Here's a piece I wrote for an encyclopedia called "Music in American Life" (ABC-CLIO, 2013). Feel free to visit their site and spend $415 for the set.
Indie Rock Defined
“Indie” rock began as a structural movement by musicians in the 1970s and ‘80s to free themselves from the constraints of the major label dominated recording industry; “indie” is short for “independent.” The defining characteristic that set early indie artists apart from others, especially in the decade leading up to the success of Nirvana, was that they did not make records for any of the big six major labels of the time: Capital, CBS, MCA, PolyGram, RCA, and WEA. While the structural requirements for being “indie” faded in the post-Nirvana rock world, a recognizable “indie” genre emerged with the presentation of independence as its key feature.
As a structural movement, indie rock was a direct descendent of the Do It Yourself (DIY) ethos of punk rock from the 1970s that stressed artists’ rights to control their own products. Punk and indie artists perceived that major label production and distribution methods compromised musicians’ artistic integrity. Major labels, the story went, have vested interests in creating marketable product rather than works of art.
Independent labels like SST in Southern California, Dischord in Washington, D.C., and SubPop in Seattle spearheaded the indie rock movement of the 1980s. The ethos of these labels was to empower artists to make uncompromising music. The people who ran these labels believed that rock is about more than just product, it is about a self-supporting community of musicians, labels, venues, fanzines, and fans.
In the nineties, with the success of Nirvana, the major label music industry developed strategies for marketing indie artists on the major label level. At this point, indie rock became as much musical genre as structural movement.
In the pre-rock and roll late 1940s and early fifties, the music industry was overrun by independent labels releasing music by new artists. Costs for these labels were low because they were usually operated by one person, didn’t hire union musicians and didn’t pay royalties. Because independent label owners captured a share of the market major labels weren’t exploiting, the label head didn’t have to know the entire record market to be successful. A short list of these early independents includes Sun in Memphis, Chess in Chicago, King/Federal in Cincinnati, Imperial and Aladdin in Los Angeles, Atlantic in New York, and Savoy in Newark, New Jersey.
Independent labels, then, put out the first rock and roll records. By 1955, however, major labels began putting out covers of independent label hits that outsold the originals. Kids preferred the original rock and roll songs, but the independents couldn’t compete with the majors’ larger promotional budgets. In 1959, major labels out-grossed independent labels in the rock and roll market for the first time.
In the wake of the payola rulings in 1959, major labels managed to wrest control of radio programming away from individual disc jockeys in favor of playlists created by major label-friendly program directors. Also, the major labels now controlled a large portion of America’s record distribution system. Independent labels had to contract outside distributors to get their product to market, major labels owned their own distribution networks. Therefore, by the end of the sixties the major labels controlled most of the rock music production and distribution market.
By the mid-seventies the major recording labels had firm control of the rock market in two more ways. First, with the internationalization of the rock music market brought on by the British Invasion, major labels benefited by exercising their royalty and distribution agreements with their major European counterparts. Second, because the cost of the now popular 12-inch LP was significantly more than for the once popular 7-inch single, independent labels couldn’t compete. The initial investment to produce such records was too much for them.
Punk rock in the late 1970s was an explicit structural reaction against the centralized major label market that dominated the rock music world. Punk rockers rejected major recording and distribution companies, constructing independent companies of their own. Because of an industry-wide economic slump, and because they were still more interested in disco than punk rock, the major labels were leaving these new independents alone. The number of independent labels was on the rise. The stage was set for the burgeoning of a new rock scene based on an independent market structure separate from the major labels.
Modern Indie Rock
Keeping with the DIY ethic of punk rock, labels such as Alternative Tentacles in San Francisco, Epitaph in Los Angeles, and Touch and Go in Chicago ushered in a new indie label movement in the 1980s. The early to mid-eighties also saw the formation of a number of bands considered crucial to the coming indie genre: Bad Religion, Meat Puppets, Pixies, and R.E.M. to name a few. It was also around this time that another important structural component in the indie rock music scene appeared, college radio.
College radio existed in one form or another for many years, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that it became the backbone of indie rock by providing a rationale for its existence. College stations promoted indie shows, played indie records, and had indie-savvy DJs who, rather than playing music dictated by a program director, picked songs themselves. Because college radio was funded primarily by the schools in which they were located, they were economically independent from, and thus worked outside of, the major label commodity system.
Another important structural feature of the 1980s indie scene was fanzines. Small, local, independently run magazines like Flipside, Maximumrocknroll, and Forced Exposure were the literature of the indie rock world. Fanzines were where indie rockers could read about new releases and local shows by their favorite indie bands as well as find other like-minded people with whom to start bands. Fanzines weren’t concerned with pleasing sponsors, they were only concerned with presenting a genuine indie voice. Because the writers were of the indie scene, and not professional journalists, they wrote in a language to which indie fans could relate.
With the help of college radio and fanzines, and because indie labels were relatively small, put out a lot of 7-inch vinyl singles, weren’t overly concerned with making money, and sold to indie shops using indie distributors, they invested less money in their bands than did major labels. Thus, the indie world became as efficient at producing and distributing their artists as the major labels were with theirs, effectively becoming a shadow system to the major label industry.
By the early 1990s a number of bands that were successful on college radio stations with their independent label releases made the leap to the major labels: Husker Du, the Replacements, and Sonic Youth to name three. The success of these bands drew the attention of executives in the major label world. Major labels began raiding the rosters of independent labels, relegating them to a sort of minor leagues for the major labels, the indie labels taking chances on new artists, the major labels snatching up those that were most successful. Along the way, college radio also went from being personal and idiosyncratic to being a breeding ground for record executives. The end of indie rock as structural reaction was near.
In the early 1990s eighty-percent of compact discs and singles sold were by major labels. Major labels dominated the production, distribution, and promotion of the market, keeping indie labels and bands at a disadvantage. Many indie labels were dependent upon major label distributors to get their product on the market. Consequently, the rise of the indie industry in the 1980s had a conservative effect on indie rock in the 1990s. They were working with, rather than against, the major label industry.
With the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind in 1991 the indie world became mainstream. Nirvana, a band with strong indie credentials (their first album, Bleach, was released on SubPop), was suddenly the world’s most popular band, and they were taking advantage of the financial resources which only major labels could provide (Nevermind was released on the major label DGC). In Nirvana’s wake, aesthetically “cool” indie bands could be successful at the major label level.
In the post-Nirvana music world indie rock lost its place as a structural reaction to the mainstream major label industry. Since indie (now called “alternative” and/or “grunge”) was selling, indie artists saw that they could make money in the industry they previously rejected. Signing to a major label was done with a shrug by post-Nirvana indie bands. Being on an independent label was simply seen as a career step toward being signed by a major label.
Indie as Genre
After Nevermind, indie rock became a mainstream music genre. The immediate precursors to the indie genre were punk and alternative bands like Black Flag, Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr, Fugazi, Mud Honey, and Beat Happening. These are all bands with beginnings in various punk scenes around the United States, but with varying musical styles. As such, indie in the eighties and nineties was anything but a coherent sound. What lumps these punk, alternative and indie bands together is an expressed (though not necessarily practiced) rejection of mainstream music norms.
Modern indie genre presentations emphasize musicians as ordinary, average Joes, flaunting mainstream conventions of rock musicians as stars. Indie bands are seen as “real.” They wear “real” clothes and sing in “real” voices in an attempt to dissolve the distinction between audience members and artists. In being “real,” indie bands often record their own music, do their own artwork, and distribute their own records. Their sound is often “lo-fi” or under produced.
Despite the expressed rejection of mainstream norms, the mainstreaming of indie rock as a genre is evident in many places in the twenty-first century. In 2011, SiriusXM Satellite Radio has a station called “Sirius XMU: Indie/College/Unsigned” devoted to indie rock. The title alludes to indie rock’s anti-mainstream history grounded in college radio and independent recording labels. There are at least two “professionally”-run websites that deal exclusively with indie rock: “Indierockreviews.com” and “Indierockcafe.com.”
Even with its mainstream and major label status, indie rock’s most consistent code remains the presentation of anti-mainstream structure. An article on Indierockcafe.com, for instance, states that the site has a treasure trove of music to share from “bands and artists most of you have never heard of before,” because they know that we “love hearing music from talented artists you are unfamiliar with” (“7 Bands”). The emphasis here is on the obscure and underground as opposed to the mainstream. The same website provides a list of bands that fall under the indie rock moniker: The Decemberists, Bright Eyes, Drive By Truckers, Smith Westerns, the Strokes, and Radiohead, bands with a tangled web of independent and major label connections.
Musically, modern indie rock is often a thickly layered mashup of traditional instruments juxtaposed over electronic beats and samples. The band Arcade Fire, for instance, includes not only the rock music staples of guitar, bass, and drums, but also mixes violin, viola, cello, glockenspiel, French horn, and hurdy-gurdy into their sound, with most of the band members being proficient at multiple instruments.
Writers on these websites describe “good” indie songs as “good” pop songs. They are danceable and hummable and inviting for audience members to join in the singing. Good indie songs are described as “unbridled pop bliss” (Bear, “Echo”), having “infectiously driving hooks” (Justman), “music to move to” (Witt), and having a “powerful beat” (Bear, “Interview”). They are, despite indie’s history, mainstream pop songs.
Modern indie rock has a history reaching back to the beginnings of rock and roll. It has always been seen as an alternative. In the fifties and sixties it was an alternative to mainstream smoothed-over rock and roll. In the seventies punk rock, a direct precursor to modern indie rock, was an explicit structural alternative to mainstream rock stars and the major label system. In the aftermath of Nirvana and into the twenty-first century, indie rock is itself a mainstream rock genre, with one of its main codes being a presentation of being an alternative to the mainstream.
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Indie Rock Café. <http://www.indierockcafe.com/>.
Indie Rock Reviews. <http://www.indierockreviews.com>/.
“7 Bands You Gotta Hear, Vol. 1: Golden Dogs, Rec Centre, Smoke & Feathers, Boogie Monster, The Wind, El Santo Nada, M&JC.” Indierockcafe.com. Web. July 24, 2011.
Bear. “Echo & the Bunnymen-The Proxy-MP3 Download/Song Review.” Indierockcafe.Com. Web. July 24, 2011.
Bear. “Interview: A Lull-Confetti.” Indierockcafe.Com. Web. July 25, 2011.
Justman, Alexis. “Kitten: Sunday School EP Review.” Indierockcafe.com. Web. July 25, 2011.
Witt, Britt. “Holy Ghost! Full-Length Album Review.” Indierockcafe.com. Web. July 25, 2011.