I live in New York City, and it is swarming with hipsters. I write this from Fordham College at Lincoln Center, which may not mean much to many of you, but it’s where this chick comes from:
She is not an anomaly around here, to say the least. I used to have such an unnecessary hatred of the subculture of people who are called (but never call themselves) “hipsters,” until I realized what a truly vital role they play in the preservation of music as an industry. Without hipsters, I honestly believe music as we know it would cease to exist and left in its absence would be a Top 40 nightmare of recycled commercial beats and lyrics void of feeling. Instead, there is a rich diversity to many genres kept alive and hipsters deserve much of the credit.
What is a hipster?
If you have to ask you must be living under a rock, but for the purposes of this post I’ll give a brief overview as objectively as possible: A hipster is a 20-30 something person characterized by a love of counter-culture, independent music and art, and an alternative lifestyle. Most are progressive political thinkers and tend to live in urban areas. They are easily recognized by the clothes they wear, music they listen to, and foods they eat.
Robert Lanham, author of The Hipster Handbook describes them as follows: “mop-top haircuts, swinging retro pocketbooks, talking on cell phones, smoking European cigarettes … strutting in platform shoes with a biography of Che Guevara sticking out of their bags … You graduated from a liberal arts school whose football team hasn’t won a game since the Reagan administration…[and] you have one Republican friend who you always describe as being your ‘one Republican friend.'”
So, what is it about hipsters that makes them so important to the music industry?
They spend the money.
I don’t really know where hipsters get all of their inexplicable disposable income, but I’m not about to ask. The hipsters I know that have it, spend it, and on all kinds of music-related products: record players, band tees, even CD’s. (Who still listens to CD’s?!) They are always willing to shell out a few bucks for a live performance. In a world where file-sharing and illegal downloading runs rampant, this is huge. Merchandizing and live performances are how a lot of smaller, independent bands are able to sustain themselves (or at least keep making music) and hipsters contribute to the cause.
They are an advertiser’s wet dream.
Marketing your band to a hipster crowd is easy and cheap because viral marketing campaigns and word of mouth are most effective when selling to this demographic. If you slap a band sticker on the sidewalk, some hipster will see it. If you have the talent to make an impression at a coffee house, in the park, or even on a subway platform, some hipster will talk about it. The more obscure a name, the better — giving local bands and underrated talent a fighting chance in the music community.
They value culture and originality.
The music listened to by hipsters is generally labeled “indie,” which could refer to anything not currently signed to a major record label. Their tastes can range from electronic remixes and dubstep to folksy punk with fiddles and banjo pickers to bluesy garage rock with psychedelic elements and anything in between. The possibilities are endless, and provide a healthy balance to overly commercialized popular music. Hipsters seek out all things original, often embracing a juxtaposition between retro and progressive styles with the most fervor.
They are trend-spotters and trend-setters.
So many things that hipsters touch turn to gold. Not only do they revive classics like Buddy Holly glasses, bowler hats, bow ties, and mustaches; but they also discover amazing musicians:
- Passion Pit
- Vampire Weekend
- Arcade Fire
- Death Cab for Cutie
- Mumford and Sons
- the Strokes
- Foster the People
- the Black Keys
- the Shins
These bands and so many more owe their success to hipsters, who found them hiding in the backs of smokey bars or behind page after page of Cheezeburger Cats on the internet. Hipsters adopted them, labeled them cool, and everyone else (audiences and record companies) followed suit.
Unfortunately, hipsters often equate financial success with “selling out,” focusing on the negative impact of commercialism on artistic integrity. (Or they’re just being selfish. It’s way cheaper to go to a show at Arlene’s Grocery than Madison Square Garden, amiright?) As soon as bands pronounced “cool” by hipsters turn a profit, they are abandoned.
There are worse things. Once a band has enough of a following to make it to the radio or tour the country and develop a broader, more eclectic fan-base, the battle is already won! And thus music outside the Top 40 pop-genre is available to people like you and me, who will not judge the artists based on how much money they’re making or what movie trailer their latest hit was featured in.
If I offended any hipsters, I apologize. Thank you for your contribution to the music world, as fans and creators. I like you, un-ironically. (I was in love with a hipster once, for five minutes. You can read about it here.)
Twenty-three year old NYC resident, undergraduate at Fordham University, journalist-in-training at WFUV, freelance writer, amateur philosopher, occasional photographer, music-enthusiast, Abe Lincoln fangirl.
Special thanks to Dr. Tom McCourt and my Popular Music as Communication class for inspiring this post with our discussion today.