August 27, 2010

rant of the day: indie music

Is it fair to say that, in this age of internet domination, viral marketing, and commercial apathy, the term/category/genre/qualifier known as "indie" has entirely lost its cache?

Perhaps this is because the "independent" tag no longer defines the sounds of new hipsterdom; or, perhaps the problem is that the "indie" lable has become synonomous with hipster culture. Perhaps the term is vacuous because most independent artists appear to have little or no problem hawking a song to whatever company is savvy enough to tap into counter-culture, not that I'm accusing them of selling out. I think we're well beyond that. Beginning in the late 70s and 80s as a boldly noncommercial take on popular music, often released on small DIY labels, "indie" has come to represent a variety of things; but more often than not, it refers to guitar/synth pop by image-conscious scenesters.

The ever-insightful British pop historian Simon Reynolds offers some background:

Originally we talked of 'independent' music, meaning music on independent labels, and at that time there was still a shared (if loose) framework of ideology and sonics that traced back to punk . . . . It was an oppositional term: independent music opposed itself to the mainstream rock and pop released on major labels. The idea was that on independent labels you would find more experimental or adventurous music, people exploring esoteric and non-commercial directions, making sounds too abrasive or weird to be on daytime radio. The lyrical content would be radical or challenging, either exploring the dark side of human condition, or being political in various ways, or just very sophisticated, ironic, and so on.

By about 1984/1985, though, 'indie' meant a style of song-oriented, guitar-based music whose opposition to the mainstream took the form of no longer being contemporary – spurning synthesisers and drum machines and sequencers, avoiding the R&B and dance music influences that dominated the pop charts, and instead looking back to rock's archives, principally the 1960s. 'Indie' meant jangly guitar groups. By 1986 'indie' pretty much equated with a refusal of the pop present. Because it now meant a style of music, not a means of production and distribution, it could be uncoupled from the independent label system, and that is what gradually happened. (The Independent, 20 July 2008)
The trend from an ethos to a style seems familiar, though the role and evolution of popular media cannot be underestimated; the rise of indie music in the 00s is not unlike the mainstream co-optation of "alternative" music from the late 80s through the early 90s, but now more than ever it's become apparent that cultural markers like musical taste and critical status depend upon new technology and social networking. In fact, rarely can you get one without the other.

When was the last time you read a review that made a point of a band's "indie" status? Was it right next to a feature on the Black Eyed Peas? Did you find it in Spin or Rolling Stone? (Does anyone read paper magazines anymore, let alone look to these grizzly monoliths for new bands?) Does the ever-growing Pitchfork camp even bother calling something "indie"? Speaking of the Peas, in a recent interview with the Associated Press Fergie explained that her group's new album would take inspiration from various genres and styles, such as "indie." If this isn't proof that the indie ethos is dead, I don't know what is. And what, you ask, was I doing reading an interview with the Black Eyed Peas? I guess I was bored with the rest of the newspaper.

"Indie music" used to suggest a simple dichotomy between fringe recording/production and mainstream polish, the unheard and the oversaturated. As most bands know there is no pure space independent music, nor is there any sense, for critics, in holding the music of one side over and against the other. To name a recent example, the new Gorillaz record deserves just as much (if not more) attention as the new Broken Social Scene record. And it just so happens that Gorillaz's label, Virgin, has handled distribution for some of the "Broken Social Scene presents . . ." albums, so Art & Crafts, like a lot of other big independent labels, have more or less closed the gap on the majors. "Indie music" has become the laziest of catch-all descriptors; it's become redundant, and it's time we moved on.

There will always be lesser-known, more/less innovative artists producing great music that doesn't get heard. For the average middle-class musician it's now easier than ever to offer one's music to the public. Sifting through all the inevitable trash is the job of the record label. Clearly, the process isn't this simple and most of labels haven't been doing a great job. But the job isn't theirs alone.

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