Lou Reed never sold records in great quantities, but his impact on the culture and art of rock music is so great that if you picture an It's a Wonderful Life–like world in which he never had a career in music, it's very hard to imagine how the genre would've evolved without him. Reed's work on his own, but most especially with The Velvet Underground from 1967 through 1970, created a blueprint for decades of underground and alternative music. Punk, glam, art rock, drone, shoe gaze, krautrock, goth, twee, noise, indie rock in general — maybe it all would've somehow happened anyway without The Velvet Underground laying the foundation. But it would have all evolved in a very different way, on a different timetable, and probably wouldn't have all sprung forth from the same small yet remarkably versatile and imaginative body of work.
The most famous quote about Reed and The Velvet Underground is paraphrased from an interview with Brian Eno in 1982. Basically: The Velvet Underground's debut album only sold 30,000 copies in the first five years of its release, but everyone who got a copy started a band. At that point in time, the Velvets' long-term impact on music was obvious; even their throwaway songs like "I'm Sticking with You" and "The Gift" had become fertile ground for the evolution of entire subgenres. A lot of their influence was rooted in the striking simplicity of much of their music, and the odd, flawed voices of Reed, Nico, and John Cale. Their music didn't just resonate with outsiders and weirdos, they made music that outsiders and weirdos could make themselves if they didn't have it in them to follow in the footsteps of more polished acts.
Here is just a partial list of artists whose work is hard to imagine existing in the same way without Reed and the Velvets laying the groundwork: David Bowie, Iggy and The Stooges, Joy Division, Pavement, R.E.M., Galaxie 500 and Luna, Sonic Youth, Morrissey and The Smiths, Patti Smith, Mazzy Star, The Magnetic Fields, Spiritualized, Nick Cave, Yo La Tengo, Belle & Sebastian, The Modern Lovers, Television, PJ Harvey, Roxy Music, Suicide, Brian Eno, My Bloody Valentine, Stereolab, Sisters of Mercy, The Cure, Richard Hell, Violent Femmes, The Pixies, Cat Power, Destroyer, Beat Happening. It goes on and on and on, especially when you consider that ideas that originated by Reed and his collaborators became even more ingrained as the artists they begat became influential as well — and part of a general musical vocabulary.
It wasn't just a musical influence. The Velvet Underground set the paradigm for the very notion of cool, underground, subcultural music. They were the starting point for an entire shadow history of rock music, separate from the mainstream narrative of equally influential but vastly more famous acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and The Beach Boys. They were the first band people weren't cool enough to know about, the first act whose body of work was passed around for years like a secret. Even after Reed scored a mainstream hit with "Walk on the Wild Side" in 1972 and was championed relentlessly through the mid-'70s by the ascendent superstar David Bowie, the impact of the Velvets wasn't fully known for years simply because the music was still hard to come by until the early '80s. Even in the '90s, many kids were more likely to be introduced to Reed's music through covers by more recent artists, like R.E.M.'s handful of gorgeous Velvets songs on the Dead Letter Office compilation, or Cowboy Junkies' heart-melting version of "Sweet Jane" that ended up on the soundtrack of Natural Born Killers.
The slow, steady spread of The Velvet Underground's music is a big part of why their influence has endured. Though the subject matter of the music is very much rooted in the seedy New York of the '60s, the songs aren't pegged to hype or a cultural moment like the other iconic acts of their era. The Velvets catalog feels like it exists outside of time, like some eternally cool artifact that always feels fresh, strange, and challenging. Even now, after decades of their work being reissued several times over and accepted as a cornerstone of "classic rock," discovering their music still feels like an initiation into a hidden world of decadence, creativity, queerness, and reinvention.