The music industry is so damn confusing these days. One minute everybody hates streaming. The next, it’s the best thing since rewritable CDs. Then, out the blue, pop princess Taylor Swift pulls her catalog from streaming behemoth Spotify in protest over the company’s supposed paltry pay to artists. After that, a new streaming service, Tidal, hops on the scene and brings a tour bus full of marquee names with it. Then British rock band Mumford & Sons says to hell with Tidal and every other musician on his or her self-righteous high horse. And honestly, by the time you read this, someone else will have probably said something else flattering or inflammatory.
Lost deep in the digital discussion is the independent artist. Exactly where do they fall in this growing divide? If multiplatinum acts like Taylor Swift and Mumford & Sons aren’t happy, what does that mean for the unsigned rap act or local rock group you heard the other night? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. We know that if the heavyweights are bickering over bread, sadly, the indie artists are likely somewhere fighting over the crumbs.
We aren’t making any headlines there. That’s been the case for decades in the Atlanta underground and just about every other musical hotspot on the map. But just because a problem isn’t new doesn’t mean it’s not still a problem.
Rather than acknowledge the dire situation with a shoulder shrug and simply carry on about her day, Annette Brown was compelled to do something a few years ago. She picked up her Canon 5D Mark II camera and went below the A-town surface and found indie artists and insiders across the musical scope and sparked a dialogue about the struggles and successes of going at it without a major label deal. The end product of her two-years-plus mission was the recently-released film Indiependence Volume 1, and it’s an eye- (and ear-) opener.
“I’ve always loved music,” begins Brown, a warm spirit who takes her time to answer questions with thought. “I would always go to venues and listen to live music.” But Annette isn’t merely some zealous fan who had the spare time and the economic means to put together a documentary on Atlanta’s rhythmic underground; she’s also a renowned photographer who’s worked with the likes of Goodie Mob, Monica and other headliners over the past decade.
“I’ve been a music photographer for at least 10 years now,” adds Brown, who as a still photographer has also worked on major Hollywood productions such as Ride Along and The CW’s hit show The Vampire Diaries. “I just kinda felt like I wanted to document the [independent] scene. I have been [doing that] photographically, but not really the way I’d do it personally. I’ve worked with a lot of established artists but I’ve always liked the independent scene here. There is an underground scene that, unless you’re in it, you know nothing about it. And it is so amazing! When we think of the Outkast days, when they started, there is so much history here.”
Brown’s innate creativity reflects in the project. Rather than play out in a by-the-numbers format with lifeless interviews, Indiependence (available for streaming at www.indiependencefilms.com) weaves Q&As with local talents like Cloud Eater and Waking Astronomer with the acts’ actual performances. And when we say “performances,” we’re talking solid three- or four-minute segments for the viewer to really get the authenticity emitting from the stage. Visual artist/rapper Jack Preston might not get many Spotify clicks, but on this movie, the light solely shines on the dude.
Preston waxes poetic about blurring the lines between his musical styles. Divinity Roxx, a virtuoso on the bass guitar who toured with Beyoncé before chartering on her own independent journey, speaks on having patience in this line of work. Brown rounds out the documentary with insight from indie icons (Joi, Speech) and industry insiders (Gemco Records’ Spencer Garn, Organized Noize’s Rico Wade).
“I wanted to do what I could, not just to do my art, but to do something where someone could benefit from it,” Brown admits. “I didn’t want to do a documentary just to do a documentary. My purpose has always been to help these people in their careers. My intention was to have it as a platform to showcase these artists. My goal and vision still is to get it screened somewhere overseas.”
One reoccurring theme in Indiependence is the topic of money and its influence on the unsigned artist. “People have to see the big picture,” she says. “For these artists, it’s not so much about money, but I think a lot of people they work with, if they don’t see the potential to make a dollar, they’re less inclined to invest and help. It has to be more about people than the money. Care about how to help people as a whole with their careers. It has to be about community, and realizing you might not make a dollar right now but there’s a bigger picture. People have to stop saying, ‘If I’m not making a dollar, I’m not going to do anything.’”
In the movie, rapper/poet Boog Brown even says, “The only reason I would entertain the thought of a major label would just be to have the budget that I need to get the videos done and pay the producers that I work with.”
Thankfully, open-minded souls like The Sound Table’s Karl Injex and The Music Room’s Keiran Neely still call the ATL home. These are the kinds of decision makers who provide an outlet for creatives who wouldn’t otherwise have them. They host open mics and allow indie movie screenings. They care more about beats and rhymes than bottom lines. Annette made sure these folks not only saw her picture but understood how much she appreciated them for embracing local art.
After our chat, Annette forwards me an email Keiran sent to her. It reads, “I thoroughly enjoyed the film. I was just telling my wife about it. As a business owner who is also a member of the Atlanta indie music scene, it provided great insight to the perspectives of the musicians themselves. It was a very uplifting experience and put my role as a venue owner very much in perspective. I have a big responsibility to provide a vessel wherein these talents can be cultivated and exposed so that they may reach their potential.”
Fans of progressive, colorful Atlanta vibes can regularly support venues like The Music Room, radio stations like WRFG 89.3 and local artists like jazz vocalist Alex Lattimore, who’s turned to the crowdsourcing outlet Kickstarter for fan support to finance his next project.
It’s that kind of resourcefulness that makes Annette happy. It’s that kind of hustle that keeps her motivated to do more documentaries. “I never felt like I could justifiably cover the community in one documentary,” Brown says. “There’s so much. Not just the artists, but the history. The second [movie] is going to be about females. I’m going to select four different female artists. There are some amazing female musicians in this city. Not only are there great vocal performers, but there are great drummers, bass players and guitarists.”
And who knows, by Volume 3 or 4, the theme of Brown’s installment could be how streaming services are starting to embrace Atlanta’s underground movement.