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Indie. Such a formless word these days. In days of yore, it described not a sound, but an attitude concerning music. “Major labels have what they want you to hear, but we don’t want to play that – we’re going to make music that we want to make,” said bands like Sonic Youth, Pavement, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Now, the word “indie” has become a synonym for the most controversial buzzword of 21st century pop-culture: “hipster.” It brings to mind a hegemonic sound, rather than the unity-in-disparity of yesteryear. Today, indie tends to mean bands composed of frail young white men with faux-secondhand designer clothes ripping off Sylvia Plath and William S. Burroughs, playing either a standard rehashing of acoustic power-folk backed by “baroque” woodwind and the token first chair cello of your community college orchestra, or the arpeggiating sketches of a first-time Casio keyboard owner who bought one Kraftwerk album after their cool older brother’s friend recommended it to them. Now, anyone who’s willing to whistle the chorus melody of their song out into mainstream radio while licensing their music to the likes of Hollister and Apple can have their fifteen minutes of fame on Pitchfork and MTV2. They may even be so lucky as to date quirky movie stars and have songs written about them (ahem, Ben Gibbard, James Righton, Conor Oberst, etc.). The harsh truth is, what you know as “indie” has been co-opted no less perversely than grunge, new wave, and emo (yes, there was a time when emo was a respectable genre of music) before it, it’s at the heart of why you’re complaining that “no good music was made after [insert year], Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber are the devil!” And guess what – you’re to blame.
But let’s take a step back, because it might be worth it to educate ourselves on the history of indie. There have been indie labels since popular music began (major labels, you see, did not coagulate into what they are today overnight; Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, and James Brown were all indie musicians in their day), but indie as it’s known now really has its origin in the punk rock movement of the late 1970s. While punk’s earliest vanguards like The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash were signed to major labels, they touted a DIY ethos that inspired a wave of music lovers after them. Soon, labels started by independent record stores like Rough Trade in London, fanzines like Touch and Go in Chicago, and even the bands themselves like SST and Dischord were popping up in droves, inspired by the idea that anyone can be an artist, regardless of skill, financial means, and especially association with mainstream consumer culture.
The artists placed a premium on actually interacting with fans and building relationships, both on principle and necessity. While major labels in the 1980s made money on album sales, actually losing money on tours in support of the album, the business model of the indie label was just the opposite. Album sales were too low to justify that kind of approach, so relentless touring is what allowed indie bands to make what meager living they did, and for indie labels to stay afloat. The close relationship between band and fan is part of what sparks the authenticity debate today. With indie bands, there’s a kind of unspoken agreement that if the fan shells out money to buy records, t-shirts, and concert tickets, and in some cases with rising stars, food and a place to stay while out on tour when they can’t afford basic necessities, the band will be totally upfront, down-to-Earth, and retain artistic integrity over its music. When the band transcends this in order to make money by having their now-bland music in an ad for Coca-Cola, there is thought to be a betrayal of personal trust. “You were never interested in the fans at all, it was just some clever marketing ploy!” says the music fan. On the other hand, bands do have to eat, and it’s extremely difficult to maintain a day job when one is forced to accommodate a regular touring schedule. Thus, if a band wants to continue to make music, and make a living at it, therefore theoretically providing for more creative energy being put into making good music, at some point indie bands tend to transcend the limitations of the indie label, with the exception of outliers like Fugazi. Indie heroes like The Replacements, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, Butthole Surfers, and virtually all the grunge bands eventually signed to a major label. Some bands achieved commercial success and retained critical adoration (Sonic Youth), others sold out their sound in favor of more lucrative sales (The Replacements), while other attempts simply flopped, but the point is this: retaining “indie” status and respect, while not technically being signed to an indie label, and living above the poverty line are, historically, not mutually exclusive, which we will touch on later.
Indie labels themselves have a delicate balance they have to strike between independence from the influence of corporate monoliths, and financial stability. Indie labels start based on the basic principle talked about earlier, that anyone with a passion for music and a distaste for its commercial bastardization should have the ability to find an alternate route. Thus, they not only have to make money – because they are indeed a business – they have to maintain authenticity just like their artists, which seem to be two aims constantly at odds. Why do some labels succeed and make a profit without accepting money from major labels and their distributors like Merge Records, while others either have to lose their status as a truly indie label like Sub Pop and Vagrant did, or wither away like SST? One problem that indie labels often encounter is associating themselves too closely with scenes, essentially musical fads that don’t last forever. Grunge was already a passing trend when Nirvana left Sub Pop, and soon the label found itself struggling to remain relevant. When Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ revitalized the ailing scene and catapulted it into the mainstream, Sub Pop found its artists leaving the label in order to capitalize on new prospects of success. Sub Pop, in order to stay afloat, entered into a joint venture with Warner Bros. Records, thereby ending its status as an entirely independent label, going on to have success in the last decade with the likes of Fleet Foxes. SST suffered a similar fate, putting all its eggs in one basket with Black Flag, the band that label owner and founder Greg Ginn played in, as well as hardcore punk in general. A combination of forcing all its other bands to play second fiddle to Black Flag and sidelining them enough to force them to leave the label, Black Flag itself eventually breaking up, and lacking any new bands interested in signing with them, SST, while not going bankrupt, faded into obscurity, only ever releasing albums by Greg Ginn’s side projects to this day. On the other hand, Merge Records, founded by Superchunk members Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, has only grown more successful with time, weathering the eventually passing of the 90s lo-fi craze to see one of their bands, Arcade Fire, top the Billboard album charts. The key to their success includes treating bands fairly, but also having realistic expectations about album sales, and perhaps most importantly, building up their brand. Unlike Sub Pop, who attached themselves to bands in order to ride on the grunge wave, bands attach themselves to Merge, because Merge has a solid reputation of putting out quality releases. What makes them truly independent, though, is that they only sign bands they like. They don’t throw money at bands in the hopes that that will be enough to make them successful, they don’t impose any creative or financial restrictions on their bands, and they don’t sign bands they don’t like just because they may be a financial safe bet. This is why Merge is truly an independent label.
But the musical climate that Merge, Sub Pop, and SST came about in is quite different from the one we have today. Rather than having bands slaving away for years trying to build a following in order to achieve only modest recognition, without any hope of getting mainstream success, let alone wanting it much at all, there are bands like MGMT that can write a bubblegum hit on their first LP and Panic! At The Disco (technically on an indie label at the time) getting signed without even playing a gig. What is the cause of this drastic difference in indie viability? In short; Nirvana. While a number of complex factors played a part in actually getting them to the point that they were when they broke, with bands like REM creating a touring circuit in which to play and allowing the band to create a following, or Sonic Youth providing a model by which one conducts business, it was Nirvana who blew the doors down for underground music by building on the trailblazing success of its predecessors. The story has been done to death so I won’t go into more detail here about it, but suffice to say that before Nirvana, indie bands couldn’t really make it on their own, and the ones that did sign to a major label either completely alienated their fanbase and broke up, or, at best, sold maybe 250,000 copies, not the 16 million that ‘Nevermind’ eventually achieved. After the grunge explosion, major labels sought to capitalize on this new form of youth culture, snatching up any unsigned, underground, or indie band they thought might crack the top 40. And while it may have made it hard for bands like Pavement and Fugazi, who refused to compromise their sound, to be accepted on their own, for those willing to play along, it was now possible to graduate from the theater to the stadium regardless of underground roots. Green Day and the punk revival also played a part, commercializing anti-authority postures and allowing any niche music genre, no matter how abrasive, to be seen as a viable commercial endeavor by major labels. Thus, the stratification of rock music began, with third-wave ska, garage rock revival, post-punk revival, alt-country, folk, dance-punk, screamo, blues rock, pop punk, and everything else you could think of getting their moments in the sun over the last 15 years.
That brings us right up to today, where we have things like Coachella, allowing yuppies to forget their student loans and day jobs for the weekend while they live it up listening to their favorite bands that they totally heard before they got famous. Things like Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan and Stereogum, which are all too happy to tell you which band is authentic and innovative, and which bands are simply not cool enough to make it onto your iPod. Things like Urban Outfitters, which sells Minor Threat t-shirts for $30 apiece. Things like Starbucks compilations which you can play in your Prius as you drive home from the co-op. You get the picture. Indie is now as commercial as hip hop, and the best part about it is, it’s just so subtle. Unlike Nirvana and the rise of the technically distinct “alternative rock” movement (if you think there isn’t a real difference between alternative and indie for the sake of simple classification, just ask yourself whether or not there was a time that indie was ever an appropriate label for the Red Hot Chili Peppers), there wasn’t a single moment where indie “broke.” It just kind of seeped into collective consciousness as people grew cynical towards nu-metal at the turn of the century and wanted to be connected to something that, on the surface, had a deeper level of meaning to it. It’s just taken for granted that indie is a label that you can apply to yourself to prove your authenticity and adopt the stereotypical mannerisms and, most importantly, purchasing habits of your standard indie rocker. Teens got emo, adults got indie, and everyone was content to shop till they dropped for their cultural identity, manufactured or not. Without a definitive before and after point, it wasn’t anyone’s place to say who was and who was not “real indie.”
And what’s wrong with this? Why does it even matter that indie has been codified and commodified to oblivion? Why does it sound like I’m writing with such spite in the “things like” section of the last paragraph? Well, for one, it’s all just so boring. The bands aren’t original, but Deap Vally is being touted as the “next big thing” before they even drop an album, and despite there being a band that sounds exactly like them almost every year preceding them back to its point of originality, the White Stripes. Purity Ring is being trumpeted as the biggest thing since chillwave, but synthpop done by greasy looking art school dropouts has been done to death over the course of the last decade to the point where nothing this band could do would save it. The first time the hype machine got a hold of bands like these, it was new, exciting, and refreshing. The second time around, it seemed like media outlets had it a bit off, but we were still excited anyway because it seemed like the next Nirvana or the next Radiohead or the next Daft Punk was just around the corner. By the third, fourth, fifth, or whatever cycle of indie hype we’re currently on in 2013, it’s just so hard for anyone to really care anymore. NME seems to have predictions every few months about the newest underground band that’s going to storm the charts and incite musical-cultural revolution, but not once have the predictions come true. All the bands rise and fall in the span of two years, and you just get so cynical and sick of it, it’s tempting to dismiss indie entirely as meaningless corporate drivel. At this point, what differentiates these bands from the lists that Buzzfeed posts about inane subjects like “35 Things ONLY People From Hawaii Will Understand!” It’s shoveling unoriginal nonsense at you, devoid of substance, in order to drive traffic to the site, or, in this case, album sales and concert tickets and t-shirts.
Another issue I take with the indie status quo (other than the enraging fact that there is an indie status quo at all) is that hiding behind an aura of underground authenticity while signing with major labels and being featured in hipster hits like Juno or whatever movie Michael Cera is bumbling his way through right now is a bit of a slap in the face to those who actually invest themselves in underground culture. It’s like saying, “hey, see this thing that’s meaningful to you? It never had any meaning at all. This band you like is no different than Mickey Mouse or the Marlboro Man – it’s a meme, a cultural icon by which we can sell things to invented demographics and make a profit.” It’s not like people naively and wantonly attach meaning to random things just because it’s outside of the mainstream, either. It’s because, contrary to what The OC would have had you believe, there are people who are genuinely dissatisfied with mainstream consumer culture. There are people who see things that are wrong with the way things operate in our business-as-usual society. They aren’t one of the popular kids, not because they can’t be, but because they don’t want to be. They are not corrupted so easily. And in the context of indie music, they think that you don’t need to be a huge name superstar like Michael Jackson to live out your dream as a music artist, that music made with sincerity and passion is just as valid whether it’s being played to 10, 100, or 100,000 people a night. While the mainstream wants to shut them out because they don’t fit the mold, because they could never make it past the audition round of American Idol, because they don’t want to headline Bonnaroo, because they don’t want to have their lead singer be part of a public meltdown involving Britney Spears and several members of the paparazzi and have their personal lives lampooned and made a spectacle of, the underground welcomes them for this attitude. But when it turns out that the band you staked this belief on was just acting on the whims of a representative of the mainstream that both rejects you for being different and that you reject for being corrupt, it is a betrayal of deeply held beliefs. When Elizabeth Grant changes her name to Lana Del Rey, wears flowers crowns, artificially constructs an image of indie authenticity but in reality being born to a very wealthy family, and after having her new image constructed for her, paying to have a pop album she released prior removed from shelves so that there was no trace of a pre-pre-fab Lana Del Rey – when all that happens, all bets are off. That is why indie in its current state is such a cultural abomination.
But of course, someone has to be buying these albums, right? It’s not like record companies just will these bands into popularity. It’s the culturally oblivious who couldn’t care less about real authenticity, they only care about capital-A Authenticity, the kind you can buy at American Apparel or on iTunes. Does any of this anger, upset, or enrage you? Well, what are you doing about it? Are you complaining about it on YouTube, bemoaning that “they just don’t make them like they used to!” Are you torrenting the latest EP from the local new bands rather than buying them? Are you casually just going to shows because it’s nothing more than a social function? Then let me enlighten you: you are the reason the music scene sucks. The amount you invest yourself in emerging artists is directly proportional to their success. Do you think that new band playing downtown makes better music than anything they play on the radio, and could actually have a chance of making it? Then do them, yourself, and the whole music-consuming culture a favor, and get involved! Go to shows, make connections with the bands, support them by buying their music and maybe a t-shirt, unless the band is like Fugazi and feels like t-shirts are an obnoxious way of branding yourself and play a part in corrupting music. Maybe even start a band of your own if you’re really that dissatisfied. Don’t worry, in the underground community, willingness to play is more important than ability to play, so literally anyone can jump right in and do it if they have the drive. Or if that’s not your thing, start a zine, a blog, a label, do something to take an active role in supporting good new underground music. You’re doing nobody any favors by talking shit about modern music while staring at your ass and wondering why there aren’t any good new bands to change that.
So, to conclude, what does the future have in store for indie? Well, on the one hand, the state of “indie” as a cohesive cultural identity is dismal. On the other hand, prospects are good for bands who are actually independent. With options like home recording software to get the same quality you would get at a studio, Kickstarter to fund things like album pressings, tours, and the like, the rise of the YouTube cover song trend assuring internet popularity before actually writing your own song, allowing you to work with a bona fide hit in order to learn the craft of songwriting and composition, not mention YouTube, Last.fm, and Spotify all but destroying the relevance of commercial radio and MTV, and with all the social media applications of building fan bases like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. – it’s easier than ever for a band to get their music heard, get exposed, and be successful as truly independent musicians. At this point, labels are only relevant for their connections. Bands don’t need to be hired by record labels so much as record labels need to be hired by bands. Selling out is no longer necessary, all one needs to do is buy in.
Bubble Gum Indie: http://www.hipsterrunoff.com/2011/08/bubble-gum-indie.html
How Indie Finally OFFICIALLY Died: The Broken Indie Machine: http://www.hipsterrunoff.com/node/8599
Deconstructing: The OC and Indie Rock Gentrification: http://www.stereogum.com/1426101/deconstructing-the-o-c-and-indie-rock-gentrification/top-stories/lead-story/
Stuff White People Like #41 Indie Music: http://stuffwhitepeoplelike.com/2008/01/30/40-indie-music/
Deconstructing: Liz Phair and Indie Rock Poptimism: http://www.stereogum.com/1390261/deconstructing-liz-phair-and-indie-rock-poptimism/top-stories/
The state of Merge records, after a Grammy win and a mini label festival: http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-state-of-merge-records-after-a-grammy-win-and-a-mini-label-festival/Content?oid=2173093
Is Miku Hatsune A More Authentic Pop Star Than Lana Del Rey?: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3c8STXjQ20
Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes From The American Indie Underground 1981 – 1991 by Michael Azerrad
Get In The Van: On The Road With Black Flag by Henry Rollins