In 1977 there was a three year old boy in a movie theater who stood, yes, stood on the edge of his seat. A parental hand held the back of his jeans so he wouldn't slip and crack his head open since trying to get him to sit down had proven impossible.
What had him so excited? An over budget, late on delivery film that many called a "silly children's movie." It was Star Wars, which would later be called Star Wars: A New Hope due to the addition of two blockbuster sequels.
In a time when dark, anti-hero, and disaster films like Taxi Driver, Silent Running, Dirty Harry: The Enforcer (3rd film in the series), and Voyage of the Damned ruled the box office, George Lucas came along with a futuristic adventure romp that had delivered a message of hope. Even if you don't credit Star Wars with the message that a farm boy can rise up and, with the help of a few good friends, defeat a suppressive power, you have to admit it was a spectacular bit of entertainment, whether you were three or thirty. It was also drastically different. Not in line at all with the direction of the market at the time.
This isn't an article about Star Wars, so I'll give you another example.
In the middle of the 80's a Seattle Indie record label called Sub Pop signed a few bands that were known for rejecting theatrics, accused of ignoring hygiene by some early critics, and combined punk, metal and a little progressive (also known as Prog-Rock or Psychedelic rock), then taking it to the stage with wild abandon. At the time it seemed like everyone in the world was interested in shiny, well engineered pop music from artists like Rick Astley, Madonna (whose music was heavily engineered and pop, despite the risque message she conveyed), a-ha, and the Pet Shop Boys. That's what was selling by the millions, and that's what the market leaders wanted more of.
The bands Sub Pop signed included acts like Soundgarden, Nirvana and their first offering included tracks from Sonic Youth and other bands that are well known today. Industry critics panned and often attacked the early releases. When Soundgarden's first single landed, no one knew what hit them. Radio stations picked it up, and MTV, not quite sure where to put the new sound, gave Grunge time on metal shows as well as regular video flow. It took a while for the Seattle Sound to get to Canada, and when it did, it was Nirvana who was most popular, led by an apparently unwashed but undeniably passionate Kurt Cobain. Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth followed close behind with hit singles. Some of them had long, unrecorded back catalogs that had developed while they'd been roughing it on the road for a decade or more, so within a few years the Seattle sound was everywhere and for those who wanted to look, there was a lot of content available.
The market's direction changed fast, and as we entered the 90's Grunge bands invaded the radio after being picked up by major labels who couldn't pass up a new sound. The market was shown the way by small independents with new ideas that listeners didn't know they wanted until they heard them.
Fast forward to today. I'm not going to give you tons of modern stories about current trend starters, or little indies who are breaking from market direction, because you only have to examine the publishing, gadget or environmental blogosphere to pick up many examples of where companies as well as individuals think they're blazing new trails. In some cases, they really are, but in most they're just offering variations on a theme or propelling themselves further down an existing path to profit faster than anyone else to stay ahead. The iPhone 3G, 3GS, iPod Touch and iPad are a perfect examples of this. While those devices are fantastic, they're just variations on a product that was a break through years ago.
What brought on this train of thought? Well, it's been brewing for quite some time. Ever since I received a letter from someone claiming to be an editor from a major publishing house (which they never named), after they picked up the First Light Chronicles: Limbo from Mobipocket. In no uncertain terms I was told that no one would be interested in "another space opera series" and I was "damaging any hopes for a real writing career by self publishing." Yes, I still have the Email. While there was every chance they might have been right, I couldn't help but think that if it was true that no publishing house would take the First Light Chronicles Trilogy, and a few people found it entertaining, wasn't it worth sharing? No one would enjoy the manuscripts if they were sitting on the top shelf in my closet.
The First Light Chronicles is probably not the best example to use, since the whole trilogy was in need of a polish when that editor read Limbo, and space opera isn't everyone's cup of tea, but many very talented Indie authors are told similar things by industry professionals that pick up the occasional $0.99 Indie book for their Kindle. Authors who are better than I am at this with more well polished books in their back catalog. Many agents and editors still take every opportunity to voice a rallying cry against self-pubs and indies on blogs as well as printed periodicals, and the surprising thing is that, more than anyone else, the indies are listening.
Is it because the publishing industry has proven, without a doubt, that they're doing everything right? Is it because readers everywhere are more often than not overjoyed with the products they see and buy in book stores? Could it be because all the best books have come from the biggest segment of the market? Could it be because no one working independently can produce a book worth reading? An album worth hearing? A movie worth watching? You can answer those questions yourself, I'm sure.
Let's move on to the example of Independent film before I wrap this up. Let's look at a film maker who was astounded and changed by a movie called Slacker. Let's look at Kevin Smith and Clerks. His honest and comedic look at a lives in convenience store stasis was unlike anything anyone had seen before. He maxed out credit cards, sold prized possessions, drafted friends, family (I still love the scene where his mother is carefully examining the expiry dates on the milk), and traded every favor he could to get it made.
It took audiences at the Cannes Film Festival by storm and earned Kevin Smith the opportunities that he's enjoyed since. He maintains his independent spirit whenever he can, which shows in most of his films. Whether you enjoy his work or not, you have to admit his body of work stands apart from the norm. It's another flavor of film entirely and, regardless of the subject matter, demonstrates that movie goers can still see something that doesn't conform to the norms set by the movie industry without having to go to a film festival.
I've started most of my examples by describing the early stirrings of change because that's what this article is really about. It's about the gold we haven't discovered yet. Independent musicians, film makers and authors bring us an unsupervised look at our world, adventures into fiction, and show us that the direction the market is taking shouldn't determine what kind of entertainment we enjoy or limit our ideas about the world as a whole. Most times it's the independent that shows us the way, and it's their viewers, listeners and readers who discover them first. They are an important part of the change, armed with the power of word of mouth.
It may take a little more patience, but I promise you'll find something surprising, different, and new eventually if you start looking outside the box for your entertainment. Independents give their audiences the opportunity to discover them and it takes us back to our own beginnings, when we wanted to share new discoveries with the world. Just like that three year old boy who saw Star Wars and couldn't stop talking about it to everyone he met for months.
What are you waiting for? Go discover something new and share it.
A few places to start:
Somacow (Independent Internet Radio)
Is the author of several independent novels, and is best known for his Spinward Fringe series.