Born to be independent: what’s indie music all about?

The use of the term “independence”, and its English shorthand “indie”, is not trivial, since it marks, by its negative etymological construction, the firm ideological opposition to the functioning of the traditional recording industry. The “indie” label of a musical movement thus refers to a real desire to distinguish itself from the major trends of the music industry.

The market leaders have indeed for objective the musical production in its economic definition, the search for profit, even before the artistic purpose. Indie music thus allowed the emergence of a parallel industry whose leitmotif would be “music first”. Many independent labels, therefore, sprang up in the early 1980s, offering a new model in the music industry in the United Kingdom, the United States, then in France. Since the early 2000s, India has experienced a resurgence of interest and is establishing itself as a real trend in the Western cultural world.

It increasingly characterizes a musical genre in its own right. If the term “indie”, in the 1980s, qualified a new model of musical production, it now commonly designates independent fringes of rock, pop, and other musical genres that result from it.

Independence in music therefore seems to be a polysemous notion

Which ultimately depends on individual acceptances. This musical independence can be compared to the ambivalence of the “distinction between the author’s cinema and commercial cinema”.

Historically, this definition would seem to correspond to independence in the production of albums, away from the traditional music industry on the creative process. For some, the independence of a band ends when, even if it is produced by an independent label, it is distributed by a major company in the industry.

Furthermore, for musical movements that are on the fringes of the mainstream, independence can be seen as a means of distancing from musical fashions and trends, and from the styles that dictate the music market. Finally, independence in music can also simply refer to the idea of ​​freedom in the creative process, free from the potential demands of the market, the public, and the majors.

Nevertheless, there is today a tendency to assimilate the terms “indie” and “independent” to a musical genre in its own right, thus significantly changing their meaning compared to their initial use: “Today, the words’ indie ‘and’ independence ‘are commonly taken only to be connotative of a musical style, yet during an earlier punk/post-punk period they were used to denote a specific economic division from the trending labels ”.

If indie is mainly used to designate genres close to rock and pop, in their dimension of independence, it can also be used to qualify the independent counterparts of other musical genres, so that we sometimes hear about indie rap. So, what is indie music?

Indie music can be objectively defined or is it characterized by its blurred lines?

This “indie” musical genre is not always used in the same way. Indeed, some bands define themselves as indie, for simplicity: “we say ‘indie’ like that, that makes everyone agree”. Others use this name in addition to another musical genre, such as with the definition indie-pop or indie-rock. Indie can be a label that allows everyone to identify themselves as they wish. In a comparative aspect with other pre-indie musical genres, new definitions may emerge, such as that of white and relatively young music which took place at a time when pop music drew its influences from black music.

The term “indie” remains closely linked to the notion of independence because it reflects a de facto independence of groups labeled as such. Indie can thus be defined as “a perpetually ambiguous genre, divided between the fringes and the latest trends, defined as both a shaky economy and an aesthetic”. By being part of independent music, indie then designates a musical movement in its own right, with aesthetics derived from rock.

This nevertheless results in a certain ambiguity as to the definition of the term “indie”, in particular concerning the counter-culture to which it refers. Some media have been interested in its current definition and have highlighted some deviations from the initial ideology based on the notion of independence. Indeed, current groups such as Radiohead or the Arctic Monkeys defined as indie, are criticized for this definition because of the commercial recovery of which they are the subject: “Arctic Monkeys are still called an indie band, but the closest thing their new record sounds like is somewhere between Black Sabbath and Dr. Dre. Where’s the indie in that? “, would some Twitter trolls say. The ambivalence of this term developed with the resurgence of the genre in the 2000s seems to be an important element in understanding the musical current it defines.

The indie way of life corresponds to the title of the book released in 2015 by Editions de Juillet to celebrate the twenty-five years of the Route du Rock festival. It traces the history of the Saint-Malo festival, which clearly shows the desire to honor independent music in its program. The festival has been organized since the end of the 1980s characterized by its indie way of life, it represents the oldest indie festival in France. Guided by the requirements of a program invoking “the absence of compromise”, the festival’s policy has thus enabled its organizers to unite an audience around their initial project. By developing this indie philosophy, or by refusing to submit to the music industry and its fashions, the Route du Rock maintains the course of musical discoveries, produced on a small scale and independently. The expression “indie way of life” indeed reflects a real ethic: if its center of gravity remains indie music, musicians and non-musicians increasingly share lifestyles such as vegetarianism, a return to vintage, and local consumption. Through music, indie thus presents itself, by definition, as a counter-culture to consumer society, integrating since the early 2000s different areas of everyday life.

Indie as a permanent phenomenon instead of a temporary music wave

With the development of this new industry, a certain institutionalization has taken place, especially in Europe, due to the cultural exception to which it claims to be and the cultural policies undertaken in the field of contemporary music. This term of current music is used by the public authorities to define the music of the end of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century.

However, it is relevant to relate the indie ideology based on the independence of music and musical creation with the frameworks imposed by public institutions in terms of contemporary music. This approach allows us to better understand the criticisms related to the use of the term “indie” for music that may seem institutionalized.

The historicity of the musical style is essential for understanding what has become of indie music today and the lifestyles associated with it. Different periods can be highlighted. The beginnings of the genre can be dated from 1965, with the punk movement and its opposition to the monopoly of the big companies on the music industry, and more generally to the consumer society developed during the post-war boom.

On the other hand

The end of the 1970s marked the advent of indie music, notably with the release of the album Unknown Pleasures (1979) by Joy Division which established the new-wave genre as one of the main trends in music indie. This period was marked by the proliferation of labels and structures linked to the independent music market. Finally, the 1990s illustrate a period of depression, characterized by a challenge by the market, independent structures supporting the parallel musical economy of indie artists.

So in 1991 and 1992, two decisive brands for indie music, the British labels Rough Trade and Factory closed their doors. Nevertheless, the beginning of the 2000s was characterized by a renewed interest in indie music, with the return of various significant elements of this culture. In 2003, the White Stripes revived vinyl, a historical medium of indie music, forgotten since the end of the 1980s.

After nine years of closure, the Rough Trade label reopened in 2000, and many festivals put on in the spotlight indie music, like Rock en Seine, created in Saint-Cloud in 2003, the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago created in 2005, or The End of the Road in England created in 2006. Many indie festivals have emerged in recent years, reflecting the renewed interest in this musical genre. Since 2011, the Pitchfork Music Festival has organized an edition at La Villette in Paris.

Renewed interests

Likewise, the This Is Not A Love Song of Nîmes and Cabourg Mon Amour were created in 2012. The observation of this renewed interest in indie music, whether by artists, by the specialized press, or by the multiplication of structures dedicated to this musical movement is evident nowadays. This raises the question: how can indie music today be defined in the light of the evolution of the music industry, between counter-culture and institutionalization?

On the other hand, to answer this central question, the specialized French and Anglo-Saxon press came to support the analysis of the indie current, also questioning the evolutions of the movement by confronting the current stakes of indie music and its beginnings. The digitization of information, and the Internet, have also made it possible to have access to archival articles and interviews testifying to the historicity of the indie movement, the values ​​that defined it in its early days, and the evolutions that have marked it. Also, in understanding the recording market and more generally the music industry, public reports, and studies by the various public and private actors characterizing it, have played a fundamental role in the study of the challenges of independent music at its beginnings.

When we speak about indie music, we only agree that we don’t agree

When you try to define what “indie music” is, you get caught up in a long, long conversation … This term is often used to distinguish music produced by majors from music produced by independent labels. Ok, but Motown and Sun Records are independent labels. And let’s face it Diana Ross and Elvis Presley aren’t necessarily the artists you think of when you say “indie music”.

They are far too “mainstream”, inevitably follows the debate, which is not worth the trouble of pulling your hair out, where one will wonder vehemently at what level of sales a group is no longer indie. We will then quote the Arctic Monkeys and we will determine whether or not the Velvet Underground was already an independent group or not.

To grapple with the definition of indie music is ultimately to ask, “What is counterculture?” “, And if the indie spirit reappeared indeed in the early 2000s with the creative revival amplified by the Internet. Indie artists are the ones who do a lot of things on their own. They play music, set up their label, create their fanzines, or their blog as needed”.

The essence of indie music

Therefore, lies in the Do-It-Yourself side of the musicians’ artistic project: Suddenly, the artistic project is sincere, it gives singularity to the project, we have fewer chances of being formatted, the sound is more natural, more authentic, carried by enthusiasts. Festivals like This Is Not a Love Song were born from the meeting of enthusiasts, who wanted to set up a festival that resembles them, with an atmosphere, a state of mind that we not necessarily found elsewhere.

The decor of the festivals is made by volunteers who make everything: It gives the festivals a hippie chic side. The Do-It-Yourself philosophy is also expressed through workshops and events. From the making of a jewel, a wreath of flowers, through the screen printing of posters, the recording of a piece of music, or the participation in a giant speed meeting, the indie music festivals make the public a real actor.

Therefore, indie music has revealed itself as the destabilizing factor that statical music needs to move forwards its limits. Without this independent musician, we wouldn’t be able to hear new styles of music, to enjoy new waves, and to keep curious and fun, by experimenting with new sensations each time we hear something we had never imagined that was possible to create. Indie music is the paradise of the senses and that is certain.