Okay, sure, you like independent music. Fine. But what exactly does that mean? When you hear talk of independent music, what bands come to mind? Seriously, think about it. I've debated the term "indie" with friends, over-analyzed it with strangers, and completely dismantled it in heated arguments with just about anybody. Everyone I talk to has a different perception of what exactly indie music truly is. I remember having this conversation with a friend in the late 90â€™s and thinking that we'd nailed it down. Unfortunately, 10-ish years later, here I find myself reading Facebook walls and wondering what people really mean when they say they like "independent music." Typically, the conversation rolls around to a few different locations but, generally, arguments about "what is indie" can be reduced to two basic tenets: 1) The label the band is on. 2) The style of music, or sound, that the band makes. I argue that neither of these make sense anymore, and that the term "indie," as commonly used now, should be retired. Should be considered dead. Why? Well, this is why...
I guess the easy answer to what is indie is also the most obvious: indie music is music created from an artist who is signed to a an independent label, or a label unassociated with a major production house. That seems pretty straight forward, right? Well it only sorta makes sense. In the next argument I talk about where indie came from, but before we get there, know this: two of the bands that fathered modern indie rock are Modest Mouse (MM) and Built to Spill (BtS). Unarguably, these two bands are inseparable from the foundation of modern indie rock. "So," you say, "what about it?" Well, when Modest Mouse started up, they banged around on a few little labels like K Records and Up Records. While on Up, MM released the influential album Lonesome Crowded West. For those of you that don't know, Lonesome Crowded West is to indie rock what Nevermind is to grunge. It was an album that completely changed the music landscape of its day and is still influencing bands today. MM is a band that paid their dues, that recorded on small labels, and that created the definitive album of it's music genre. They were legitimately, relative to the recording industry at large, independent. So, why am I telling you this? Although once on Up, Modest Mouse currently resides at Epic Records (owned and operated by Sony BMG). Going on the assumption that independent label = independent band, Modest Mouse is not an indie band. That's it. That's the bottom line, and it makes absolutely no sense. You can't say all indie rock is on small labels any more than you can say all rap is on major labels. Genre and label should not be mutually exclusive of each other. After helping invent a genre and style of music like MM did, can you really lose that style just because you change labels?
Built to Spill has a similar story to Modest Mouse. They kicked around on small labels for a few EPs & albums (including a stint with Up Records), but since Perfect from Now On (really since a little before that, circa 1995) they've been on Warner Bros. Records. This is a band that has never enjoyed an exorbitant amount of airplay on radios. They are a band that tours for fans religiously, and that play 20-minute jam sessions as encores. Doug Martsch is one of the most legit play-cuz-he-loves-it musicians in the business, and his hometown (Boise) loves him for it. So, because they're on Warner does that mean the music somehow changed? Is it no longer indie rock? After leaving Up they continued to put out absolutely mind blowing music (most BtS fans would argue that Perfect from Now On is one of the greatest albums in BtS's catalogue) yet because they play on Warner they are a new genre? Jay-Z started his own label (you can't get more independent than that) and became one of the highest selling artists of all time. Despite his independent label, no one considers Jay-Z an indie artist. Still, they continue to bill Built to Spill and Modest Mouse as such (rightfully so). Does defining either as independent based on label actually make any sense? Not in my mind. The label argument is out. Independent music cannot be classified by label size.
Indie as a Sound Argument
If indie isnâ€™t dictated by the label size youâ€™re on then maybe itâ€™s the type of music you play, or the sound your band creates. Indie has classically been paired with rock. When you hear people say they like indie they usually say indie rock. But that no longer begins to describe what people really mean when they say "indie." The funny thing is that indie rock was a sound... once. In the early 90's the American music industry had a fairly formulaic approach to creating music. (Sweeping generalization alert!) It was sterile and much of the pop/rock music had become pretty uniform and utilitarian. The American music industry had become the machine and it was cranking out music that it knew it could sell. Well if the music scene was the machine, then grunge was the rage against it. Grunge was so far off the beaten music path that when it took hold it quickly began to foster new sounds. One of those sounds that has less angst, more retrospection, and a little stronger musicianship is what now is referred to as the Northwest sound. The Northwest sound included bands and artists like Heatmiser, Built to Spill, Sam Coomes (and his many projects), Sleater Kinney, and Modest Mouse (acts that most educated music lovers now refer to as indie rock). These bands had a common thread running through them, and you can still go back and listen to those old albums & hear the similarities in sound. There was a unity of musicianship that existed with the artists at the time, and it was the Northwest sound. Because it was new and relatively different than other forms of music out there at the time, the other common thread that these bands shared was the lack of large label backing. These were artists that played a new type of music on independent labels. "Indie" became the buzzword that encapsulated the Northwest sound. Because of the association between independent labels and the Northwest sound, when you said "I like indie rock," people knew specifically who you were talking about. Indie rock had become a genre. Soon, however, that all changed.
Through the mid to late 90's, grunge hammered on, but so did the indie rock scene. Although not immensely popular in the mainstream, American indie rock and the Northwest sound began to gain popularity amongst college students. Small bands on small labels began playing music that had elements of the northwest sound at small venues in college towns across America, and it spread. Heatmiser broke up and Elliott Smith began playing his own music. Sam Coomes kept jamming on his keyboards for Quasi, but he also started playing with Bright Eyes and varying other bands. New acts emerged as semi-members of the genre, but quickly progressed beyond the scope of original Northwest sound. Tortoise, Belle & Sebastian, Bikini Kill, Blonde Redhead, The Sea and Cake, The Shins, Pinback, and others began playing forms of indie rock, but it was new forms that had developed past pure Northwest indie. Indie rock had splintered into sub-divided groupings. Folk rock, new rave, lo fi, indie pop, post-rock, math rock, slowcore, post-punk and others emerged as viable forms of music. It began to seem that although all of these forms of music crammed themselves under the indie umbrella, "indie" no longer fit under their individual categorizations. The Northwest sound that had defined indie rock was now sub-genre'd to the point that it was impossible to call a band like Wilco anything but alt-country, or June of 44 anything but math rock. Over time, indie rock was diluted to the point that people no longer cared about the Northwest sound as a specific style. Indie rock instead lost much of its original American heritage and became a way for hipster kids to describe the type of music that mainstream America wasn't listening to. It has almost become shorthand for, "I don't listen to what's on the radio."
So, what is "indie?" Well, in its everyday Facebook usage it has become cotton candy. It's a freakin' twinkie. Its a useless word that has been hijacked and butchered by people on their way to being totally awesome. We all somehow grabbed on to the term for a while, and overused it mercilessly while it lost virtually all meaning (like when a salesman says your name, over and over and over). In current American usage, you say "I like indie rock," and I hear "I listen to stuff you've probably never heard of." I don't care how small the label is or how non-mainstream the band is, unless they sound like the bands from the pacific northwest circa 1995, I propose that we stop calling it indie. It's become a dumb and incorrect (and, admittedly, innocent) way to characterize music, and it seems particularly sad that we now use "indie" as a nothing word when we should be using it to immortalize an amazing movement like the Northwest sound. I say we all stop calling "anything I want other people to think is cool" indie and start referring to the sub-genre of whatever a particular band is actually a part of. And if you don't know the genre, then get educated. Call indie rock indie rock, but the continued use of "independent" as a catchall phrase will end up doing the same thing to indie that certain hipsters did to emo ... but that's another topic for another time.