What is Indie? And is it dead?

I'd rather be dead than cool.Paste magazine asks the musical question, Is Indie Dead? It’s well worth reading, although the first page—with all its Nietzsche references and comparing “indie” to “God”—is a bit of a struggle…especially with our collective “tl;dr” attitude. But there are lots of insightful comments from folks like Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon, Sleater-Kinney‘s Carrie Brownstein, Sebadoh‘s Lou Barlow, and the actual guy who put Nick Drake‘s “Pink Moon” in that 2000 VW commercial.

Michael Azzerad, author of Our Band Could Be Your Life, breaks it down:

“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.

That’s hardcore. Maybe too hardcore. I agree with Brownstein who thinks that “the artistic and business decisions of the Matadors and the Sub Pops speak for themselves.” I’d throw Merge into there too, regardless who distributes their records. At least as long as they’re not more than 49% owned by a major label…right?

Tomato, tomahto. Indie, schmindie. Does it even matter? As long as the music is good, does anybody even care? Short anwer: yes.

You know who cares, I bet? Steve Albini. I’d love to hear his thoughts on this. I still love this quote from 2007 when the This Is Next compilation was announced:

The thing that’s good about underground culture is that it isn’t being thrust at everyone. It is discovered in due time by people who are receptive to it. We each find those things we are fond of because they suit us specifically, not because we acquiesce to group thinking.

Anyone suggesting that a Now That’s What I Call Indie! sampler or the promotional trainwreck that is the pitchfork festival are good for this culture is actually helping to defeat it.

My question is this: is it even possible for an underground culture to exist anymore? Not if its members use the internet in any way. Maybe the next generation of teenagers will resort to Nu Ludditism in order to rebel. Keep an eye on Twitter’s trending topics to see if it catches on…

6 thoughts on “What is Indie? And is it dead?”

  1. Rather than contemplating whether to defining indie via semantics vs sensibility, or however else, there is, in my opinion, a bigger problem which the article clearly addresses:

    The democratization of technology and ever-increasing Internet access have…also removed a crucial filtering element—all those local fans or fellow artists or booking agents or studio folks an artist would have had to impress before getting any kind of break.

    [F]or every act like TV on the Radio that was ready for its national debut thanks to the galvanizing challenges of making it in its hometown, there’s a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah that’s quite clearly, and rather painfully, hashing out its musical identity in public.

  2. I remember an acquaintance once telling me that she was really into “‘alternative music’- you know, Rob Thomas, Lifehouse, Matchbox 20.”

    My response, “Alternative to what?”

  3. Re: The Nu Ludditism

    You might or might not be aware of this, but more than a few of “the kids” these days are putting out their music on cassette tape. In 2008, when I was leaving the college station I used to work at, the status symbol seemed to be shifting from nice turntables to scrounged cassette decks from the 80’s.

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