Day 135-- on the abuse of the term "indie rock"

I abused it for a long time. Now I've seen the light, and I want others to as well.

For ages I always used "indie rock" as an adjective applied to sound. "Oh, you should totally hear suchandsuch band," I'd tell a friend, "they sound like indie rock mixed with Motown." I equated indie rock to a sound, much like I would hard bop jazz or rockabilly.

But I'm going to stop doing this. Indie rock means independent rock, in reference to independent record labels. If I use indie rock like I did before, should I also start saying, "Man, I totally dig that corp rock sound!" It's really hip for my generation to slide indie rock in in place of other descriptions; my cynical guess is that this is because no one wants to learn about genre differences or pay attention to the influences bands and songwriters display in their work.

So Elliott Smith isn't just indie rock; he was indie when he was on Kill Rock Stars, but was on a major label for years. Major labels aren't independent, so why not just call Smith "a musician," or if you want to get funky, a "Beatles-influenced folk-punk poet"? What else-- Built to Spill, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie and the Decemberists aren't indie rock. The former two have been on major labels (Warner and Sony/Epic) for years, the latter tow signing with a biggies recently.

But then there are labels like Merge Records and Touch & Go, both fiercely independent AND profitable. The former houses heavy weight bands like Teenage Fanclub, Superchunk, Richard Buckner, Spoon, M. Ward and the ever-praised Arcade Fire (which, interestingly enough, turned down many major label offers). Touch & Go is home to dozens of really well-regarded bands that also sell lots of albums: Pinback (you're bound to have heard some of their songs on TV shows or in malls), Calexico, TV on the Radio (whose most recent album topped dozens of year-end lists), the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. These are very indie labels and will probably remain so for a long time. So the bands on the label could be called indie rock.

And guess what, hip kids: the Fray, Mae, Copeland, and even Lovedrug and Copeland aren't indie (the last two are distributed by Sony...what?)

How does this affect the music? It doesn't. Music itself holds the weight, not necessarily what label prints or distributes their music. But I'm going to go out of my way to call it like it is and not use "indie rock" in the wrong context. That might seem overboard to some people, but hey--watching what you say has to start somewhere.

posted, with grace and poise, by Jason @ 1/18/2007 11:49:00 PM,


At 9:28 AM, Blogger Qere Ketiv said...

I think that the difficulty for me is that all the "indie" on, say, WYEP all sounds the same: folky, punky, (often) whinny. Without significant diversity--such as a truly "indie" station might mix in "indie" that isn't rock?--the label will always be misapplied.

Also, if an "indie" label is huge, as some of the labels you mentioned, when is it no longer "indie" but "corp"? Does it have to be in the big Three (or whatever) to be "corp"? I would figure that "indie" would be a small company or the band itself that produces and distributes. Could you provide some clarification on what, exactly, defines an "indie" label?

At 9:43 AM, Blogger Jason said...

1) As much as I appreciate WYEP, what it plays most of the time is singer/songwriter material for the mid-'30s set. So you get lots of folk or roots influenced troubadors, most of them on major labels. This doesn't fit the indie image on either end of the spectrum, since the indie label seems easiest to apply to Pixies knock offs.

2) The labels I mentioned aren't huge. That's the thing. If you poke around a bit more, you'll realize they have, like, 20 people working for them AT MOST. They do EVERYTHING on their own, and barely make any money off of it. Big labels have cash to toss around, despite their success. Indie labels don't, even with success. Compare it to Grounds for Change, man; I'd say they look like a huge coffee company based on first impressions, especially with the following they have and the quality of the beans and look of the marketing material, but does that means they're "huge"? No.

Merge and T&G are not huge at all. When the person running the PR also singlehandedly mails out all internet orders himself, that is not huge one bit.

The biggest wolf-in-sheeps-clothing, though, is Sub Pop records; they look like an indie company, and have a good roster, but Warner owns 49% of the company.

And yes, indie does apply to really really tiny companies and self-released material, but is there some sliding scale? What makes an independent company less independent if it has multiple popular bands, over a label that someones created solely to release a punk compilation from their basement? That's a majorily slippery slope that leads straight to elitism.


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