mixed-race people like herself. However, when she isn't writing, she can typically be found fighting the good fight against her lifelong insomnia. You can read her stuff at https://madelinecwrites.com/