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After all these shifts, indie music was no longer an insular club for urban young adults, college kids, and diehards. It was chart competition for the biggest pop stars in the business. It was a major force in American music. And the significance for Noise Pop would be tremendous.
In 2012, one could reasonably ask whether independent music culture still needs Noise Pop's help. Certainly, the bigger artists on this year's lineup don't: Newcomers like Sleigh Bells or Porter Robinson would headline the Regency Ballroom or the Fox Theater whether theirs was a Noise Pop show or not. And some artists, like the Flaming Lips, are playing venues far smaller than what they could otherwise fill, seeking to create a more intimate, singular experience.
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In recent years, with indie a dominant strain of national music, some of Noise Pop's larger shows have felt like branding exercises, merely rebadged versions of events that would have happened anyway. There may be a Noise Pop banner behind the stage, but otherwise, the show is the same as any other. And when a major headliner sells so many advance tickets that virtually no Noise Pop badgeholders can get in — as happened at last year's Best Coast performance — it spoils the festival's communitarian spirit as a gathering of underdog artists and fans.
There is still a crusading heart of Noise Pop, though, and part of it lies in what the festival has done since '93: giving worthy local artists a larger audience. Noise Pop offers these bands slots on carefully curated bills opening for better-known artists with a similar appeal, amid a storm of media attention. In many cases, openers go on to headline their own Noise Pop shows two or three years later. Some local Noise Pop alumni have made it to indie's big-time, and performers say the festival offers a unique career boost.
"I still meet people who come to shows and say the first time they saw us was at this or that Noise Pop show," says Will Sprott of San Jose outfit the Mumlers, who played Noise Pop every year from 2007 to 2010. (Sprott is performing solo this year.) The Mumlers sold out no fewer than three Noise Pop concerts, and Sprott says they got more offers to play with national and international touring bands after performing at the festival.
Giving a boost to worthy locals like the Mumlers was the Noise Pop mission from the start. Early on, Arnold and Kurland would book promising bands into the next-largest room than they would have been able play. "We couldn't sell an extra 500 tickets, but we could certainly maybe sell an extra 100, 200 tickets, and help bands get to that next step," Kurland remembers. "We're putting on them on a great bill, and the hope is that people react to it." The festival is doing lots of that this year, getting leading local acts like the Fresh & Onlys, Sonny and the Sunsets, Dirty Ghosts, Young Prisms, and oOoOO their own headlining shows.
In 2012, indie music is riding a wave of popularity. There are more festivals, websites, and other organizations supporting and promoting it than ever. The genre's biggest bands have graduated to playing the major venues in the largest markets. The battle that Noise Pop helped fight for the last 20 years has, in the broader culture, and for the current moment, reached a kind of victory.
But for indie rock, at least, the wave seems to be cresting. Sincere, creative artists have replaced corporate wankers in the rock world, but the overall share of consumers who listen to guitar music is shrinking. Many younger listeners see dance music, hip-hop, and pop as the future. Noise Pop has worked to branch out into those other genres, and it's had some success: Last year's festival saw electronic misfit Dan Deacon packing two shows, and this year's lineup includes interesting electronic artists like Matthew Dear as well as New Orleans bounce music leader Big Freedia.
Still, the festival's heart and soul unquestionably remains in indie rock. It can't — and shouldn't — abandon that, especially not with a local scene that's putting out some of the genre's strongest talents. But the musical times are changing, and faster than ever. The biggest question Noise Pop will face in its third decade — at least if it wants to stay relevant — is whether it can keep up while hanging on to the underdog spirit and impeccable taste that powered its success for the last 20 years.
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