While the prophets of false doom and apocalypse are proclaiming all musicians are going to be left floundering thanks to digital transmissions and the lack of demand for records and CDs, there is still a demand for the obligatory gangs of “indie” melody makers. But, “what is indie?” I hear you cry. Well, the glory days of indie have been lapping around our shores for decades, and as one of the prominent genres of the late 1990s and throughout the 2000s thus far. The concept of independent music, artists, labels, and such has been around as long as labels have been around, but it took the ‘70s and ‘80s to bring the concept to completion and full realisation. picture
of a pumpkin Historically speaking, some of the first indie labels ended up being some of the most influential. Technically speaking, Sun, Stax, King, and even Chess were independent labels, funded and founded by small groups who wanted to release music they liked that saw no official pressings. Atlantic was independent when it was just the Ertegun brothers, but they eventually sold the label in 1967 to Warner – and as a result, they remain a shining example of great early independent releases. Another huge step towards the indie scene’s modern propagation and level can be blamed on the advent of bootlegs in the ‘60s. What with Dylan’s Great White Wonder, all of a sudden people wanted small boutique runs because they offered so much new material. Fast forward through the starts of outsider music, and skip to the 1980s. Enter Rough Trade Records and The Smiths – two of the first things to be dubbed bonafide indie. The Smiths rejected all choices of the time and focused on basic guitar/bass/drums/vocals songs, but they were so unlike any other artist. Similarly, Rough Trade released (and still releases) music by such a wide array of independent artists that they are not merely a rock-type label. Rather, they focus on underground bands with unique sounds. The history of the term and genre ‘indie’ is pretty much as we know it from here. But recently, the term has taken on such a random and fluid nature that it’s no surprise that the term has become a watered down replacement of the original genre and idea. Even the godfathers of indie like Modest Mouse are on major labels, but still considered independent to the core. The reach of labels like Matador, Merge, and Sub Pop makes them almost on par with the reach of labels like Geffen, Warner, and Island. This blur between major and independent made it more readily available to find music that was once for dedicated searchers available to the public. It took until 1997 for the criticisms of Pitchfork to begin permeating the opinions of albums, but their focus on indie music, and releases from outré labels like Kranky and Marriage, made them a unique presence. At this time, the term indie still remained rooted in its actual backings and meanings, and it wasn’t until about 1999 that indie began to mean experimental. The Flaming Lips have been signed to Warner for over a decade. They have had singles in the top of the chart, album sales aplenty, and full production and marketing budgets. They’re one of my favorite artists, but they are not indie. No, people say they are – hell, Pitchfork and news site Stereogum seem to insinuate that they are – but given their history of both labels and budgets, they are by all means a normal label rock band. Today with the advent of cheap digital software and microphones to record, virtually every bedroom singer-songwriter is an indie musician. Sometimes terrible indie can become even more awful mainstream. Take subtle plagiarist Owl City, who self-released and produced two releases before getting money to pump out music, funded by the almighty Universal. Sometimes artists drift back and forth. In the ‘60s, Frank Zappa was on a major label, then formed an indie label, moved to a small label, then his own label, then saw posthumous releases on boutique labels, his own previous labels, and a major label – and it’s damn confusing, especially when indie means record labels in this context. It’s this amorphous nature that taints the term and makes it have a slightly bitter taste. Now jump to circa 2005. Pitchfork is the website that defines indie to the status quo – a term now that simply means ‘released by a band who have a sound that is not pop, mainstream rap, or similar.’ Gone are the days of indie meaning bands like Beat Happening; members who just want and love to play music, releasing it because other people enjoy it. With things like cassette recorders, Pro Tools for under £150, Roland CD-R 8-track recorders, and even GarageBand, anybody can make music that is lo-fi enough to be called indie. Why is it that pioneers of home recording and experimentation wallow in obscurity while purveyors of almost thoughtless music advance? Simple: marketing and image. People want some 20 year old punk who can bash out G major chords and looks like one of them, or some friendly faced guy who sings about the states, or some mysterious man who shows his face and plays regular concerts but still doesn’t tell you his real name. The average indie consumer today seems to be some early to mid 20s hipster, dressed to the nines in “that” style, who feels that less accessible music means it’s better music. Indie has become a fashion, a commodity, something that people strive to be, to have credibility in, to join the community of. But it’s a term that has meandered too far from the original meaning of just doing it yourself. While bands like The Vaselines played pure pop, they stayed indie thanks to their own small success that was by word of mouth, and led to them being a hugely influential band – it’s a similar story for Beat Happening, and can be extrapolated to entire labels like K Records, Domino, and Sub Pop. What bothers me about indie is how it’s almost a stigma now, mainly thanks to abhorrent actions of hipsters (mostly their idle rich nature or fascination, the air of pretentious authority, and purely referential knowledge on topics they cannot discuss). It’s a risk to walk into Amoeba Records, grab an armful of CDs, then look and see it’s music like Grizzly Bear, Merzbow, Big Black, and Dirty Projectors. Rather than being able to appreciate these artists for their contributions to music, the aesthetics of these bands and the supposed “cred” that comes with them is the draw, leaving fans of the music and people who actually care about these artists are fans almost shunned thanks to public opinion. In what may be one of the most damning articles (and the only link in this article), Adbusters perfectly summed up the problems – and yet still nothing changed (read that article here: https://www.adbusters.org/magazine/79/hipster.html). Blame it on the ennui of the public, the lack of care from the older generation, and the desire for more real cred that is inherent in the hipster subculture. It’s been a hard road to stay on, but each month indie keeps on rewarding the ardent followers with better music and innovative takes on genres, art, and even packaging. And here I sit, proudly amongst my records and CDs, all owned and listened to regularly because I am a music fan and admitted nerd, and not because vinyl is part of the trend. Looking at the collection of people who taint the term, and realizing the history of indie, a bright future is ahead for those who want to plow through. Come on, guys, let’s grab some shovels and get to work.