How was indie music born and how did it disrupt the consumption society?

The second half of the 20th century was marked by major cultural transformations at the international level. The economic globalization that took place in the immediate post-war period has been accompanied by cultural globalization, leading to major changes in the musical offer. With the emergence of new media such as television and radio, present at the end of the 1960s in almost all households – at the end of 1968, 95% of American households had a radio set and 61.9% a television – communication around genres has been facilitated, and has given a global aspect to musical productions.

The film, the radio, the magazines form a system. Each sector is standardized, and all are standardized for each one. It marked the emergence of a standardized musical offer in Western countries, with the same musical styles represented. The world witnessed the transnational commercialization of a genre or an artist, a form of cultural standardization. This new issue of cultural globalization has generated the spread of certain musical genres, bringing about the highlighting of a cultural monopoly of certain genres and artists, over-represented throughout the world.

A standardized world that needed to be challenged through music

Entertainment society has enabled the development of cultural industries. The field of music has seen itself profoundly disrupted by the development of the recording industry, leading to industrial-scale production of new musical releases, thus allowing a wide distribution throughout the world, of artists who will become worldwide known.

The standardization of goods thus applies to the cultural industries: The fact that the cultural industry addresses millions of people imposes methods of reproduction, which, in turn, provide standardized goods everywhere to satisfy the many identical requests. It is obvious that the emergence of cultural industries has led to a standardization of cultural goods, like music. Though all industrial mass production necessarily eventuates in standardization.

At the end of the 1960s, we witnessed a veritable “Beatlemania”, the Liverpool group having sold more than a billion records during their career. This new society of mass consumption has brought to the fore a specific culture: that of the star-system, of hits parades, and the charts on a global scale. Simon Frith goes so far as to speak of “mass music”, with the reappropriation of rock ideology by the music industry: “the founding values ​​of rock are reversed one by one by its industrial routinization and technical transformations“. Rock’n’roll then became an international consciousness, bringing together young people around the world eager to profit from adolescence.

Cultural globalization

And the emergence of cultural industries have resulted in the commodification of music, incorporating classical economic principles: search for economies of scale, vertical integration in production, the concentration of market by a bunch of music companies that form an oligopoly and control the music trends. In the 1980s and 1990s, 6 big companies shared 90% of the recording industry market: Bertelsmann Music Group (BMG – Germany), Electric and Musical Industries (EMI – Great Britain), PolyGram/Philips (Netherlands), Sony (Japan), Time/Warner (United States) and Universal (United States).

It is possible to deduce that music had only become a consumer product like any other: Big companies, therefore, coordinated the entire music production chain, from recording the disc to its distribution and then to its sale, avoiding intermediaries and maximizing profits according to a principle of synergy between different sectors ”

The entertainment society developed, and music became a mainstream consumer product. Popular music of the 1950s was one product among many, intended for the growing teenage market, and neither producers nor consumers were interested in disrupting the market, music was just any other product, subject of commercial exchange.

The consumption habits of the American people were changing, music taking an increasingly significant place in their daily lives. In 1981, 81% of American people listened to music against 66% in 1973, and 10% attended a jazz or rock concert against 6% in 1973. Consumerist habits are then put in place and records represented a real challenge for cultural industries. The music industry, which is a fringed oligopoly, had seized on it.

This market structure is characterized, in the music industry, by a few companies who share a large share of the market and many small labels which find themselves in a situation close to pure and perfect competition. Some companies specializing in electronics have diversified their activities and have become interested in music production. Philips and Sony thus became two record companies in 1962 and 1929 respectively and in 1970 were among the main players in the recording industry.

Beyond the search for economies of scale, the interest for the control of the recording industry and in particular of the distribution of the discs is to be able to impose their tariffs, limit the costs of transactions and thus constitute barriers to entry into the recording market, to limit competition from the smallest structures.

The guerilla tactic: how indie groups won their place in the music world

In opposition to the then-established music industry, run by a few large companies, a small fringe of independent labels was created in the 1970s with a “policy of ‘resistance’ to the oligopolies. Ideology is thus attached to the creation of these new small structures: that of music above all.

Northern Ireland punk band Stiff Little Fingers pay tribute to their label Rough Trade in the track “People who put music first” released on the album Inflammable Material (1979). Rough Trade is one of the most famous independent labels. After a closure between 1991 and 2000, the British label continues its activities, currently counting 20 artists.

Labels such as Rough Trade or the French equivalent Bondage created in 1982, display principles intrinsic to their organization: confidence in relations with the artists signed, democratized management with fixed salaries for the label’s employees.

The commercial success of Rough Trade shows that an alternative model to the capitalist model can be effective in music production. Passion for music brings together the initiators of these independent labels and remains the watchword today.

Among the biggest names of independent labels, we could count in the United States: Midnight, Epitaph, SST; in Great Britain: Rough Trade, Factory, and 4AD, and finally in France: Bondage, Closer, Gognaf Mouvement, Boucheries Production, and Danceteria. In the 1980s, French labels shared the then fashionable punk scene, producing Bérurier Noir, Mano Negra, Ludwig von88, Parabellum, and Wampas.

Bondage, whose name refers to the sadomasochistic practice associated with the punk movement through the aesthetics of the dressing, was inspired by the ideology advocated by Rough Trade.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the terms rock and pop were taken over by the newly created music industry and mass distribution. These terms, inseparable until the mid-1970s, designate the commercial music then in vogue. “Rock”, in its more global sense, becomes “the generic term for American and British popular music, then Western music”.

The terms “pop” and “rock music” became pejorative during the 1960s, reducing this unique musical genre to an easy and watered-down artistic creation, and built with a sole objective: the search for profits.

The Punk movement leads to indie success, breaking the status quo

It was in this logic of fervent critic of the star system and the teen idols, which appeared in the late 1960s, that the punk movement developed. The term “punk” means a rascal, a thug. From 1965, it is used to designate the new cultural movement on the fringes, with which the punk-rock musical current is associated.

Through this new form of amateur rock, mainly adolescent and in opposition to the consumerist logic of the commercial creation of rock music, punk-rock seeks a return to the authenticity of the music, in its structure and its values. Its rebellious authors thus create a new non-genre musical style, by provoking established aesthetic codes.

This reappropriation of rock and pop has the effect of reinventing musical codes. The punk movement, anti-pop in essence, paradoxically provoked a renaissance of the genre: by rehabilitating the three-minute song and returning to a requirement of immediate effectiveness.

The punk movement, through its music and its return to authenticity, allows regeneration of the pop and rock genres, leaving room for new definitions of these terms thanks to new aesthetics, which will subsequently be classified under the label ” indie ”.

The year 1976 marked the advent of punk

With the first edition of the eponymous newspaper in New York, imposing Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground on the cover. That same year marked the debut of The Clash which would become one of the flagship groups of the punk movement.

In its then-fashionable critique of rock, the punk movement affirms its distance from rock’n’roll by defining itself in total opposition to the genre. The group Subway Sect advocates this vision categorically in their song “We oppose all Rock’n’roll” of the B-side “Different Story” released in 1978 by Rough Trade.

The neologism “rockism” appeared in 1981 with singer and guitarist Pete Wylie. He used this notion during the launch of his campaign “Race against Rockism” by which he put forward his ardent criticism of the musical genre “rock”, widely marketed and devoid of its artistic value by the clichés which defined it. This term reappeared in the 2000s with a new boom in rock, criticizing the elitist character of rock fans.

A rockist is not just someone who loves rock ‘n’ roll

Who goes on and on about Bruce Springsteen, who champions ragged-voiced singer-songwriters no one has ever heard of. A rockist is someone who reduces rock’n’roll to a caricature, then uses that caricature as a weapon.

Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star; lionizing punk while barely tolerating disco; loving the live show and hating the music video; extolling the growling performer while hating the lip-synch.

This definition of the term “rockism” offers a new angle and a more general meaning of the term, turning it against its original definition. If Pete Wylie wanted, through his campaign to criticize the excesses of rock’n’roll of the 1960s and 1970s, by this definition, the American journalist and music critic Kelefa Sanneh questions the punk heritage by immediately associating it with rockism.

In 1970, the world witnessed a re-concentration of the music industry.

Four majors are at the top of record sales in the United States: Columbia, Warner Brothers, Capital, and Motown. These companies are even starting to compete with the European majors in the European market.

This market structure leaves little room for small structures, their desire to promote a marginal scene, and the artistic creation of artists who do not follow the codes imposed by the majors is oppressed. During this period, we are witnessing a massification of musical consumption. The 1970s represented a strong development of cultural practices.

The punk movement intervenes against this massification of culture and draws its roots from various ideological and artistic movements, precursors in the rejection of the established order. If we can draw a parallel between the punk movement and Dadaism, artists such as Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, or Edgar Varèse can be compared, in a musical form to the work of Marcel Duchamp on the deconstruction of the work of art and the questioning of conventions.

The aesthetic of punk-rock

Was built on the highlighting of real noises that were conceptualized in the musical field through the work of Varèse. He was particularly interested in the work of sound and not of notes, in the different timbres that can exist in music. He thus affirmed: “the raw material of music is sound”.

In the popular consideration of the punk movement, we can recognize Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard as precursors, as their artistic creations have the will to unravel the gospel music of the Black Church to extract the rhythm and the ardor, to offer a piece of music and dance approaching trance and cathartic effect.

The rebel spirits tend to support each other and this way, indie music has found support to keep growing and this website it’s a proof of it.