In 2001, Napster introduced the world to file-sharing, and ever since the media has been filled with feverish stories about the music market's decline. Indeed, no one sells 10 million or even 5 million copies of a single album anymore; that said, some success stories have been ignored. Many artists in the independent sector are experiencing unprecedented popularity. To get your head around this, imagine if The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell now sold only a million copies of his latest bestseller rather then multiples thereof while his academic inspirations -- say University of Chicago professor David Galenson -- now sold hundreds of thousands of books where he’d previously been lucky to sell a fraction of that.
Smart, elegantly presented indie music is going through a real renaissance. The problem, it seems, is how to gain entree to this somewhat insular world. The new compilation, Dark Was the Night, serves as an ideal introduction. Its contributors range from both almost-pop stars (i.e. gender bending torch singer Antony; mid-tempo Canadian songwriter Feist; mysterious balladeer Sufjan Stevens) to "next big thing" candidates like Grizzly Bear and the young singer-songwriter Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) who are each given a pair of songs -- one solo turn and one unique collaboration.
Indeed, the real treat here are the once-in-a-lifetime partnerships inspired by the fact that all proceeds from this collection will go to the RedHot Organization, an AIDS relief charity. Globetrotting pop star David Byrne traveled from Manhattan to Brooklyn to create a song with iconoclastic younger group Dirty Projectors, and sounds livelier than he has since his years with the Talking Heads. The Bay Area string group Kronos Quartet contribute a haunting and unlikely cover of the classic blues rag that gave this compilation its name. Swedish singer Jose Gonzalez joins with eclectic instrumental duo The Books on a Nick Drake cover that joins the warmth of folk music with the polished urbanity of contemporary composition.
The overall mood is melancholy, but the virtuosic precision with which these emotions are drawn distinguishes the music from typical pop bathos. You can hear a sampling at www.darkwasthenight.com.