Monday, October 16, 2006

Indie? What Is Indie?

A few weeks ago, my co-workers and I had a rather interesting (read as heated) discussion regarding the word "indie" and what it means. Is it a status, style or genre of music? A subset of rock? Does it stand on it's own? Now CNN is jumping on the bandwagon with their recent article, If it's cool, creative and different, it's indie.

Given my soon-to-be greying punk rock roots, my stance is that indie first means independent. Not distributed through one of the majors, and not owned in total or in part by them. In a sense, totally entrepreneurial: where failure means not eating, paying your rent, having your significant other berate you, and possibly having to relocate to your mom's basement.

Here's the litmus test: If you call out to your assistant to pick you up a latte after they call to schedule your car service to the show, YOU AREN'T INDIE. You're a spoiled rich brat, who thinks that Death Cab is a miracle simply because the other sheep are bleating to the same drummer.

When used to describe a sound, I draw my definition from the Sebadoh single "Gimmie Indie Rock" recorded way back in 1991.

Just Give Me Indie Rock!

Started back in �83
Started seeing things a differently
And hardcore wasn�t doin� it for me no more
Started smoking pot
Thought things sounded better slow
Much slower, heavier
Black magic melody to sink this poseur�s soul

VU Stooges undeniably cool
Took a lesson from that drone rock school
Manipulate musicians hack righteous drool
Getting loose with the Pussy Galore
Cracking jokes like a Thurston Moore
Peddle hopping like a Dinosaur, J...

Rock and Roll genius, ride the middle of the road
Milk that sound, blow your load
Shoot it further than you ever said it go
Four stars in the Rolling Stone

Oooh sludge rock,
That�s hard as harsh
Just gimme indie rock!
It�s gone big
Come on indie rock
Just give me indie rock

Taking inspiration from Husker Du
It�s a new generation
Of electric white boy blues
Come on indie rock
It's gone big
Come on indie rock
Just give me indie rock

Breaking down the barriers
Like Sonic Youth
They got what they wanted
Maybe i can get what i want too
Come on indie rock
It's gone big
Come on indie rock
Just give me indie rock

Time to knock
The hard rock on it�s side
Time to knock
The shit right up a storm
Turn to amaze
With the indie sludge

I blame the Brits, particularly NME for allowing the bastardization of the indie moniker during the mid 90's.


Ryan Catbirdseat said...

Yes, it's been totally bastardized and lost it's meaning, exactly the same way "Alternative" lost it's 80's meaning in the 90's.

Indie used to be something that could refer to an independent ethic, like the mindset of people like Ian McKaye and Jenny Toomey, or to a specific style of music, like the Sebadoh track mentioned. (actually, in my mind, "indie rock" always sort of meant "the look and sound of Superchunk.)

But yes, today, the term "indie" is ruined. It just means "music made by well-off white people, for well-off white people who think they're 'hip'"

There's not much that's "indie" about any of it anymore, in the traditional sense. It's like you said, it's hard to be "indie" when you're attending a show in a Starbucks lobby, or at an "exclusive" concert sponsored by the biggest mega-corporations of the day.

Anonymous said...

I dont get what you mean by the Death Cab comment.

BW said...

Nothing against Death Cab in particular.. it could be any one of the bands that the so-called indie lemmings beach themselves to. It's not about the music, using them as a buzzword is all about status in some social scene.

For some people "indie" a phase. Others see no other way of life. I detest the former, and endear myself to the latter.

BW said...

ryan, amen!

Anonymous said...

Was the root cause of this discussion because you guys at haystack are sell outs to the main stream "indie" rock world? Hinder and Snow Patrol as featured artists!?!?!? WHAT A JOKE! The rest of the featured artists are basically pitchfork's arena. I suppose that's an improvement, but still all focused on the "indie" labels owned by the majors. I can't wait for all of the American Apparel ads on the site!

BW said...


Nowhere in the Haystack manifesto does it say we are exclusively for unsigned and indie bands. We are a music community, for all levels and all genres.

As a matter of fact, we understand that people find bands like Propaghandi through mainstream artists like Green Day. This is the discovery process we hope to facilitate. To do that we need content from the majors (which we have) indies (which we have) and unsigned (which we have.)

With respect to advertising, someone's gotta pay the bills, no?

PS. 1988 called. It wants it's insult back.

Asim said...

I think maybe I see this slightly different. I don't necessarily see it as wholly black and white.

Since the inception of modern warfare, perhaps the most important weapon deployed has been the war of words, desinged to win over minds. It really softens folks up, and begins to offer them a sense of comfort for otherwise inexplicable forms of madness. For excellent points of reference please refer to WWII, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and present day Iraq. War on Terror...oh right, that makes complete sense and is so completely specific...

Why should music be any different? Isn't there a war for turf / territory for records? Casualties include each record that gets / doesn't get put out, distribution, sales, gigs, merchandise, etc. Don't get me started on ads and product placements. Its territorial at a rather basic level.

But to cut this somewhat short, my point is this. Two voices are vying for use of the same word. One is business, and the other is consumer. Thats the source of confusion, in my humble opinion.

From the perspective of an independent music business, I think there's a rather good argument for the 'independent' label being co-opted by the majors and used to evoke a sound. That can be confusing to consumers.

From the consumer's vantage, doesn't it evoke an aesthetic? At least on some level? At least at this point in time? If not, then maybe thats the majors winning use of the word. In any event, I still think Elvis Costello if i think indie in terms of sound (if not image)--maybe i lost that war early on.

So, i'm not sure what 'indie' is, means or does. Different things to different people, and the wheels of big music searching for a way to relate and be cool, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Wilson,

I'm not even sure of the vintage of your insult, but at least it post-dates the telephone (congrats on that one!). I'm not even sure that anon was trying to insult you in the first place. I just checked out haystack myself and I think that the problem facing the music industry will continue to persist. It is the marketing budgets of the major labels that allows them to dictate what is popular music. And, in order to get enough content to make haystack a successful site, it appears that you are taking the easy road and allowing those entities that can provide the nicely packaged content to take a front seat at the show. I guess that could change over time, but for now I think it would unfair to state otherwise. So, the way I see it, in your debate over what constitutes "indie" and what doesn't at haystack, one could either come down on the side of being hypocritical (if you think that, say, We Are Scientists aren't indie now that they are on a sub-label of a major) or on the side of rationalizing using the content of those majors to support their more "indie" bands so that haystack can have the feel of being an "indie" music site, but really part of the machine (a la CMJ). I guess you can debate it until your face turns blue. I would prefer that you spend the energy in helping truly independant music find a voice on your website so that it actually becomes more useful to find music than myspace.


BW said...

My post was never intended to be about Haystack. Haystack is the company I work for. My opinions on this blog may (or may not) reflect the opinions of what we are doing over there.

I will however take the bait and answer. My personal feeling is that "indie" is a status and not a sound. An artist not marketed by, or distributed by one of the majors. For me indie is entrepreneurial, underfunded and a struggle.

However, most people don't really have the same perspective on that. In fact, I am among the very few who actually care about this topic at all. If someone wants to call "indie" a sound.. c'est la vie.

With respect to your commentary on Haystack: Haystack does not aspire to be "indie." Haystack is a style agnostic platform for music discovery at all levels. It is a memetracker and bookmarking tool for music built on top of a social network. There's also added kicker of free streaming music, for which the content owners are paid.

We have an abundance of discovery tools that should allow people to find whatever niche they are looking for. At no other site can you listen to a piece of music directly from a search result, or drill down in the search to find an "indie" band from NJ who posted a new song within the last week.

This conversation is now closed because I'm dead bored of this. No further comments will be posted.

William Li said...


Indie was the name of the dog that Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. owned while he was growing up. For some unexplained reason, he adopted this as his name, then he recovered the Cross of Coranado on a hiking trip with his Boy Scout troop only to have it stolen out of his hands. Later he successfully recovered the idol of Mara from the Thuggee, the ark of the covenant, but was unsuccessful in recovery the holy grail.

Therefore, to achieve Indie status is to be a daring and famous archeologist with a bullwhip and a great hat.