Is Indie Dead?
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SINK THIS POSEUR'S SOUL
So what do we do now that the one common factor in anyone’s definition of “indie,” the one thing about indie we thought we could ever rely on—its authenticity, its unsullied artistry—has been indicted?
Some have suggested that we throw out “indie” and come up with some new, less-loaded, more accurate term to describe the strange landscape that has grown up around us. “Post-indie” almost does the job, signifying, at least, that we’re moving past something—though we’re still not sure what that something might be. Perhaps a campaign could be launched to educate fans on the distinction, a la Azerrad, between “indie” and “indie rock”—though it’ll be tough to strip indie cred from labels and artists who believe they’ve truly earned it, and in many ways have. In 2008, Idolator blogger (and Paste contributor) Michaelangelo Matos suggested we trade “indie” for our old friend “alternative,” writing, “So embrace your real heritage, kids. After all, if the most clueless of the current crop of downloaders-without-portfolio are any indication, the next group (which will likely have heard even more and have even less of a context to discuss it in) really won’t know the difference anyway, for all the semantical gatekeeping in the world.”
This points to an issue even larger than word choice—indie’s increasing historylessness. As more fans are folded into the ranks every day, as more music is made and as time lumbers ever onward, indie’s present becomes all the more unwieldy and its past all the more distant and obscure. “It is marketed as lifestyle, but the lifestyle isn’t that different than [that of] the frat boy I wanted to avoid at that age,” Stosuy says, recalling his earliest interest in indie. “It’s listening to the music but not really caring about anything outside the music. It’s not in the context of a scene. It’s more about knowing the group and getting the leak before everyone else and arguing about who’s best.”
Music may be increasingly democratized, but a 30-year-old stay-at-home dad or a 57-year-old big city lawyer or a 43-year-old college professor are all still going to approach music and its context differently than a dyed-in-the-wool ’70s punk fan, or an Animal Collective-obsessed bloghead of the ’00s. And then of course we have the ever-booming population of American teenagers, which each year foists upon us a new crop of would-be rebels on our hands. These kids are no different from the kids of the ’80s and ’90s in that they want something new and different and dangerous, not necessarily because the TV told them they want it, but because of the insatiable teenage need to carefully, specifically delineate a personality in a big, scary world—to stand out from one crowd but still fit in within some smaller world defined by clothes and style and mood.
These kids—and these adults—may or may not know what punk is or once was. They may think SST is a vaccination or a test you take to get into college. They could learn, of course, through the unofficial punk civics course so many have taken before—scouring record stores, stuffing ears full of noise or, hell, these days, just reading Wikipedia. But if indie’s going to whine about a lack of context, it should remember this: For as much as the late ’70s and ’80s are seen as the Garden of Eden for independent music, where it was first carefully rendered and ultimately defiled, punk was hardly the first to fight that particular incarnation of The Man.
When labels like Homestead and Touch and Go and SST were formed, they offered outlets for creative support and funding and provided direct alternatives to big labels like Capitol and Reprise, connecting a strange circle. Capitol Records itself had been co-founded by singer/composer Johnny Mercer in 1942 as an alternative to the majors—gramophone-company-subsidiaries (EMI and Decca) established to sell products to be played on their products or music-publishing arms of major film studios (Warner and Universal) founded to keep a hand in the pocket of actors-turned-recording stars. After EMI began its slow takeover of Capitol in the ’50s, the label’s mega-star Frank Sinatra left for Verve, which had been briefly independent before being subsumed by MGM, and in 1960 Ol’ Blue Eyes broke off on his own to form Reprise, which operated independently for a few years before being bought by Warner. And on and on: Smaller independent labels like Sun, Stax and Sire either folded or were eventually subsumed by a major, setting a precedent for our modern indies.
Take the really longview and you’ll recall that Mozart established himself as not only one of Western civilization’s first teen idols but also one of its first independent-music powerhouses, working outside the patronage of the Austrian courts and premiering some of his most important works at a suburban theater back in the hale 1780s—not in the courtesans’ Italian but in German, the peoples’ language. The young Amadeus knew what so many others would also realize in time: Sometimes, to do something right, you’ve gotta do it yourself.
In 1977, Shaun Cassidy topped the Billboard charts with “That’s Rock ’n’ Roll,” a song in which he sang about screaming his heart out and buying new guitars, a song that involved zero screaming and more sax than axe. It was a world where rock ’n’ roll had become little more than thinly veiled tokenism, less an idea and more a word used to sell records by a child star (whose older half-brother had, a few years earlier, starred in the similarly-unintended music-industry meta-parody The Partridge Family). It was in this world that punk began to break through, declaring rock dead and carving its own space for what was to come. This thing we call “indie” now finds itself at a frighteningly similar juncture.
To borrow another sentiment from Nietzsche, is this not modern music’s own eternal recurrence? In The Gay Science, from which his “God is dead” notion also comes, Nietzsche writes, “What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence—even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine.’”
Indie is dead. What’s next?
Correction: This essay originally stated that Grizzly Bear was signed to Domino Records, which is distributed by the Alternative Distribution Alliance. They are actually signed to Warp Records, distributed by Redeye Distribution. We've made the correction and regret the error.