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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

October 23, 2020   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsPopped Culture

Nepotism in indie music industry leads to unequal footing

The past few years have seen bedroom pop, a subgenre of indie music, explode into the scene. With the rise of the internet making it easier to share music on streaming platforms like Bandcamp, SoundCloud or YouTube, it seems as though anyone can produce the next hit. That is, if your parents are rich, white and have the right connections. 

Artists like Billie Eilish — who recorded her debut album, “WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?”, with her brother, Finneas O’Connell, in his bedroom at their house in Los Angeles — record in smaller spaces to create songs with confessional lyrics and lo-fi beats. The humble success of bedroom pop artists makes it look like anyone can rise to fame from simple origins. 

Unfortunately, this is not the case. While the bedroompop community may seem inclusive, the harsh reality is that when aspiring artists come from a wealthy, well-connected background, they are much more likely to get to the top. Other artists, especially people of color, can be more talented but have a harder time breaking into the industry.

Enter Claire Cottrill, the overnightsensation, bedroompop artist who goes by Clairo. Drawing inspiration from artists like Frankie Cosmos, Norah Jones and BROCKHAMPTON, Clairo, age 13 at the time, uploaded videos of herself singing on YouTube. Her self-produced song “Pretty Girl” was first released on YouTube, where it exploded in popularity. Flash forward to 2017, and she was signed with record label FADER Label.

However, Geoff Cottrill, Clairo’s father, was the vice president at Starbucks Entertainment’s Hear Music in Seattle, as well as the chief marketing officer of Converse. In 2014, he was appointed vice chair of MusiCares, a philanthropic organization associated with the Grammy Awards. Given his accolades, Cottrill knew both how the industry worked and the people who made it tick — like Jon Cohen, co-founder of FADER Label

Before looking behind the scenes, Clairo’s story is inspirational, exhibiting the very ideals that bedroom pop is based on. Yet her newfound fame actually opens a more serious debate about the authenticity of her place in bedroom pop and how the rich and powerful have influence over this genre. It also raises the question: Does the term imply that the artist grew from nothing, or does bedroom pop only get its name from the artist’s recording location? 

Clairo, it seems, prioritizes aesthetics over substance. While “Pretty Girl” is catchy and cute, the vocals are poorly recorded and the drumbeat is overused. Given there’s nothing really special about the track, someone who has never heard the song before would have to think Clairo has an amazing voice. Nope. The reality is that Clairo’s voice is painfully average. 

While some listeners may give Clairo credit for “using her resources,” how is that fair considering the principles of bedroom pop? It’s not hard to find undiscovered, extraordinary talent on sites like SoundCloud or Bandcamp. It seems as if one has to be the very best of the best just to get recognized for their ability. On the other hand, the rich, well-connected, average musician just has to say “please.”

The biggest issue with this privilege is that there’s even more that plays into certain people’s head starts in the music industry. For years, barriers have kept Black people out of the indie music scene. As a result, the indie genre is seen as a very white one, despite all of the Black artists working in it. Black indie musician Shamir has managed to break through these barriers. In an interview with Pitchfork, Shamir illustrated the different standards of success that Black artists are held to when compared to white artists. These elements, he said, continue to perpetuate the systemic racism in indie culture.

In high school, Shamir formed the lo-fi acoustic duo Anorexia. After going to New York to pursue a solo career in indie music, he released his debut LP, “Ratchet.” The album was successful, but he said that because of the lack of representation of Black artists like him in the indie genre — combined with his team’s control over his work — there were unrealistic expectations for his music. He said, “Once I started to do something that was out of the ideal they had for me, they were writing about everything I was doing wrong.”

These racially charged practices and beliefs are embedded in the indie music industry and culture. The ideas of independence and inclusivity are what pulls many listeners and aspiring creators in, but they are confronted with the exact opposite. The result is defeatist commentary from others in the industry, impossible standards and the expectation to conform to others’ ideas — all of which stand in the way of genuinely talented, do-it-yourself artists who want to create.