Here’s a joke: When is a bag not a bag? Give up? When it’s a symbol for the shifting place of music in the pop cultural landscape. . . . I’m here all week, folks. Try the veal.
Music occupies a strange position in our world, both worshipped and, at the same time, tremendously undervalued. Our culture glorifies and sentimentalizes it in slogans such as Tower Records’ “No Music, No Life,” but mostly it is the background providing ambience to cultural and consumer lifestyles. The item that embodies this phenomenon most completely is the seemingly innocent indie tote bag.
It is a widely remarked-upon trend that people don’t really spend money on music anymore, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that bands put increasing amounts of effort into the production of T-shirts and other nonmusical merchandise. The tote bag has a big advantage over the T-shirt in that it allows more versatility in how you dress — you can wear a shirt, dress, cardigan or whatever you want, and then simply slip the bag over your shoulder. It’s easy to see why indie bands and labels would be so keen to produce them.
Still, some people I know really hate tote bags, and it’s easy to see why that is, too. Their pseudo-artisanal canvas construction and quirkily naive printed designs represent everything infuriating about the faux-homespun cupcake consumerism of the dreaded hipster. It feels reductive, as if saying, “Enjoy the transformative, transcendental, transporting power of our music? Buy a bag.”
It’s important to remember that while music sales may have suffered horribly, people remain very much into the idea of themselves as music fans, and the means of expressing that idea remain commercially valuable.
Downloaded music files are invisible, but the devices and headphones you play them on are not, so even as record labels stumble, Apple and Beats by Dr. Dre continue to rake it in. Newly resurgent vinyl has many purely sonic virtues, but it also allows you to make a statement — to put your identification with the music lifestyle on display.
However, if you think of music as a lifestyle rather than just something you listen to, there’s no reason why it needs to have specific ties to sound-reproduction technology at all. Anything, from cookies to crockery is fair game for bands, and foremost in the arsenal is fashion. The trusty old T-shirt, which blares its loyalty head-on, is a blunt instrument. Hanging coyly from the side, however, the tote bag is a far more apt representative of the 360-degree branding that music increasingly engages in as it struggles to find its place in the world.
In that, the indie tote bag represents something rather sad. It is an item that embodies music’s abandonment of its revolutionary, transformational promise and capitulation to a sort of soft commercialism.
However, every generation sees its own passing in the rise of some new trend, and this is surely no different. Taken another way, the indie tote bag can also represent a broadening of the range of creative material bands produce and how they interact with their mini-societies and subcultures. It’s up to bands to decide if this growing array of artifacts they create is only to make them a jumped-up portable boutique or if they will use it to express something more radical.