Part of writing for The Indie Place involves staying up to date on what the competition is covering. Imagine my surprise to find that Seventeen magazine has a forecast for indie artists to watch in 2013. I had to know more. I discovered that the folks at Seventeen are slightly behind the times; their up and comers include the Joy Formidable, Bombay Bicycle Club, Friendly Fires, and Of Monsters and Men. For the audience in question, I’m sure this is about as close to the cutting edge as you need to get.
But the fact that a mainstream magazine of this ilk is covering indie music is a disturbing thought, though not novel. Long ago, Indie became just another genre, even if it’s a vital and commercially untainted medium in remote corners of the globe.
When did it all start? The term indie emerged during the nascent years of another genre: alternative, a label rarely understood on any functioning level. Alternative, as a genre, implies a certain standard, since it is only alternative to the things alternative audiences and artists are trying to escape. The longevity of this tired and obsolete label should be an inspiration to us all.
The pool of successful alternative bands of the early 1990’s emerged from a swampy cultural mix called indie music. I grew up in a hotbed of indie music, Olympia, Washington and my music tastes were calibrated in the artistic atmosphere of this hipster mecca. My notions about independent music will never be completely free of that early education. To me, the sounds and images of K Records and Kill Rock Stars define indie music. I can’t tell you how many times I saw groups of abominable quality, performing to a rapt audience. In that place and time, raw emotion and entrepreneurial spirit in the arts trumped skill and resources, which is a sharp criticism of indie music in general. People would come out and support artists that were making their vision come to life because they were doing it, not always because it was noteworthy. Friend rock is a powerful force.
I’d hazard a guess that such an aesthetic pulses at the heart of indie communities still and is an extant affirmation of the genre label itself. Anybody that is making the films, records, and art installations they must make, because that is why they live, is making indie art. All art communities owe something to this impulse. But that’s not what indie music has become.
Indie music is probably the first genre to jump its boundaries on its own. Early alternative artists were plucked from the indie community by record labels and was much more the tool of corporate business than indie music. Indie music, by it’s definition, is produced and promoted by small(er) businesses. The movement emerged at just the right time to ride the crest of the Information Technology wave and pick up the means of production and communication that sprang up as a result.
Indie artists are making it big all over the place, thanks to their own efforts and a hive-mind marketing machine that arbitrarily elevates some indie artists to the dubious fame of household names. My favorite example is Mumford and Sons. I recall a period of 30 seconds after hearing the band for the first time when I could enjoy them, before they were everywhere. Literally. It begs the question, is it indie if it’s played in Starbucks? A certain amount of indie sheen is lost, I think, when a band hits the big time like this. I don’t begrudge Mumford and Sons any of their success. I just don’t want to hear their music any more.
The term industry is falling deeper into that linguistic wasteland occupied by terms like alternative and post-rock. To understand the ambiguity of the term, check out this NPR poll from 2009, where some indie pros give their definitions. The potency of the term has certainly been lost.
Has the potency of the art? I turned to the modern fountain of wisdom, Google, for answers. “Google, is indie dead?”
If you listen to the critics, it certainly is. There are countless points where indie breathed it’s last credible breath without you even noticing.
Unfortunately, nobody sent out a press release. If indie died, there are plenty of artists who took no notice. They’re too busy scraping the dregs of their soul to smear it on tape or canvas. You don’t need the label or industry to tell you how relevant your work is. That was the whole point, way back when indie was just a baby. The mode of production, in the hands of the average artist, has always been more important than the sound in this genre. To believe that indie died is to accept the fact that you can’t make your own art, that it must be manufactured by a corporation in a gilded studio.
The heart of indie is exactly where it started: in the garage, playing dive bars, in home studios, in community theater. Retire to those places of promise and creativity. Let the critics have their label. Indie never needed a name anyway.