Spring ahead to April 2013. James Graham is sitting in his room listening to his band’s recently released debut album Serious Sneer. James, the frontman of London, Ont.,-originated, Toronto-based band, Tires, considers himself to be an independent artist, though not an indie one.
“In music, indie has a lot of connotations right now, and a lot of them are negative,” Graham explains. “Many of the bands considered indie aren’t on independent labels, like Mumford and Sons or Neon Trees. It’s a meaningless term now.”
There was a time when indie meant independent; perhaps a term of endearment. Pavement for example, the lo-fi rockers of the 1990s, who remained attached to indie labels for their entire career in an attempt to maintain artistic merit, ended up being hailed as one of the defining bands of the decade. But now it seems to be a label tossed around to any old band. Indie may not be meaningless, but the definition of it has changed.
How did it get to this? How did “indie” bands end up on mainstream television or end up winning Grammys or end up on the cover of the (very) mainstream Rolling Stone magazine?
Jump to September 14, 2004. Arcade Fire has just released their debut album, Funeral, considered to be one of the best albums of the 2000s; it will change the indie music scene forever. Released on self-described indie label Merge, it was highly praised and documented by a variety of mainstream media outlets, gathering attention from Rolling Stone, NME, and Pitchfork – all well-recognized and popular music medias. Pitchfork in particular, which gave the album a rave review of 9.7 out of 10, are credited by Time magazine for propelling the album onto the Billboard 200.
In an age of information, word travelled fast of Arcade Fire’s success and this indie labelled entered the mainstream, winning a Grammy for Album of the Year, six years after their debut. This process of signing to an indie label, then entering the mainstream became a trend. As Graham notes, indie bands like Arcade Fire start off on indie record labels before achieving mainstream success and recognition. Though unlike the lack of commercial success that disappeared, the indie tag did not.
Toronto Star music critic Ben Rayner, however, states that indie is not a meaningless term, but has a different meaning now than it did in the past.
“It’s become a descriptor rather than an actual statement,” Rayner says. “Indie has kind of become a catch-all now, like a band sounds indie. It has become a genre as opposed to a definition.”
Rayner credits the Internet as a big player in what he describes as “indie music becoming synonymous with alternative.”
“Indie got to the point it is at just because of your ability to get your music out there on the Internet; like it was MySpace years ago. But now with the Internet, it’s so much easier for bands to have a sustainable following. It got to a point where all this indie stuff had to cross the mainstream radar because it got big enough because of the access on the Internet.”
Rayner points to the Arctic Monkeys and Chvrches as indie acts who have “made it” because of the Internet. Like The Arctic Monkeys and Chvrches, James Graham is also attempting to become recognized on the World Wide Web through music sites such as Bandcamp and SoundCloud, which allow for artists to upload their music to the web. Graham notes that, like websites that enabled artists to upload their music, piracy (the illegal, free downloading of music files from the internet) was key in indie music entering the public eye.
“With the rise of the Internet and things like Napster, piracy became a big thing and, at that point, just because you were on the biggest label didn’t mean you were selling the most records anymore,” Graham quips. “In fact, the people who listened to a lot of what were on the major labels often saw music as something more disposable and were much more willing to pirate music. Those who still bought records were those who were fans of independent music.”
With mainstream music being pirated and independent music being valued, big record companies saw that there was money to be made in the independent music scene, investing into it, and signing a multitude of different indie acts.
“These indie labels were and still are selling records, so the big labels kind of swooped in and took themselves a piece of the pie,” Rayner says.
From then on, indie music has snowballed, becoming popular not just among subcultures, but people of all kind.
In their review of OK Computer, Pitchfork called Radiohead’s magnum opus the death of the album, arguing that it was the last great album before the rise of piracy, and the ability and intrigue to download one song via the Internet as opposed to an entire album. But they were wrong. Much like how the album is not dead, after all millions of albums are purchased every year, indie is not dead, either. Like the album, indie is just more disposable. And because of this, its meaning has evolved. Only time can tell what indie will morph into next.