At one point, the term “indie rock” seemed like it actually meant something. Does it still? Did it ever? These are the questions that we shout into the void today!
Why, some of us probably remember a time when “indie” type bands in the ’90’s used to actually make their own cassette mix tapes full of original music, and hand them out at shows for a couple of bucks.
Today, these music dorks promote themselves with free digital downloads, and make more eye contact. Is this what passes for progress? These days, you never know – your average dork may not even be a dork at all, but a total hipster douche in disguise – how rude!
Yessir, twenty years later, it’s fairly easy to argue that indie music or really indie anything is just pure posturing – eg. a co-opted hipster term that implies a person’s credibility in the creative sphere that may not exist. This might seem like a jaded view, but you’d be surprised at how accurate it can be.
Look Out! Here Come The Idealists
All movements, including the idea of independent music, starts off the same. There is a pure idea, which eventually becomes tainted and flawed, and starts to break down.
Just like the hippies of the ’60’s with their idea of “flower power”, there was a point where the initial hippy movement was bursting with love and optimism. People were actually optimistic enough to think they could change the world. The real world was for squares, man!
And then…what happened? The real world came a-knockin’. War, corruption, money, hard drugs enter the picture…people started freaking out! Kent State. Pictures from Vietnam….
It wasn’t long before the friendly hippies were replaced by soul-less yuppies walking down Wall Street, and Ziggy Stardust became the Thin White Duke.
Satellite Of Love
Before we’re blinded by our own self-loathing, let us all take a trip down memory lane…back to the idyllic 1950’s, before the music died, before JFK was shot, and before Vietnam…to a time when “indie music” had nothing to do with hashtags and Facebook likes and everything to do with music that was independently produced. Yes, of course major labels did exist, but they weren’t as monopolistic as they eventually became.
This would be around 1957, when small, independent record labels like Jim Stewart’s Satellite Records began cropping up in the United States.
Satellite Records started out being an independently run operation, working out of their garage and in love with country music. They were just a modest franchise starting out, and they weren’t fixated on the bottom line so much. Although they started out as a country label, they slowly began to set their sites on releasing rock records.
Obviously, when you have a business, the objective isn’t to remain small and obscure forever, so Satellite records had to eventually make some changes. No matter what people say, love don’t pay no bills!
One handshake lead to another, and eventually the newly dubbed Stax Records (previously Satellite) partnered with Atlantic Records, a company dating back to 1947 with an interesting history of its own, having been started by two Turkish brothers who had a strong interest in R&B and jazz music.
Once Stax was effectively under Atlantic’s umbrella, Jim Stewart became a convert to rhythm and blues and began to heavily push that kind of music into the public eye, or ear. And people really dug it, because jacked up blues music and the likes of Chuck Berry and other rock ‘n rollers were now in full command of the hit charts and the hearts and mind of the youth.
With the new muscle acquired through their Atlantic partnership, the real difference at Stax was that now releases which previously were only getting a small push in terms of distribution now were being reissued nationally.
Take, for instance, the song “Gee Whiz” by Carla Thomas, which started out as an indie release for Satellite Records.
When this song was first issued on Satellite Records, it was not a hit. Why? Perhaps because no one had a chance to hear it. Gee Whiz was too “indie” for it’s own good, but once Atlantic began funding Stax, the song was re-issued to a wider audience in 1961, and became a hit.
We will leave off the Stax story there by saying that it is not hard to see both the pros and the cons of being independent. There are certain things you can get done when you are “indie”, but when you decide to trade that in for bigger bucks and exposure, there are both benefits and sacrifices that will result from such a shift.
To Be Or Not To Be…Indie
Over the years, the music industry has seen many people who try to ride the line between being independent, or going big. Owen Husney is one such person that has seen both sides. Famous for having discovered Prince (and then managing him), Owen is a guy who’s been there and done that in the music business.
Starting out being shoved into lockers for being too dweeb-y, Owen Husney later became the envy of the jocks (an enviable position if there ever was one) just by being a competent musician who played a few of the high school dances and impressed some of the girls with his guitar playing skills. Oh how the tides do turn!
Owen Husney played in bands for a while, and eventually went on to much greater success later on by managing musicians such as Prince and others.
Here is an interview with Owen talking about the arc of his career and the vital importance of independence.
Clearly, Owen Husney has donned many mantles over the years, and his insight into what it means to work in the music industry is well worth paying attention to. He also has a fairly solid grasp of what “indie” means, in the straightforward sense that it equates to having control of your affairs.
Of course, having control over absolutely everything you do sounds great in theory, but then it also means you actually have to do everything yourself, which is next to impossible once you scale your business beyond a certain point.
As many musicians have found out the hard way, when you want to become a “rock star”, and readily relinquish the control of your creative assets to others who are willing to do the job (for a fee, of course), you’ll soon be doing things according to other peoples’ wishes. Rock star means means making money, but for who?
As soon as you let the big companies “lend a hand”, your precious independent business has to change and the control you may enjoy having over your own affairs – it goes away. This can mean any number of things, but you won’t get to find out what they might be until after you “let go” of the wheel, so to speak.
The Charts – Democracy Or Dictatorship?
According to the UK Indie Chart, at least as it was in the 80’s, what made records “indie” or not was, in fact, their method of distribution, and whether records were in some way connected to the four major record companies at the time, namely: EMI, Sony, Warner, and Universal.
This is a fairly logical assessment of what makes music indie or not – does it “sell out” to the big corporations, or not? Of course, there are big music corporations out who behave as if they are independent, but are they really?
When hip hop and punk rock began to emerge in the late ’70’s / early ’80’s, there were many people who were fed up with the established major record label deals, and wanted to start up their own indie labels, which gave us Cherry Red Records out of London, Rough Trade (also from London), Curb Records from Nashville, and Sugar Hill Records from New Jersey, to name just a few.
One of Cherry Red’s first bands were the Dead Kennedys, a fiercely indie punk band from San Francisco…
The Capitalist Says…Second Place Is First Loser
Iain McNay from Cherry Red Records – who seems to care about music more than money – came up with the idea that allowed for the indie music of the day to have its own “indie” charts and ratings system, separate from Billboard and NME.
The first one of these independent charts came about in 1980 in Record Week. This broadened the horizons of many listeners who were only familiar with the top hits, and provided an outlet for smaller and more obscure groups who might not have the finances or clout to get into the bigger magazines.
Genre was not a factor in the selection of these indie hits, and the first single to top those charts was Spizz Energi’s “Where’s Captain Kirk”.
To your average venture capitalist, it might seem odd indeed to actively provide a voice to independent artists who are worth a lot less than the hit acts in the way that Ian McNay was encouraging, and even more rare in those days when you consider how making space in magazines and putting ads on tv was a huge cost.
So, how long did this system last? Apparently, until 2009 when the UK Indie Chart decided to let the major labels in on things a bit, by stipulating that songs had to be at least 50% independent, but could be 50% major label.
Watching Rome Burn
The music industry, as flawed as it was, at least had the decency to be predictably hierarchical and corrupt for almost the entire 20th century. Evil fatcats ruled the industry, and musicians were either generically summed up by said fatcats as rock stars who could be milked for cash or people of no importance whatsoever.
But… once file sharing became popular in the early 2000’s thanks to Napster, the music industry changed forever and there was no going back.
The term “indie”, as conflated as it had been up until then, was “liberated” along with all the files that zipped along the peer to peer pathways. Geeks, always used to getting stuffed into lockers, could now stay trapped inside their dark & cozy lockers with a mobile device and download free music by their favorite artists until the janitor let them out sometime around 4pm.
Suddenly, to everyone’s amazement, the playing field was evening out around the world, with some of the world’s biggest bands getting holes poked in their formerly armor-clad copyrights and there was nothing they could do about it.
This paradigm shift seemingly allowed smaller musicians to gain a foothold in the industry by way of online platforms like Facebook and Youtube. The age of online viral marketing had arrived, and musicians were free to use it as they pleased just like anyone else with access to a computer. As far as the music business was concerned, all bets were off. All you had to do is figure out the internet, and you too can get yourself a nice big fanbase! Can’t afford a computer? Go to the library!
All of this online sharing AKA theft pissed off lots of bands at the time, including the extremely brand-protective Metallica who famously tried to take legal action against 300 000 of their fans for essentially stealing from them, and attempted to charge Napster $100 000 per song that was taken. Metallica, as a result, was vilified and ridiculed all over the internet for treating their fans like criminals (even though they technically were and still are, every time they download a “free” song file).
The outcome of this Metallica vs. Napster lawsuit ended up bankrupting Napster later on, but it didn’t stop the technology from continuing to evolve.
With the development of various online platforms, of which there are now countless in number, it seems that any song or musician from anywhere in the world can suddenly become popular at any time, thanks to new types of promotion that didn’t exist just a few short years ago. Some established bands who used to dominate the business realized that their tried and true methods weren’t going to fly anymore, and that either drove them out of the business due to loss of sales from file sharing, or forced them to learn how to market themselves in the age of the internet.
Despite all of this online hocus pocus that can provide a musician with an edge over the next guy, there’s still no substitute for hard work. Although the music industry has seen rapid change in recent times, the word “independent” still retains the same definition as always. Maybe now there are just more people seeing music as a viable option for a career, but the same pitfalls as ever do still apply.
The optimist might say that, in fact, things are better than ever before. Not only can you see your hard work pay off in less time, but you have the tools to work harder and reach more people faster. We started off this article with some pessimism, so why not end on a somewhat more positive note. Your music can be as “indie” as you choose it to be! If you want to sell you soul, just make sure to have it appraised first.