From Spiked Boots to Toy Pianos: How the rise of the Internet has changed what it means to be indie

The February 2010 edition of Paste Magazine features a black cover with the question, “Is Indie Dead?” in bold red letters.  The cover is an homage to the iconic 1966 Time Magazine cover that reads, “Is God Dead?”  Inside, John T. Elson’s controversial article studied the history and philosophy of religion and atheism.  In 1966, America was facing a cultural crossroads of sorts with almost half a million troops in Vietnam and race riots at home.  With its cover and subsequent ten-page article, Paste Magazine questions the cultural implications of the term “indie.”  Now that a Grizzly Bear song can appear in a Volkswagon commercial or a Bon Iver song in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy, it seems as though the world of independent music is at a crossroads as well.

In her article “Is Indie Dead?” Rachael Maddux irons out the semantics of the term indie:

“What we’ve called it has never been stable – it’s been known alternatively as “punk” for its early attitude, “underground” for where it happened, “alternative” when the mainstream held it up as an antidote to its own poison – each of these picked up then sloughed off when the semantic baggage grew too unwieldy” (Maddux 31).

According to Maddux’s description of indie, it is safe to say that she believes its roots are in the DIY (do-it-yourself) punk movement of the early 1980s when labels like SST in California and Dischord in Washington D.C. were founded.  With this definition is the implied notion that indie is not just a reference to a musical sound, but rather the accompanying attitude.  If it was just about music we could look back to Atlantic Records, founded by a Turkish immigrant, or go back another 30 years to the founding of Paramount Records by The Wisconsin Chair Company.  Henry Rollins best summed up the DIY punk movement by saying, “I believe that one defines oneself by reinvention. To not be like your parents. To not be like your friends. To be yourself. To cut yourself out of stone.”  It was either that or when he said (in reference to major record labels), “Nothing brings people together more than mutual hatred.”

That being said, the indie movement of 30 years ago would not recognize what is being labeled as indie today.  In an interview with Rachael Maddux, Michael Azerrad, author of the Holy Bible on post-punk music, Our Band Could Be Your Life, says that “the term ‘indie’ originally referred to labels which had no connection whatsoever to the major labels…Obviously, things have changed” (Maddux 33). Ian MacKaye, founder of Dischord Records and member of the band Fugazi, refuses to play venues where alcohol is served and will not be featured in magazines that have advertisements for alcohol or tobacco.  Revered for his stubbornness and contempt for the mainstream, MacKaye is seen as one of the heroes of the 1980s DIY movement.  While he is still set in his ways, the lines have grown fuzzier for many of the other champions of indie.  Founded in 1986, Sub Pop was the independent label responsible for kickstarting the grunge movement, releasing records from bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden (both of which ended up on major labels).  Sub Pop is still considered a major player on the indie scene even though Warner Bros. Records purchased a 49% stake in the label in 1995.

So why have the lines been blurred?  Why hasn’t Sub Pop been castigated by the indie community, their records forever marked by a proverbial red paint?  The answer lies in the way that music is consumed in a world where the mere mention of globalization launches a thousand tweets.  Instead of donning leather and hanging around record stores leafing through 7 inches, the youth of today hop on Macbooks and log into The Hype Machine.  Being able to instantly stay connected with musical movements around the world is a new phenomenon.  Included with this power are a myriad of musical and cultural implications.

In Eric Harvey’s article, “The Social History of the MP3,” he includes a quote from an official at Geffen Records (a subsidiary of Universal Music Group) from the early days of digital music:

“The recording industry actually saw mp3s as an opportunity, too, at least initially. Geffen Records’ “director of technology” told USA Today in 1997 that Geffen ‘doesn’t see MPEG as a problem. We like anything that increases the ability of consumers to listen to high-quality music, and if that means on their computer, that’s fine, too. We’re actually working on ways to program for it and to provide material in this format because consumers are making it clear that this is a format they like’” (Harvey 2009).

Clearly, the major label executives did not follow through with this thinking. Resisting the mp3 led to a sordid battle between the music industry and fans of music.  As Williamson and Cloonan point out, the term “music industry” is too simplistic, but for the sake of clarity I will use it to refer to the “Big Four” record labels that control a large majority of the United States music market, EMI, Sony, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group.  Industry representatives like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) are at odds with political organizations like The Pirate Party in Sweden, and countless individuals who have been targeted or prosecuted for using or developing file sharing programs.  Right now major labels are pushing for its elimination, while proponents are looking for complete legalization.

Of course, these are two ends of the spectrum, and most people fall into the middle.  According to the IFPI’s 2009 Digital Music Report, 95% of digital downloads were illegal, which means that those who support The Pirate Party are not the only ones doing the illegal downloading (ifpi.org).  This means that the file sharing issue applies to a wide variety of people, and not just the technological elite.  After one of the largest file sharing cases in the world was resolved in Sweden, a poll showed that 60% of Swedish users had cut back or stopped using the software (The Economist 2009).  This suggests that a great number of people are not entrenched in their decision to use file sharing software and can be persuaded to use other means of consuming entertainment.  The industry created a public relations nightmare by doling out lawsuits to deal with their problems.  In the United States, the music industry has filed more than 30 thousand copyright lawsuits in the past few years (Karnowski 2009) and members of congress have held hearings regarding Internet piracy and software that, among other things, has been used to share tax returns, credit reports, and even the blueprints and avionics of the president’s helicopter (“Lawmakers to re-examine…” 2009).  A step in the right direction, the industry has stopped pursuing lawsuits, and instead is working with new services like Spotify in order to offer free, legal alternatives to traditional (illegal) digital media consumption.

The consequences of the industry’s mishandling of digital technology have not all been negative.  A generation growing up with what Eric Harvey calls “more eclectic tastes than a teenager should be capable of” has helped to change the indie scene into a more inclusive amalgamation of influences (Harvey 2009).  In his review of the Dark Was the Night compilation album for Pitckfork.com, Scott Plagenhoef puts his finger on one of the most telling changes in independent music in the last decade. He says, “the idea that rock is less central than folk music in underground North American music is not only really weird but a very new phenomenon” (Plagenhoef 2009).  Riding on the heels of pseudo-punks like The Minutemen and the Meat Puppets, toy pianos and acoustic guitars somehow snuck by the wall of noise constructed by Black Flag.

Bob Dylan started his career playing old folk songs in an accent and diction constructed to sound like Woody Guthrie.  Led Zeppelin became famous by regurgitating American blues through electric guitar to a white audience.  The 1980s DIY movement was partly constructed as a response to this chain of influences.  You didn’t need to know who Charley Patton was. You didn’t even need to know how to play an instrument.  Some bands never learned how to play and were crippled by repetitiveness.  Others did learn to play and developed as a band, eventually being scorned for becoming skilled at their craft.  Musicians today grow up listening to both Led Zeppelin and Black Flag. It is socially acceptable to list Pavement and Madonna as influences.  Subsequent generations will have more music to listen to and more ways to get a hold of it, which is quite an overwhelming thought.

With the rise of digital music, the construction of personal identity through media consumption is blurred.  In Terry Flew’s paper, “Beyond ad hocery: Defining creative industries,” he posits that the turn to creative industries is connected to “a growing reflexivity in consumption” (Flew 2).  He explains this as a process where consumers construct a personal identity through the purchase of commodities.  Others have identified this as “semiotisation of consumption” or the “aestheticisation of everyday life” (Flew 2-3). It is now possible to consume hundreds of thousands of songs for virtually no cost.  This wealth of availability has created consumers that no longer fit into strict demographics.  It is possible to download tracks from the newest bands in England’s dubstep scene while also keeping up with the psychedelic rock coming out of Athens, Georgia.  Don Letts’ introduction of reggae into the 1977 UK punk scene irrefutably changed the sound of many bands, such as The Clash and X-Ray Spex.  Today, songs by American band Vampire Weekend contain traces of afrobeat, baroque, and even ska music.

The fallout from the collapse of the music industry’s consumer model may take years to properly understand.  It remains to be seen whether music streaming sites will be viable, and what kinds of bands will emerge as indie figureheads in the midst of the most eclectic audiences the world has ever seen.  As more indie artists gain mainstream acceptance and more labels opt to deal with major labels, the line between pop and indie continues to blur.  At the end of her article Maddux concludes that yes, indie is dead.  “What’s next?” she asks.   With all the new ways to listen to and discover music, technology on the rise, and throngs of open-minded kids ready to soak up new music, the only thing that is for sure is that spiked boots and mohawks won’t be coming back into fashion any time soon.

Sources

Azerrad, Michael. Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2001.

Flew, Terry. “Beyond ad hocery: Defining Creative Industries.” 23 Jan. 2002.
Harvey, Eric. “Same As the Old Boss? Changes, Continuities, and Careers in the Digital Music Era.” 2010

Harvey, Eric. “The Social History of the MP3.” Pitchfork.com. Web. 24 Aug. 2009. http://pitchfork.com/features/articles/7689-the-social-history-of-the-mp3/

“How to sink pirates.” The Economist 14 November 2009: 16-18. Print.

International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. Digital Music Report 2009, London, 16 January 2009. http://www.ifpi.org/content/section_resources/dmr2009.html

Karnowski, Steve. “Verdict reached in Minn. music downloading case,” Associated Press Financial Wire. 18 June 2009: Entertainment News.

“Lawmakers to re-examine Internet-sharing software,” Associated Press Financial Wire. 21 April 2009.

Maddux, Rachael. “Is Indie Dead?” Paste Magazine Feb. 2010: 30-39. Print.

Open Rights Group. IPRED, 22 April 2009. http://wiki.openrightsgroup.org/wiki/IPRED

Plagenhoef, Scott. “Album Reviews: Various Artists: Dark Was the Night.” Pitchfork.com. Web. 26 Feb. 2009. http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/12717-dark-was-the-night/

Williamson, John and Martin Cloonan. “Rethinking the music industry.” Popular Music Volume 26/2 (2007): 305-322

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~ by masterodisaster on July 24, 2010.

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