Indie – a modern etymology, by you

“Indie” is a term often bandied about when talking about music. What does it mean though? It’s difficult for anyone to describe it and I guess, it also depends on context. If one checks the venerable, and of course often flawed Wikipedia, one gets two options: Indie Rock and Independent Music. SO lets have a little synopsis of what the masses mean by each of these.

Firstly “Indie Rock”, according to Wikipedia, is a sub-genre of alternative rock music, and generally describes music of this style, that is produced and distributed without the aid of major labels. Simple?

So “Independent Music”, again paraphrased from the great digital tome, is music produced without the aid of major labels. OK, so in fact there appears to be very little difference, except that we usually associate it with guitars… Fair enough.

So, in conclusion, we are looking at music that is made without the interference associated with major labels. Therefore, we are reliant on self-promotion or independent labels for our releases. Splendid, that’s all very simple then. However, let us take this out into the wider world. Allmusic has a curiously short list of artists that are classed as “indie”, I found this quite strange. On this list, I spotted The White Stripes. Eveyone knows them right? Brother and sister (or are they?!), possibly man and ex-wife… Or.. Well whatever. They definitely have that “indie” aesthetic don’t they? Very do-it-yourself, very lo-fi. Lets have a look at their releases. That’s odd, out of their seven LPs, four are on V2, a subsiduary of Universal, or Warner. Both very much part of the Big Four (or Five or Six depending on which era we are referring) and very much major labels. So where does this “indie” label come from for them? Curious indeed…

So, the combined collaborative mind of the internet has come up with “indie refers to music created via means independent of a major record label, unless it’s a matter of style, then you can be indie and on a major label”. OK, I can see we’re barking up the wrong tree here. Let’s move on.

I grew up listening to what I thought and referred to as “indie” music. Two examples which come straight to mind are Ned’s Atomic Dustbin and Pop Will Eat Itself. So what did I mean by indie? Well, the way I had indie in my head was described quite well in a biography of both of these bands and also The Wonderstuff called “The Eight-Legged Atomic Dustbin Will Eat Itself” (snappy, I know) by Martin Roach. In it, Clint Mansell describes the early days of PWEI and their first EP c.1987:

“We went for this five-track EP with name and tracks only on it. It cost us, all told, about £350, and took fourteen hours, at some studio well out in the country. To listen to the record now the sound isn’t that great but it did the job at the time. We found a shop in Birmingham that sold brown paper bags and bought five hundred for £2-something, along with a John Bull printing kit, and spent a day stamping it all out – they looked great and we could sell ’em at a pound a piece.”

And then on the glamour of gigging, again from Clint:

“We played at least three or four gigs every week […] mostly arranged by ourselves. One night we supported the Lemon Drops in Newcastle and then the next night The Bodines in Brighton; that’s a bloody long way, I can tell you, but we had nothing else to do, we got enough to cover the petrol and we loved it. We used to sleep in the back of the van and get our hands on anything alcoholic we could and sleep that off in the back of the bus. That’s how we got this thing about us all being smelly, ‘cos we’d be on these two mattresses in this van, and you didn’t really wash a great deal unless you happened to pass a Little Chef or something.”

Or more succinctly from Graham of the band:

“The nicotine used to condense on the van ceiling and the drip on to your face when you were asleep.”

Those two stories are what I have in my mind when I think about “indie” as it used to be. Do-it-yourself, everything from distributing your music to arranging gigs. They were eventually signed to RCA for a while, an example of a large indie record label at the time. Indie now though, all I personally think about is floppy-haired pretentious kids writing twee guitar-pop tunes that hasn’t progressed anywhere since 1997. More importantly, all this stuff is churned out by major labels or their subsidiaries and labelled “indie” to fit an aesthetic of their own devising, that’s marketed through NME and other such publications.

So what does everyone else think? I threw the question out across Twitter and Facebook to garner the opinions of my peers. Here are a few examples I’ve picked out. I’ll keep them anonymous but generally credit them at the end.

“indie to me means a cock wearing a shit hat with a scarf while in doors.”

“indie= whatever they’re trying to sell to students. when I was 14 it was Nirvana, somewhere around 16 it became Blur and Oasis, then the stereophonics…… then increasingly twee or wanky stuff with cardigans and angular hair”

“it should mean independent label, but to me I usually mean it as 90’s british music; inspiral carpets, soup dragons, cast, happy mondays, even oasis. 🙂 “

“To me , Indie means small label, possibly own label or something run by only a few people.. limited resources etc. I always thought it was short for independent..I.E. not tied to a major..I’m thinking small time, small office operations. Virgin (the label) were once of that category..an indie can become a major by expansion and lose the tag ‘Indie’ IMHO”

“on its own, wet guitar music :(“

“Depends who you’re talking to. It can mean ‘good, independantly produced’ music. It can also mean Kasabian.”

“Not sure it means anything to me anymore other than in a negative “blokes with guitars sounding like Oasis” way. Indiepop on the other hand is quite distinct. Kinda fey, happy, friendly stuff from Bis to Belle&Seb.”

“Well, indie is independent, which suggests that the genre is made up of all sorts of artists who are just on an independent label. Sadly, ‘indie’ has now changed to describe a specific type.

When in conversation with someone that likes ‘indie’ music, it tends to be your Razorlight, Kooks, Libertines sort of stuff, whilst they may have been on independent labels, it’s the style of music that is indie now.”

“acts that breakthrough using an independant lable or producing it all them selves.”

“More of a spirit thing to me. More experimental and not hyped by mainstream press and lumped in with ‘the latest movement’. Bands that are semi-popular but with a loyal, unfleeting audience. “

“independant music away from commercial crap with an audience not affected by shiney stuff but more stimulated through the music :)”

Up to here we have a pretty similar viewpoint. That is, it started out as a definition for those who didn’t follow the herd, but has turned into an aesthetic which doesn’t reflect the actual method by which these artists realised their goals. So we’re talking DIY, to nice haircuts. Then we have two quite different points of view here:

“For me “indie” is an ethos, a spirit. You can be independent and selling out arenas, playing open mic nights, hell even playing in your bedroom.

It’s an ideal, a way of living your life, reflected in but not contained by music. It’s doing so…mething purely for the love of it, the need to do it cos its a part of who you are.

Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash, Bad Religion, the dearly departed Frank Sidebottom – all great “indies”, their music living beyond them (OK, not quite in the case of Frank…) because of its humanity – the simplicity or complexity of being alive and trying to make sense of all the crazy shit around you.

I disagree that it should be reserved for bands who don’t make it big, sign to a major, etc etc – Cyndi Lauper was independent in my opinion. Likewise Abba, they said what they needed to say, wrote some really personal music and then rode of into the distance cos nothing else needed saying.

Contrast this with the independent sound/look of a million and one “punk” bands, all striving to be so different and only achieving uniformity.

Independents don’t follow, they lead.”

So, what the contributer here is saying, is that independent is perhaps irrelevant of label and irrelevant of production and distribution, but more independent of control perhaps or of trends, or of what they were expected to do. “Independents don’t follow, they lead.” I like that idea, perhaps innovative in their independence from trends. Interesting… This one may cap it off for me though:

“indie should mean the motivation for making the music is making the music, not to be rich, famous, cool etc etc. That doesn’t mean you can’t be those things, but that shouldn’t be why you write/play music.

It shouldn’t, although it has come… to mean that its pop that doesn’t want to be called pop because that’s not cool enough, selling a pale imitation of music that was made by independents that became popular.

indie needs a new word, or to take back its own. perhaps if we make a concerted effort to call every bland pop band with a similar line up to the beatles indielite or indiepop you can have indie back to mean what it should. otherwise we can drop indie and just call it independent music. Music that is independent. Music that is music for its own sake.”

Indie music should be music for it’s own sake. I like that idea too. I think ideally, for a lot of people and those musicians and bands that are really deserving of the term “artists”, indie should describe the innovative, those that aren’t shackled by trends and fashions and that aren’t out to capitalise on the weak who need to belong. Indie should be those artists, whatever their genre, whatever their means of distibuting their wares, that do it for the love of what they do. Not for the love of fame and moolah. Not that there’s anything wrong with being rich and famous, hell, if I made money out of the music I made, I wouldn’t turn it down for some misplaced sense of superiority in being obscure. I’m sure there are artists out there who earn a packet but are still doing what they love not what they’re told. I don’t know, I don’t know them personally of course…

So in summary what we have discovered are three stages in the evolution of “indie”.

The beginning
In the beginning, indie was a label given to those artists who did things for themselves and were “independent” the money and power of major record labels. They published either on their own or through small labels.

The ideal
This evolved into an ideal that was perhaps never realised. That of an artist who would produce music for the sake of it, regardless of label pressure, fashion, trends. They did what was important to them and expressed themselves “independently” of any outside influence.

The present
Now indie conjures up images of silly-fringed clones, bedecked in Topshop apparell and bound by the trends they are told to conform to by music press that is sat in the pocket of major labels. Indie is now an aesthetic styled on the success of historical bands that were of the first definition of indie.

I’ll leave you to think about it yourself, what I have garnered from this little experiment is that the definition is very much a personal thing. I’ll leave you with a sketch from The Fast Show that one of the contributers reminded me of and linked me two, “Indie Club”:

Thanks to:

Andy Neale, Vanessa Austin, Pete Sloane, Marc Dowie, Christopher Bate, Megan Clapton, Joanne Green, Pete Ashton, Paul Stokes, Julia Gilbert, Jay Stringer, Christine Cowley, Jaymz Williams

3 thoughts on “Indie – a modern etymology, by you

  1. That is one top comment, I near fell off my chair reading this comment.. lol

    “Depends who you’re talking to. It can mean ‘good, independantly produced’ music. It can also mean Kasabian.”

    Another very good piece Andy. 🙂

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