Using an admittedly unscientific sample of 38 indie-rock groups from Brooklyn, I poked around the bands’ Wikipedia pages and their underlying sources to look for any members’ college affiliations. In no time at all [update: and with further information from my sources; see below], I found information for 26 groups. Even if we assume the remaining 12 bands had no members with a college education, which seems really unlikely to me, this list is remarkable:

1. Dirty Projectors: Yale
2. Grizzly Bear: New York University
3. MGMT: Wesleyan
4. LCD Soundsystem: NYU, Bard
5. TV On The Radio: NYU
6. Gang Gang Dance
7. Vivian Girls: Pratt Institute
8. Vampire Weekend: Columbia
9. Yeasayer: Penn
10. Animal Collective: Boston University, Brandeis, NYU, Columbia
11. Hercules and Love Affair: Sarah Lawrence, Bard
12. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
13. Das Racist: Wesleyan
14. Crystal Stilts
15. Telepathe
16. Chairlift: University of Colorado
17. A Place To Bury Strangers
18. The Drums
19. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings: NYU
20. Suckers
21. Grizzly Bear (see #2)
22. Matt And Kim
23. Neon Indian: University of North Texas
24. St. Vincent: Berklee College of Music
25. Amazing Baby: Wesleyan, Bard
26. The National: University of Cincinatti
27. Panda Bear (also in Animal Collective): Boston University
28. The Antlers
29. Black Dice: Rhode Island School of Design
30. Antibalas: University of Michigan
31. Ninjasonik
32. Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson: NYU
33. Class Actress: UC Berkeley
34. Japanther: Pratt
35. White Rabbit: University of Missouri
36. Bishop Allen: Harvard
37. Apache Beat
38. Here We Go Magic: School of the Museum of Fine Arts
39. Oakley Hall
40. Light Asylum

Of the 26 bands that I found information for, 20 have at least one member who came from a private institution. (Note that this list doesn’t account for whether anyone dropped out of college.) Public or private, there are an awful lot of highly exclusive institutions on this list. Interestingly, only one of these bands (actually, a solo performer) came from a music college, although obviously all kinds of colleges and universities offer formal music training. Still, if the latter isn’t what most band members took away from their college education, then we’re left with a lot of unnecessary schooling—a substantial degree of educational “credentialism,” as the academics call it.

Now let’s compare this to a different list: college affiliations for the nine bands featured most prominently in Legs McNeil and Gilliam McCain’s history of punk rock, Please Kill Me. This time I just looked at the Wikipedia pages, so the lack of information could mean I should have dug deeper. On the other hand, these musicians are far better known than anyone from Brooklyn’s current indie-rock ranks (certainly their Wikipedia pages are larger).

Velvet Underground
Lou Reed: Syracuse University
John Cale: Goldsmith College (University of London)
Sterling Morrison: Syracuse University, and later a Ph.D. at UT-Austin
Mo Tucker
The Stooges
Iggy Pop: dropped out of University of Michigan
Ron Asheton
Dave Alexander
Scott Asheton
James Williamson: Cal Poly Pomona (post-Stooges)
Fred “Sonic” Smith”
Wayne Kramer
Dennis Thompson
Rob Tyner
Michael Davis
New York Dolls
Billy Murcia
Arthur Kane: Pratt Institute
Johnny Thunders
David Johansen
Syl Sylvain
Patti Smith Group
Patti Smith: Glassboro State College
Lenny Kaye: Rutgers University
Ivan Kral: Geneseo College
Jay Dee Dougherty
Richard Sohl
The Heartbreakers
Richard Hell
Johnny Thunders
Walter Lure
Jerry Nolan
The Ramones
Dee Dee Ramone
Joey Ramone
Tommy Ramone
Johnny Ramone
Dead Boys
Cheetah Chrome
Jimmy Zero
Stiv Bators
Johnny Blitz
Richard Lloyd
Tom Verlaine
Billy Ficca
Fred Smith
The Voidoids
Richard Hell
Robert Quine: Earlham College, J.D. from Washington University (St. Louis)
Ivan Julian
Marc Bell
This list isn’t totally NYC-centric, but adding the Stooges and MC5 doesn’t doesn’t significantly boost the educational attainments of America’s punk-rock pioneers. The VU and the Patti Smith Group are pretty much it for the college bands. Adding two more CBGBs pioneers, albeit of questionable punk pedigree:
Debbie Harry: Centenary College
Chris Stein
Clem Burke
Jimmy Destri
Talking Heads
David Byrne: RISD
Tina Weymouth: RISD
Chris Frantz: RISD
Jerry Harrison: Harvard

This comparative method is crude but, I think, highly suggestive. It indicates how musicians associated with NYC’s rock underground have become considerably more college educated in the last 40 years or so. Furthermore, they now tend to come from highly prestigious institutions. Talking Heads, not the Patti Smith Group (much less the Ramones), represents the norm of educational attainment for indie musicians today.

Needless to say, by no means should we conclude that today’s bands are more intelligent, more artful, or more creative than the original punk rock groups. For the purposes of this argument, let’s presume today’s bands are less so—less intelligent, less artful, less creative. That’s not a totally absurd proposition, considering how much more difficult the social, cultural, and economic milieu for punk rock music in this country was in the early 1970s. The question then is: what does the increase in the level of/prestige associated with underground musicians’ college education mean?

First, let me discuss three possible objections to my argument:

1. I’m comparing apples and oranges in comparing 1970s punk rock to today’s indie music. Rock’s subterranean jungle has been quite fertile since punk rock, and in addition to the trajectory of college-radio/alternative/indie rock (I can’t keep those distinctions straight anymore), we could just as well have looked at hardcore punk, DIY punk, or the crossover/metal genre. Not to imply any sense of inferiority, but presumably these latter genres would reveal educational backgrounds closer to the 1970s pattern.

That’s a fair criticism. First, I’ve compared these two different historical scenes to keep geography constant, in keeping with the creative city thesis that places with high degrees of artistic specialization and agglomeration retain these competitive distinctions over time, regardless of what technology or markets make possible. If NYC is indeed the model of a “Warhol economy”—the name of a book by Elizabeth Currid, just one of many, that makes such an argument—then let’s stay focused on NYC. Second, one could argue that both 70s punk rock and millennial indie rock carry the torch for a modernist aesthetic of innovation and social revolt. That’s a complicated argument to sustain, perhaps, considering how much bands like the Ramones and the Heartbreakers looked to earlier times for musical inspiration. (Where’s Jon Savage when you need him?)

2. In fact, educational attainment at the level of college and beyond has risen across the board in the U.S. over the 40-some years between these two periods. Even more, the growth of educational attainment in New York City has outpaced the U.S. as a whole. (The table below, which I constructed from easily accessed U.S. Census data, only goes back to 1990, but the increases it shows probably extend back further.) The pattern revealed by comparing the two lists is just one manifestation of similar trends across American cities, or at least creative cities, as a whole.

That’s true. I certainly don’t mean to imply this educational shift is unique to New York City. As an anecdote, I know of at least two recent graduates from the exclusive liberal arts college where I teach who have gone on to make a living with their indie-rock bands. They’re doing it in cities, but not in New York City.

3. In this same time period, educational attainment has increased within creative-economy sectors. Similar patterns of skill intensification could be found in the industries of technological innovation, film and television, design, publishing, and so on.

I don’t have data on this, but I suspect it’s true. Still, I think skill intensification means something entirely different for rock music than it does for, say, computer engineering.  Consider again how few of these highly educated bands, so far as I can tell, are educated in musical composition or performance; that’s probably not what they went to college to do. And really, does it require a higher level of musical proficiency to play indie rock than it does punk rock? Grizzly Bear certainly plays their instruments better than the Ramones did, in a technical sense at least—but better than Television?

In truth, these so-called objections don’t explain away the change I purport to have shown. Instead, they just point to broader contexts in which the changes in NYC’s rock underground have taken place. The question remains: what does all this academic credentialism mean for the world of rock music?[Update 1/21/11: an anonymous source embedded in the Brooklyn indie-rock world gave me information for #4, 7, 9, 11 and 25. Rob Cardenaz says the bassist for the Dap-Kings went to NYU.]