July 22, 2024

So – Indie (time for a reappraisal)

At the time of writing (Jan 2005) the 2003 US merger of Sony Music Entertainment and Bertelsmann BMG (BMG Entertainment) under the title Sony BMG has just come under formal legal challenge by Impala, the organisation representing over 2,500 independent European record companies. Impala’s challenge is to the European Commission’s approval of the European branch of this merger in July 2004, the grounds of appeal being “manifest errors of law, assessment and reasoning in relation to collective dominance in the recorded music market, as well as the impact of the merger on the on-line and publishing markets.” Impala points out that “to be effective, competition assumes that the market is made up of suppliers who are independent of each other,” arguing that the larger the merger, the more impaired is the possibility of fair competition in the music marketplace, and the more the promotion of cultural diversity (to which the EU is constitutionally committed) is constrained.

There’s two ways of discussing ‘indie’ – one generic/categoric/analytic, an attempt at objectivity, the other judgmental/personal/anecdotal, an application of attitude that subsumes both aesthetics and economics – and there’s no obvious way of separating them out.

The generic bit is easily enough determined. It’s generally agreed that indie starts with Nirvana – there was plenty of music around before 1991 that didn’t fit into the mainstream and was put out on independent labels or white labels and had a cult following, but it was called underground in the 70’s, post-punk in the 80’s, and alternative thereafter, and it wasn’t until ‘Never Mind’ went supernova that the word ‘indie’ started to be used by the mainstream media to tag something that had previously been ignored. Its usage differed subtly in the UK and the States, in that UK indie emerged as a reaction to the commodification of Britpop (Oasis – believe it or not – were seminal once) and has been personnified by a distinctively non-metropolitan (ie proudly detached from the London club scene) sound, like that of groups such as Super Furry Animals, Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, and Manic Street Preachers, from Wales, and Mogwai, Arab Strap, the Delgados, and Belle and Sebastian, from Glasgow, being less rock-centric, in general, than its US manifestation – ‘indie rock’ – which some say evolved out of the different styles of just three highly influential bands: Sebadoh (lo-fi aesthetic – big on enthusiasm, small on technical proficiency), Pavement (quirkier, art-damaged, self-referential, musically diverse), and Superchunk (punky – guitars, more guitars, and very loud drums).

But this is the sort of contentious lippy stuff that barstool musicologists will contentedly blab on about til the cows come home and still no-one will be any the wiser. Can Radiohead still be thought of as indie despite being signed to a major? Is Sigur Rós selling its soul to EMI, or are they just ensuring a vastly wider audience than ever they could have achieved via the resources available to Bad Taste or Fat Cat? Does this sort of thing matter except as a major source of procrastination at exam revision time?

In a broader, and more illuminating sense, the expression ‘indie’ became one of those abbreviations that tend to cluster around any significant moment of cultural change as flags of identification (as in hippy for hipster, or nazi for Nationalsozialistisch): it comes into that category of abbreviations that have acquired meaning independent (appropriately enough) of the original – like tv (telly), perm, nuke, hype, dis, and so on – and a surprising number of people don’t know, when they’re talking music, which are the majors that ‘indie’ is actually independent of. Of course you do. But hey, just for the record, let’s remind ourselves that they are as follows (selected subsidiaries in brackets) in order of market dominance:

Universal Music Group (Geffen, Mercury, Island DefJam, Interscope, Decca, Polydor)
Sony BMG (Columbia, Epic, Work, Jive, Arista, RCA, Milan)
EMI Group (Capitol, Virgin, Mute, Parlophone, Heavenly)
AOL Time Warner (Warner Bros, Sire, Maverick, Atlantic, Elektra)

By default, these have come to represent the anti-Christ quads – formerly quintuplets – of the indie world, and I’d be prepared to risk a bet that the total purists out there also run Debian on Macs and regard Windows as the gateway to Hell. But you don’t have to be an out and out anarcho-syndicalist to see that there’s a shift of emphasis that runs from left to right as you trace your finger across the catalogues of Constellation or Fat Cat and on into those of EMI and SonyBMG – and that that shift reflects a substantively different way of evaluating an artist’s worth. It’s probably naïve to condemn the Universal management as being careless of anything but the bottom line, but, equally probably, it’s true. It’s hilarious the way the record industry refers to the human providers of the product – en masse – as ‘artists’, as if the mass-produced production-line pretty boys and girls who clog the airwaves with their arse-waggling bollocks might be spoken of in the same breath as – oh, where do you begin? Time was when artists were artists and musicians strummed their lutes and knew their place, then along came the Vinyl Fairy and waved her gold-dust wand and suddenly anyone with straight teeth, one or two pierced nipples and a recording contract is a Michelangelo and Michelangeletta. But it can’t be repeated often enough: the music industry is precisely that – a phenomenally profitable global industry. The global music market was worth $32 billion in 2003, of which the European music market was worth $11.8 billion; total unit sales were 2.7 billion, and the four major record companies now control 74.7% of the world market (with Universal alone accounting for 23.5%) – 80.6% of the European market.

Those are the bald figures. The big question is: where does indie music fit into all this talk about total unit sales and profitability?

Listen to Don Wilkie and Ivan Ilavsky, co-founders of the Canadian label Constellation:

“This is our ‘post-rock’ — a term that must be construed politically in equal measure to its referencing of some diffuse ‘instrumental’ or ‘deconstructed’ musical aesthetic. ‘Indie rock’ was never a genre and its bastardisation as an aesthetic category was one of countless elegant corporate-intellectual coups during the 1990s. Sadly, all too many hipper-than-now taste-makers were happily complicit, ready to replace ‘indie’ with ‘post’ and thus help extinguish any abiding concern about the economies that ground and contextualise rock music. So fuck post-rock, and the smooth untroubled consumption it enables. Independent rock as a utopic analogue for social organisation is our mandate.”
(from the Constellation manifesto)

Likewise, Jon Whitney of Brainwashed advocates an uncompromisingly proactive position regarding the majors:

“Brainwashed.com and The Brain boycott Major Label music for many reasons.
1. There’s so much exciting music happening from the enormous number of indie labels, our small volunteer staff doesn’t want to waste our spare resources.
2. There’s enough reviews, support and coverage from places like Rolling Stone or Spin or NME.
3. We don’t agree with practices that include in-house publishing clauses, high-budget awards shows, radio station payola, million-dollar music video expenses, retailer price-fixing or conglomeration of smaller labels that result in deletion of catalogue and employees (ie: profit-minded as opposed to artistically-minded).
Due to this boycott we will actively ignore major product at all opportunities, since even bad publicity is still publicity. We also openly encourage every individual to spread the word. We also wish the media outlets ignore major label product, even try going for an issue being completely major-label free.”

These two positions represent the more radical edge of an identifiable polity that comprises a major distinguishing feature of indie culture. It might not, except in a very few cases, be a particularly coherent or articulate or organised affair, but it’s a polity nevertheless, of the sort that befriends few adherents to old-school political systems and values, whether they lean to the left or the right – a disorganised organisational system of anti-authoritarian, non-conformist, pro-individualist (occasionally nihilistic) self-expressive values, and one that by definition is open source. One cheap ‘n’ cheerful rule of thumb for testing an artist’s indie credentials is to determine which side of the file-sharing ‘debate’ a particular candidate is on. This works for divas as well as for newbies – which elevates our dear Björk Gudmundsdóttir to veritable Indie Ice Queen and damns the pretend Lady Madge of Ashcombe as an avaricious mainstream madonna.

Indie is a tribe, however, not a nation, and quite a large, unruly tribe at that. It has its obvious leaders, shamans, and spokespersons (of which, this year, we’ve lost, in John Peel, one of the greatest and the best), its marks of recognition (that excruciatingly careless carefulness about dress codes at gigs), passwords (if you now type GY!BE rather than just plain GYBE without thinking you’re truly cool), its annual gatherings (All Tomorrow’s Parties being to indie what GOP is to Red Amerika), its myths, its rituals – all the paraphernalia, in other words, of a sub-culture verging on a religion. Typically, however – unlike the equivalent sub-cultures of C&W, say, or death metal, or grunge – it’s a tribe linked by a very loose set of affiliations – consensus- rather than vote-driven – and somehow retaining its credibility as a genre despite the fact that no two people can ever seem to be able to agree what indie actually is, despite frequent, lengthy and impassioned threads on the subject in the music groups.

Whatever it is, one thing is quite clear: that the sites of its creative incubators have shifted continents. The rise and rise of indie has been located almost exclusively in the US and Canada and (particularly) the UK until quite recently, when world-class artists have begun to emerge on such European labels as Morr and Staubgold in Germany, Mosz in Austria, Gooom and Locust in France, and, further afield, Thule and Smekkleysa/Bad Taste in Iceland, Extreme, Sigma Editions, and Preservation in Australia, and, amidst a huge explosion of indie labels in Japan, a couple of personal faves: Plop and Childisc – the list is growing by the month. (Nothing yet comes to mind from either South America or the Indian or African sub-continents or the Middle East, which might well prove the grist to some future thesis that indie proceeds like a benign isotopic side-effect of the meltdown of those cultures in which nuclear families have exceeded the specs of their containment chambers – but really, that’s so off-topic … )

There’s another sort of independence that needs to be mentioned, of course, and that’s the freedom from playlist hell that the internet provides for new artists struggling to get a hearing. Clearly, less and less people are relying on TV and radio and music magazines, the traditional sources of information, for guidance towards new music, turning instead to trusted newsgroups, interactive sites like Audioscrobbler, and e-zines such as (*modest fanfare*) the melancholy rhino. If you’re reading this it’s because either you have an open curiosity about indie music, or because you’ve been here before and got a good tip or three and decided to come back for more. After all, what is the rhino if not independent – of everyone who might want to tweak a commercial advantage out of getting a good review here – precisely because of its editorial independence? The rhino serves indie through being indie.

And perhaps that’s the point – that this amorphous mess of a genre that is also an amorphous mess of an attitude attracts a following based on a kind of potlatch economy, wherein the only currency that matters is the gift of musical ideas. No-one’s going to be so dogmatic or naïve as to expect that, in the real world, no-one’s entitled to make money out of this, but the tacit indie agreement, and the one thing that bottom-lines the whole indie ethos, is that the only true capital is the music, and that that, in a world which increasingly conspires to decree the opposite, is priceless.