Music  |  Features

Is Indie Dead?

January 26, 2010  |  7:30am

Picture 11_300x329.shkl.jpgSEEING THINGS DIFFERENTLY

Those around for punk’s clarion call could’ve never imagined that their festering rage would lead to this. If the movement’s earliest adopters had skipped forward 25 or 30 years to see what they’d indirectly wrought, they might’ve hung themselves by their guitar strings.

Stripped of all its developmental context, what they would see and hear would be jarring: “indie” bands on the radio, “indie” bands on television, “indie” bands on the Billboard charts, “indie” bands if not on the cover then certainly teeming inside mainstream magazines. And that’s only the small slice of the media landscape they’d be able to recognize on their own. We’d have to coach them through the whole Internet thing, pulling up Pitchfork, explaining “pageviews” and blogs, watching their eyes bug as they process the modern world and then narrow back down as they contemplate all these new names: “Spoon? Death Cab for Cutie? Pavement reunion? Who are these guys?”

“They’re indie bands,” we’d tell them, and then we’d give them a little time to let it sink in, maybe play Slanted and Enchanted—ease them in slow before dropping the first bombshell.

And what would that be? Well, for starters, what about how this Death Cab band is actually signed to, um, Atlantic Records: “Yeah, that Atlantic. It’s owned by Warner now. Yeah, that Warner. Anyway, they started out on an indie label—oh no, you wouldn’t know it, it’s called Barsuk, started in ’94. One of those Seattle labels. What’s up with Seattle? Let’s save that for later. Anyway, Death Cab, yeah—signed with Atlantic a couple years ago and everyone got all clammy and nervous about it, thought the band had probably sold out and figured we should resign ourselves to just loving The Photo Album and politely ignore whatever else was gonna happen down the line. Then the album came out and, you know, it wasn’t so bad. What’s that? Oh, yeah. People do still call them indie, yeah.”

Or maybe we’d talk about Spoon. That might be easier to swallow: “So there’s this label, Merge. Spoon’s on it, a bunch of other great bands, too. The Merge folks have been doing their own thing for a while now, and Spoon’s been with them for about five albums. People really dig ’em. But here’s the crazy thing—you know Billboard? Well, they’ve got this chart now just for independent albums, and every record Spoon’s put out has been on it. Except for the one they did with a major, Elektra—yeah, Elektra’s owned by a major now, too, or at least it was before it folded—anyway, that album sold like crap, but the others have all done pretty well. The past two were even up in the Billboard 200 with all the pop stars. I know, right?”

Then later, maybe after a few PBRs: “OK, so let me tell you about this label Sub Pop. You haven’t heard of it yet but you will pretty soon, I guess. These days, they’re kind of this hero label because they’ve been consistently awesome for pretty much the past 20 years, just bam bam bam, one great, super-relevant band after another. The first big one, Nirvana—God, just brace yourself, trust me. I can’t even explain. Anyway, they’ve got this reputation that precedes them. You know how you guys will go out to those gritty little record shops of yours and scrounge up everything you can find from, like, Homestead and Touch and Go and K and all that? We pretty much do that with Sub Pop. We just know it’ll be good. Venerable, ha, yeah. Except here’s the thing—they’re part-owned by Warner. Yeah, 49 percent. Wasn’t always that way, but it happened, you know? They’re still trucking on and all, but some folks won’t call them indie. Kinda revoked the badge.”

And then after a few more beers: “Oh yeah, her? That’s M.I.A. No, not ‘Mia.’ She’s Sri Lankan—Sri Lankan, that’s what I said. Well, I guess it would be electronica—yeah, like that guy Brian Eno, sort of. Most people now wouldn’t say that, though. She’s on Interscope, which is a part of Universal, which, right, is about as far away from indie as you can possibly get. But you know what’s weird? She probably sings more about political issues and gives less of a shit about what people think of her than a whole lot of ‘independent’ rock bands right now. And so yeah, she’s in with the indie folks, too. Where are all the guitars? I don’t know, man. I don’t know.”

And as they chew their bottom lips in deep thought, twiddle the zippers on their leather jackets and cross and uncross their ratty-jeaned legs, we’ll nod slowly and unsurely along with them. Because we’re confused, too.

Early on, “indie” meant what punk meant, which was a willful operation outside the mainstream music industry, a fully do-it-yourself approach to everything about music. It wasn’t about a specific sound at first, though with the limited elements prevalent in early punk bands—guitar, drums, bass, three to five white guys, technical proficiency optional—the music could only get so diverse. In England, the “indie” sound solidified much earlier than in the States; over here, it crystallized around the time punk broke in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The underground bands most visible to the mainstream almost all signed to majors sooner or later, and since they could no longer be defined by their label independence, they were defined by their generally similar sound: some imprecise amalgam of the Pixies’ howling melodics, Sonic Youth’s distortion, Pavement’s shambling swagger and Nirvana’s raw nerve. Meanwhile, back in the real indie dugout, bands formed that had little or nothing to do with the recently genrefied punk acts: riotgrrrls like Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy, lo-fi bedroom maestros like Elliott Smith and Cat Power, junk-drawer gypsies like Neutral Milk Hotel—they were all indie, too, right?

Well sure, why not? Who was indie to turn anyone away?

But then, like a well-meaning pet lover who takes in a few strays, indie suddenly found its house overrun with weird cats and smelling like piss.

“There’s a part of me that can never shake the indignation that [indie] once was about ethics and business practices,” Slim Moon says. “… There’s a grumpy old man about me that’s really upset that that’s not what most people mean when they talk about indie anymore.”

In 2006, CNN attempted to reign in the unwieldy concept with a web feature that proclaimed, “If it’s cool, creative and different, it’s indie.” “That is a statement by a mediocre mass-media outlet with little clue about music,” says writer Michael Azerrad, author of Our Band Could Be Your Life, the definitive history of the transitional period between punk and alternative rock. “Hip-hop artist Ghostface Killah answers that description. Does that mean he’s indie, even though he’s on Def Jam? Classical composer Osvaldo Golijov fits those criteria too. Is he indie as well? Or Lady Gaga or M.I.A.?”

It used to be easy to say what was indie and what was not. “The term ‘indie’ originally referred to labels which had no connection whatsoever to the major labels,” Azerrad says. “That used to be a meaningful distinction, because the underground wanted nothing to do with corporate America. Obviously, things have changed.” What’s changed is this: In addition to direct relationships like Sub Pop’s with Warner, most of the labels now widely considered to be “indie” powerhouses—like Domino, Merge and Matador—are distributed by the Alternative Distribution Alliance, majority-owned by Warner. This means that acts like Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors, St. Vincent, Spoon, Arcade Fire and others noted as the seminal “indie” acts of our time are not actually “indie” at all. (Even Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, the eponymous label founded by the band that became famous in 2005 for having no label, is distributed by the ADA.) Azerrad distinguishes these artists as part of a broader genre of “indie rock,” defined as a “genre which takes as its antecedents the truly indie rock of preceding generations,” he says. “It has nothing to do with the fiscal status of the label on which it is released. It should really be called ‘indie-influenced rock.’” The designation “indie” he reserves for artists making music on labels that remain wholly independent.

These days, most people don’t make that same distinction, perhaps because they don’t share Azerrad’s interest in semantics or his knowledge of history. From its earliest years, the word “indie” has been a badge of honor, something to distinguish between underground authenticity and mainstream pablum. Those once-oppositional forces have become ever more confused, which some might say is all the more reason to reclaim indie’s true meaning. This would be easier if we all agreed with Azerrad’s definition—or any definition—but we don’t.

Given its “by the people, for the people” punk roots, indie’s most relevant definition would seem to come from its fans, its most fervent believers. But take to the Internet—the homeless home of this decade’s most important scene—and you’ll find that any definition set forth has been swiftly and furiously countered. On leading playlist-sharing site Last.fm, the description for the 422-member group “Indie is not a Genre” proclaims, “indie music is not a genre or stlye [sic] of music, but a label affliliation [sic].” “Finally a group that understands,” reads one of the 242 comments left on the message board. “you dumb fucks,” another responds. “indie is now a genre, there is an ‘indie’ sound which you can apply to certain bands. it does not mean independent.” (Of course, the commenter declines to specify what that sound might be.) “Yeah, it’s like ... um ... everything you don’t know what is it, it’s indie,” another advises.

So much for that.

Even the ostensibly indie music industry is divided. Perhaps the most stunning example of this came late last year, when former Sleater-Kinney guitarist/vocalist Carrie Brownstein asked dozens of industry types, from label owners to musicians to publicists, “What does ‘indie’ mean to you?” She published the results on her NPR Music blog, Monitor Mix, and the lack of consensus was astounding. The definitions invoked everything from sound to label affiliations to level of personal hygiene.

“It means music not known by or supported by the greater populous [sic], residing in its’ [sic] own little niche or community, being music for music’s sake,” wrote Portland music scene stalwart Rachel Blumberg. “That is what it has always meant to me. And I think that still exists.” But what, exactly, is “music for music’s sake?” Is it just songs played with friends on a back porch, or does it change when you sign to even a tiny indie label, like Portland’s own Hush or Jealous Butcher? And if music is made in that kind of environment, but then somehow—like Neutral Milk Hotel or Arcade Fire—happens to catch on with the greater populace, do we revoke its indieness? (A friend of mine actually does this, re-labeling artists tagged as “indie” in her iTunes library if they sign to a major label or “get bigger,” upgrading them to “alternative.”)

“It means a band who cultivated a fan base for at least one album before they had any kind of money or marketing behind them,” wrote Tristan Aaron, media director of The Women’s Media Center. So do we need to vet all bands claiming to be “indie,” to ensure their debuts were wholly unmarketed and recorded in essential poverty? Is there someone in charge of that, or do we just do it ourselves? And again, if the band signs to a major after that first album, is the “indie” distinction dropped?

Carly Starr, head of international marketing at Sub Pop, replied more precisely. What does indie mean? “Nothing,” she said.

That’s more like it.

“For myself, it is kind of split between two different definitions,” says Brownstein, who notes that she “wasn’t surprised” by the inconclusiveness of her informal survey. “One is a shortcut for explaining to someone what music sounds like. I think most music fans would acknowledge that’s a vague definition, but it’s a quick way to let someone know—like if someone asks what something sounds like, you can go, ‘Oh, they’re sort of indie-sounding.’ For most people that have been listening to music for a while, that’s going to conjure up something. And then I think that I would also revert to more literal definition as well, to mean someone that’s independently minded, or following a set of rules or a philosophy that separates them from corporate music culture.”

Sleater-Kinney released its two earliest albums on Chainsaw Records and four more on Kill Rock Stars—both wholly unaffiliated with major labels, then and now. The band’s final record, The Woods, was released by Sub Pop in 2005, but Brownstein considers it an indie release. “I think that the artistic and business decisions of the Matadors and the Sub Pops speak for themselves,” she says. “I think of Sub Pop and Matador as indie labels, but I’m sure some people would maybe not.”

Here’s an update on the elephant parable: So we’ve got these blind men, right? And then we’ve got the elephant—which is, as established, a mutant elephant, bigger than any elephant has ever been before, with multiple screaming heads and all that. And we’re pretty sure this thing is dead. And these poor blind men are being asked to grab and grope and pat it all over. They’re bound to fail, of course. They’re bound to give him all sorts of ridiculous descriptions. But what they don’t know is that even if they could see the whole of this rotten pachyderm, they still wouldn’t know what it was.

Pretty much all anyone agrees on, beside the fact that indie does exist in some form, is the issue of authenticity. Whatever indie is, whatever this weird elephant is, we know one thing: It’s gotta be real. Or as the Sex Pistols famously sneered back in ’77, they’ve gotta mean it, man.

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