written by Chris Familton
“Good question son, it is kind of everything these days but in the good old days it actually meant something tangible”.
It always fascinates me how musical genres are constantly invented then warped, diluted and eventually rendered inert as valid descriptions of a style or movement in music. Rock n roll was a clearly defined take on blues and country that very quickly grew to represent any form of guitar based energetic pop music from the 50s through until the emergence of electronic music. As it grew it split into a plethora of strands – heavy metal, classic rock, garage rock, punk, grunge etc. Many of these sub genres in turn mutated and generated sub-genres – thrash metal, black metal, post punk etc. Of course with ‘rock’ as the initial seedling this was a totally understandable evolution fueled primarily by journalists and record shop clerks fastidious about classifying and labeling the music for ease of access.
Back to indie though – a term that first emerged to categorise music that was being generated by bands and DIY record labels outside the mainstream record industry. They were considered to be ‘independent of the machine’. It was essentially a word that described the route to market rather than the sound or style of the music. In the USA the best example was the hardcore punk scene of the 80s that spawned the likes of Black Flag, Minor Threat and Circle Jerks. Across the Atlantic it was the same decade that saw labels like Postcard, 4AD and Mute creating local grassroots scenes that their fans identified with and felt part of.
Things started to blur when bands grew in popularity and felt they needed to further their fame and/or wealth by shifting to a major label where distribution networks were larger and more funds were available to line their pockets. Some made the transition and retained the elements of their music that made them great. R.E.M were one who managed a few albums with Warner Bros before stasis set in and Sonic Youth have perhaps been the most successful at straddling both the under and overground.
As these changes happened and the bands’ music changed, the indie label stuck. Meanwhile other bands with similar sounds became associated with these acts and you ended up with mopey, jangly guitar bands who may have replicated the sound of their inspirers but had none of the poetry, grace or conviction. Indie as a result became watered down, diluted into smaller tributaries like indie pop, indie folk,indie rock, madchester, no wave, britpop, indietronica etc. The groups were scattered across major labels, independent labels – even no labels. Now the single term ‘indie’ can be used to describe bands as disparate as The Arcade Fire, No Age, LCD Soundsystem and Fleet Foxes and as a result the word has been rendering flaccid and inert.
This all begs the questions… who cares, who is to blame for the intellectual laziness, do genres serve a purpose, are they more relevant now in the age of digital media and itunes music classification, could we just survive on a simple and universal set of name tags like blues, rock, jazz, pop, country and avant-garde?
“Daddy, what is indie music?”
“I don’t know son, you tell me…”
this article first appeared on the Germinal Press blog. GP is a new venture in Australia’s publishing landscape. They are unabashedly independent and opportunistic, drawing their inspiration from the original DIY attitude of the fanzines movement of the late 1970s. Check ’em out!