by David Vinjamuri
We are in the middle of one of the most important and least appreciated social transformations of the postwar era. It is changing the way that established companies sell their products while propelling unknown brands to the forefront. Everyone knows someone involved in this cultural shift, but nobody is talking about it – not as a whole. Or we don’t realize that we’re talking about it when we do. We’re talking about selfies when we should be talking about indies.
When Academy Awards host Ellen DeGeneres arranged a group selfie of movie stars, it broke Twitter and set a viral sharing record. A stream of cultural commentary followed, with Pew Research noting that half of millennials have taken self-portraits and Charles Blow for the New York Times calling millennials “The Self(ie) Generation”.
Selfie is almost synonymous with “selfish” – as if millennials are just Baby Boomers with iPhones. But there is a more interesting aspect of that moment: the photo itself was very good. An actor – Bradley Cooper – was handed someone else’s phone and took a near professional quality photo. It suggests that technology has advanced to the point where creativity isn’t controlled by a demarcated group of professionals. That’s the trend that matters. Big advances in technology and connectedness of the past decade have pushed amateurs into professional territory and persuaded corporate workers to go solo. And it’s not just millennials who are departing the mother ship.
In fact, many of the behaviors being attached to millennials (born roughly from the early 1980s to early 2000s) are not generational behaviors at all. For instance, while it’s true that 18-29 year-olds are somewhat more likely to have read an eBook in the past year than 30-49 year -olds (47% versus 42% according to the Pew Research Center), the most dedicated e-readers are actually older. BookBub, the leading eBook discount newsletter, reports that over 80% of its (more than 3 million) members are over 45. The desire for uniqueness and nonconformity is not limited to the single generation coming of age now – it’s a bigger trend.
The Surprising Scale of Indie Movements
In fact, indie movements have reached an unprecedented size in the past few years. Indie craftspeople and artisans ran over 1 million active shops (listing 25 million products) that sold $1.35 billion dollars of merchandise on Etsy last year. Amazon reported that nearly a third of its bestsellers were self-published (on Kindle Direct Publishing) last year, a fact noted in a front-page Wall Street Journal profile featuring prolific indie author Russell Blake, who has himself sold 700,000 books directly online. According to the American Association of Independent Music, 34.6% of the market for recorded music came from indie labels in 2013. While some of those labels are fair-sized businesses, many of them are the direct output of individual artists or bands. And Minecraft, an indie game created by Swedish programmer Markus “Notch” Persson has more than 100 million registered users on its original site.