This is a paper I presented at the meetings of the American Sociological Association, Washington, D.C., 1995
Talkin’ Rock Talk: Definitional Talk among Indie Rockers
Howard S. Becker (1982) writes that “Art worlds consist of all the people whose activities are necessary to the production of the characteristic works which that world, and perhaps others as well, define as art” (p. 34). One of the activities necessary to the production of art, although not immediately and obviously practical, is the construction of conventions which delineate individuals and group-s as the type of people who produce the kind of art in question. An important way that such conventions are constructed is through discourse, or talking.
In this paper I discuss the talk which members of a specific art world, the world of indie rock music, use in defining themselves and their music. In actively constructing the world of “indie rock” the people I discuss here elaborate upon what they consider to be integral elements of their art. Indie rock “definitional talk” about sounds, vocals, and visuals contains conventions which distinguish indie rock from other genres of rock; and indie rockers from other types of rockers.
The indie rock world does not exist in a vacuum; it is historically and structurally connected with the larger world of rock music in general. Historically, the indie rock world is closely related to the world which Rachel Felder (1993) calls “alternative rock.” It is a world which is a direct descendant both musically and structurally of punk rock both in 1970s England and in the in the 1970s and eighties United States.
Punk rock, argues Felder, was a musical reaction to “the slick, overproduced music of the seventies records by bands like Genesis, Yes, and Abba” (p. 3). By the early seventies, writes Alan di Perna in Guitar World magazine, mainstream rock music had “become pretentious, self-important and insufferably boring” (1995, p. 49). Punk rock, as a reaction to the mainstream music of the seventies, “proved that all you need to rock is three chords and a bad attitude (di Perna, p. 47).
But punk rock encompassed more than just a musical reaction to the rock of the seventies. It was also a reaction to the very structure of the mainstream music industry. Punk rock emphasized a rejection of major recording and distribution companies and embraced their independent recording and distribution counterparts.
In Star-Making Machinery (1976) Geoffrey Stokes writes that with the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the early fifties independent recording labels were well represented in the top selling record charts; major labels felt that rock ‘n’ roll was just a fad and virtually ignored it. By 1958, however, major labels became aware of the tremendous financial potential of the music and took firm control of the rock ‘n’ roll market. With the birth of “rock” in the early sixties, as distinct from rock ‘n’ roll, the major labels had learned their lesson and began signing bands “almost as fast as they could learn to play their instruments—and in at least some cases, it seemed, quite a bit faster (Stokes, p. 6). Major labels have been in control of the rock music market ever since.
There are a number of ways, writes Stokes, that major labels control the rock music market; all of which have to do with the amount of capital it takes to run a record company. One way is through the ownership of record distribution companies. Independent labels must pay distributors from outside the label to get their product to the public. Major labels, on the other hand, own their own distribution systems.
According to Stokes, major labels gained control of the rock music market in two more ways during the sixties. The first is what he calls the internationalization” of the music market. As the “English Invasion” of rock music, led by the Beatles, hit the United States, American major labels “benefitted almost willy-nilly” by exercising their royalty and distribution agreements with their major European counterparts.
A third way that Stokes argues major labels took control of the rock music market in the sixties was through the popularity of the 12-inch vinyl, 33-rpm Long Play (LP) record. Prior to the sixties the most popular format for rock ‘n’ roll records was the 7-inch, 45-rpm single. Because of the increased initial investment required to produce the LP, independent labels found it more difficult to compete with the majors.
So by the mid-seventies—through ownership of distribution, the internationalization of the market, and the increased popularity of the LP—major labels had gained firm control of the records which rock music fans could purchase. According to Stokes, “two companies, Warner’s and CBS [both majors], held half of the domestic market in 1974” (p. 9).
Punk rock was an explicit reaction against this centralized, major-label-dominated, record market. In its reaction to and refusal of mainstream music and the mainstream music industry, punk laid the foundation for the indie rockers of my study. Indeed, the term “indie” is simply an abbreviation of “independent;” and as I just discussed, independence from the major label music industry was a major achievement of punk rock.
Major labels dominate the record market now in the same ways they did when Stokes was writing in the 1970s; and the indie rock world is as much a reaction to the major labels as was punk rock’s initial reaction. Financially sound independent distribution companies are a way that indie records make it to some retail stores; and those stores are likely to be independently owned. Independent labels have also struck distribution deals with independent labels in other countries as a way of combating the domination of major labels in the international market. Finally, in response to the overwhelming popularity of Compact Discs (CDs) over vinyl records, independent labels have found a profitable niche marketing vinyl in both 12-inch LPs and 7-inch singles.
The huge success of the band Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind, however, threw the indie world into flux. Nirvana, a band with strong indie credentials, was suddenly the most popular rock band on the planet; and the band appeared to be taking advantage of the financial success which only major labels can provide.
Before Nirvana indie credibility was evidenced by a band’s relationship with independent music partners. Following Nirvana’s breakthrough, a plethora of indie bands released records for major labels. So the post-Nirvana indie world is characterized by an ambiguity among indie rockers as to the meaning of a band’s relationship with the music industry. The core defining convention of being indie, dealing with independent labels, has been thrown into question.
Although the indie rock world consists of a strong network of independent labels, radio stations, clubs, and fanzines, the mainstream major label music industry does have an influence upon indie rock bands. Because of this influence the indie rock world is not a static, well-defined world; rather, it is perceived by many indie rocker simply as a rung on the ladder to success in the mainstream music industry. With a few limited exceptions, membership as an indie rocker is temporary; bands either move up (sign a contract with a major label) or our (they disband).
Indie rockers constantly engage in a type of discourse I term “definitional talk.” Definitional talk is an element of what Becker (op cit) calls conventions; “agreements that have become part of the conventional way of doing things in that art” (p. 29). In the context I outlined above—indie rock is a reaction against the major label music industry while the same industry continues to have a strong influence upon those who claim to wish to stave it off—definitional talk concerning the latest indie rock conventions serves three purposes. First, in the post-Nirvana ambiguity about bands’ relationships with major labels, definitional talk serves as a means for identifying which bands are truly indie and which are not. Second, because most bands either move up or out of the indie world, new bands must constantly be socialized. Third, definitional talk serves to keep commitment to the indie world high among those bands which do not disband, yet do not advance to the major label level.
Indie rock definitional talk is a pervasive discourse about the specifics of their art. As I will show, definitional talk centers around conventions concerning the sounds, vocals, and visuals of indie rock “music.” Because their structural identity is ambiguous, and their membership tenure is temporary, indie rock bands must continually engage in definitional talk about their art as a means to maintaining the boundaries of their world.
Data and Methods
The data for this paper come from more than two years of participant observation field work in Chicago’s indie rock music world. I began my research I the Summer of 1992 by observing the routines of a single Chicago band. I attended their rehearsals, went to their live shows, and spent many non-band related hours with the members of the band. From this base I began a snowball interview schedule from which I formally interviewed 43 members of the rock world. In addition, I spent 19 months, from the Summer of 1992 through January of 1994 going to rock shows, writing for a Chicago-based fanzine, and as a Disc Jockey at Northwestern University’s student run radio station.
There are aspects of my data which should be specified. Forty of my 43 interviews were with people who are full participants in Chicago’s rock scene. Next, because my interviews consist of people whom my interviewees recommended (snowball sampling) my data are a non-random sample of rock world members who commonly refer to their world as the “indie rock world.” They speak of “indie records,” “indie bands,” as well as “indie rock” in general. Thus, although I feel that many of the points I make can sensitize us to processes happening in social worlds beyond that of the one I am describing, it is important to remember that the world on which my assertions are based is the world of Chicago Indie Rock.
Finally, because my argument centers of the talk of indie rockers, doubt may be cast about the congruence between the data and findings of my interviews and the ways rockers “really talk.” Because of the informal nature of my interviews, and because of my extensive observations in virtually all segments of the lives of indie rockers, I feel that what I talked about with interviewees is very close to what they talked about when I was not around. In fact, some of the quotes which I include in this paper are not from interviews at all, they are from my observations of indie rockers talking to one another in “natural” settings.
Indie Rock Talk
Musically, indie rockers actively define their music in much the same way that heavy metal rockers do in Deena Weinstein’s book, Heavy Metal (1991). Indie rock
has a code, or set of rules, that allows one to objectively determine whether a song, an album, a band, or a performance should be classified as belonging to the category “[indie rock]” (p. 6).
As I have mentioned, however, the world of indie rock in inherently problematic. As conflict exists between being perceived as a “good” indie band and being successful in the major label market, it is not always easy for indie rockers to “objectively determine” whether other songs, albums, bands, or performances are indeed indie rock.
John P. Hewitt, in Dilemmas of the American Self (1989), argues that discourse, or talk, is one way in which the problematic aspects of culture are made visible. He writes:
. . .the surest path to the understanding of a given culture is an examination of the discourse in which it lives. The things about which people talk reflect the matters about which they worry, and their discourse both embodies and reflects their culture. Although no single mode of discourse or single text can tell us all there is to know about a culture, those things people talk about most—and especially those persisting oppositions, arguments, and tensions in their discourse—may speak eloquently about their most important ways of thinking, feeling, and acting (p. 11).
Because of the conflict which exists between good indie music and major label success, much of an indie rocker’s everyday time is taken up in the pursuit of discourse centered around answering the question, “What is indie rock?” In what follows I will examine the discourse of indie rockers. I will describe three conventions—sounds are catchy yet taste for them is acquired; music and vocals are valued over lyrics; and a non-look is valued over a consciously contrived look—as they are imbedded in definitional talk concerning indie rock sounds, vocals and visuals. Such definitional talk about the art of indie rock is one way in which indie rockers define their world and minimize the problematic nature of their situation.
A key convention in the definitional talk of indie rockers concerning the way their music sounds is “catchiness.” Catchiness is that quality of a song which makes it more or less singable. For example, I overheard one guitarist being complimented on the quality of his band’s tape because the listener was able to sing along to the songs on only his second listen; the songs were that catchy.
Although the above was a compliment to the songwriting and playing of the band as an indie rock band, it really only serves to place the band’s music within the larger encompassing genre of rock music. As Felder (op cit) mentions about alternative rock, bands incorporate much of what they are reacting against into their own music; they turn their enemy’s music on its head. In this sense, most rock music is considered catchy, and indie rock is no exception.
One way that indie rockers talk about their music which sets it apart from other genres of rock is through a vivid vocabulary of adjectives that are only learned through extended participation in the indie world. That is, indie rockers discuss their music with each other in ways which suggest that to understand good indie rock one must acquire a taste for indie rock. Those outsiders who don’t get indie rock are not going to understand a music described using these adjectives.
In this vein, the vocabulary of adjectives indie rockers use are related to conventional ways of speaking about easy or hard to understand things in everyday life. So, for example, indie rockers often refer to mainstream rock bands as “smooth,” or “candy coated.” These are adjectives which suggest the easy-to-digest nature of mainstream music.
But one must learn to like indie rock. The language indie rockers use, then, in describing their music is of a qualitatively different flavor from that used to describe mainstream music. They use adjectives like “rough, harsh, viscous” and “grungy and slammin’” to refer to indie rock music. These are terms which suggest caution should be taken, especially by non-indie rockers, in listening to indie bands. To understand and enjoy music described in such a way is a learned and acquired taste.
Indie rockers are defining, in part, what indie rock is when they discuss a song or band based upon its catchiness or its acquired esthetic. The former is a convention shared with many other genres of rock music, the latter is a convention which is inter-subjectively constructed among indie rockers.
A solidly agreed upon convention of any rock genre is that the music must have lyrics. Ultimately, however, indie definitional talk focuses on the importance of music over lyrics. Rock, after all, is music.
"If all I was interested in was lyrics, I’d be a poet, or read poetry, which I don’t. So the music is more important. That energy, that spirit is more important than 'that’s beautiful, what he said.'" (personal interview; drummer/vocalist)
The convention of music over lyrical content is a reaction by indie rockers to their perception of mainstream rock lyrics as simplistic and uncreative. Mainstream rock songs, according to this talk, stick to what indie rockers consider standard conventions of love, relationships, sex, dancing, and partying.
"One thing that annoys me about rock in typically the lyrics are not really in depth. They’re typically about love or relationships. Which is fine, but there’s too much of that." (personal interview; guitarist)
This guitarist is suggesting that the lyrical content of mainstream rock music tends to be formulaic. It’s a lyrical style which has been done many times before. Thus, if indie rock is going to be distinguishable from the mainstream it must react against such banal lyrical content.
The bind that indie rockers are in, however, is that they do recognize the convention that a rock song, even an indie rock song, must have lyrics. The indie rock alternative is to stress the importance of “vocals” over lyrics. The convention of vocals over lyrics emphasizes that indie rock vocals need not be distinguishable as words or lyrics, but instead only as utterances and sounds; or as nonsensical strings of words.
One way the convention of vocals over lyrics comes out in indie rock definitional talks is through mention of other bands that demonstrate the convention; bands which, implied in the definitional talk, are considered members of the indie rock world.
"I like stuff like Iggy Pop or James Brown where the lyrics don’t really mean anything; like Funkadelic or something" (guitarist/vocalist).
This musician is pointing out the above mentioned convention which gives importance to vocals, whether or not they are distinguishable as words or lyrics. He suggests that Iggy Pop, James Brown, and Funkadelic are all artists he respects more because of their vocals than their actual lyrics. In fact, this musician is echoing what rock journalist Lester Bangs, in a record review from Creem magazine in 1970, writes about Iggy Pop’s vocals, from a time when Pop was with the Stooges.
And just when you least expect it he flings out one of the bizarre, bestial-sounding nonverbal expletives which are one of the album’s hallmarks: wildcat growls (after Roy Orbison?), hawking caws, whoops and shredded gargling threats (Bangs 1987, p. 49).
The above two quotes give evidence to the long-standing nature of the indie rock convention of vocals over lyrics. Although the quotes are 22 years apart, they are quite similar. Lending support to my statement that indie rockers definitional talk about such conventions consists of allusions to past members of the indie rock world, Bangs makes reference to the “growls” of Roy Orbison.
As with the lyrical content of indie rock, definitional talk concerning visual presentation tends to subordinate the importance of a “look” to the primacy of music.
"On the one hand I really don’t care for bands that obviously spend a lot of time cultivating their look and their image. Where they spend more time on that then they do on what they’ve got to play. I don’t like that" (guitarist).
But as with the convention of music and vocals over lyrics, the convention of music over look is complicated by indie rockers’ understandings that what they do is a performing art; general rock music conventions emphasize the performance aspect of the art as consisting in large part of a look. Because of this understanding the definitional talk of indie rockers concerning visuals is usually linked to how they think their audience wants to see them. The previous musician concludes his remarks on visuals in the following example.
"But on the other hand, people want to see a band. They want to see what they look like, what they’re wearing. They want to see how they act" (guitarist).
As with the convention of vocals over lyrics, indie rock’s convention concerning visuals is a reaction of concession rather than a reaction of rejection to the visual conventions of mainstream rock. The guitarist is conceding the fact that if an indie band is going to have at least minimal success, even if just in the realm of the independent music industry, they will have to give some amount of thought to their look.
Indie rocks’ convention downplaying the visual yet recognizing its general importance is incorporated in definitional talk as what the next musician calls a “non-look.”
"You’ve really gotta walk a fine line with that. It’s best to show yourselves somewhat but not too much. The whole idea behind punk was sort of like a non-look. A lot of bands were just very plain. There were some bands that didn’t make it ‘cause of their look. All they had to sell was a look. It’s a fine line. It has to be the music first, the look second. You look at bands like the Minutemen, they weren’t much to look at" (bassist/vocalist).
This musician suggests that, just as the convention of vocals over lyrics is a concession to music over lyrics, the convention of a non-look over a look is a concession to the convention of music over a look.
The above musician emphasizes the non-look over look in the same way that the earlier musicians emphasized the convention of vocals over lyrics; he refers back to a genre of rock, punk rock, from which many indie rock conventions derive. Some punk bands, he suggests, had nothing more than a look to sell. These bands did not succeed and, consequently, are conventions of indie rock talk only in so much as they point out what not to do. He also refers to a specific punk rock band, the Minutemen, as a band that illustrates well the non-look convention he is discussing.
In this paper I sugget that a contradiction exists, from the perspective of indie rockers, between “good” indie music and mainstream music industry success. People who consider themselves part of the indie rock world engage in what I have termed definitional talk as a way to deal with this problematic situation. I outlined three purposes which definitional talk serves for indie rockers: in the post-Nirvana rock industry definitional talk reduces the amgiguity of membership in the indie world; it socializes new members into the constantly changing membership of indie rock; and it keeps commitment to the indie world high among those who have not moved up or out.
It is in this context of conflict between indie identity and mainstream success that the practicality of definitional talk appears. Definitional talk occurs most often when indie rockers talk about their art; about the sounds, vocals, and visuals that make indie rock distinct from other rock music genres. Practically, it is the conventions that are imbedded within indie definitional talk that serve to identify the truly indie from the outsiders. The conventions I mention in this paper—the sounds are catchy yet acquired; music and vocals are emphasized over lyrics; and visually a non-look is emphasized over a look—are three ways which indie rocker distinguish their world from others.
As a final word, I suggest that definitional talk is a type of discourse that can be observed in rock worlds beyond that of indie rock. Clearly, indie rock is simply one epoch in the evolving history of rock music. But I am sure the occurrence of this type of discourse is evident in all other epochs and worlds of rock’s thirty-year history. From the bands of the British invasion, through the hippies and psychedelic rock, disco, punk, and, most recently, grunge/alternative rock, definitional talk is how the members of particular rock worlds construct and maintain individual and group identity. As new and unique rock worlds take form in the future the study of the definitional talk used by their members will be informative about the conventions they use to distinguish their art, and thus their world, from others.
Bangs, Lester. 1987. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Greil Marus, Ed. New York: Vintage.
Becker, Howard S. 1982. Art Worlds. Berkeley, University of California Press.
Di Perna, Alan. 1995. “Revolution Calling.” Guitar World 17 (January): 46-52.
Felder, Rachel. 1993. Manic Pop Thrill. Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco Press.
Hewitt, John P. 1989. Dilemmas of the American Self. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Stokes, Geoffrey. 1976. Star-Making Machinery: The Odyssey of and Album. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
Weinstein, Deena. 1991. Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology. New York: Lexington.
Nirvana. 1989. Bleach. SubPop Records.
Nirvana. 1991. Nevermind. DGC Records.
 Indeed, I originally used the term “alternative” in writing this paper. I changed to “indie” only after going through my field notes, and consulting with some people from the world I observed. “Indie,” rather than “alternative,” is not only the term of choice among the rockers I am discussing, it is also more structurally and historically accurate.
 Nirvana’s first album, Bleach (1989) was on the independent label Sub Pop.
 Twenty-six of my interviews were with musicians in local unsigned Chicago area bands; these were bands which played regularly in Chicago rock clubs, but had no recordings which were financed by anyone but themselves. One interview was with a Chicago musician in a band which makes records for a nationally-known, Chicago-based, independent recording company; two interviews were with Chicago musicians who are members of bands which make record for major recording labels. Two of my interviews were with recording engineers who work in Chicago. Five interviews were with people who co-own or co-manage Chicago-based independent recording labels; one interview was with the manager of a nationally famous, Chicago-based band which makes records for a major label (the manager lives in Chicago); one interview was with a rock music journalist from a Chicago weekly newspaper; one interview was with an owner of a Chicago rock club which features unsigned Chicago bands. One interview was with an independent Chicago booking agent. Finally, three of my interviews were with musicians in bands which make records for major recording labels, but have no affiliation with Chicago’s local scene.
 My tri-part breakdown of indie rock into sound, vocals, and visuals owes much to Weinstein’s (1991) analysis of heavy metal as consisting of sonic, visual, and verbal dimensions.
 Pop’s stage name at the time Bangs wrote the article was Iggy Stooge.