The Evolution (and Dissolution) of "Indie"
by Stephanie Benson | March 4, 2013
Here's the biggest question our generation faces: What in the hell does the word "indie" mean anymore?! OK, maybe that's a slight exaggeration, but it is a semantic stumper many a music critic, artist, contrarian, fan and DIY nut has faced, particularly over the last decade or so, as "indie rock" has slowly morphed from a self-sustaining ethos into a money-making empire.
Of course, we could easily blame the Internet for creating that dissonance. More specifically, we could point a finger at MySpace, YouTube, Pitchfork and Hipster Runoff, or Coachella, Urban Outfitters, Zach Braff, The O.C., Zooey Deschanel, NPR Music, iPod advertisements, car commercials and really nearly all commercials, too. But the truth is, music is an industry, and in the same way anti-establishment punk trickled down into the more innocuous-sounding New Wave that eventually took over corporate radio and MTV in the '80s -- the same way a diehard indie punk band out of Seattle signed to a major label and unwittingly made grunge a household word and flannel a worldwide fashion phenomenon in the '90s -- major labels can now tout their next "indie" star (Lana Del Rey, ahem) and compel us to forgive former indie-label artists for licensing their songs to advertisers, just as we've forgiven SXSW for becoming one big corporate sponsorship. Eventually a musician (or a label, or a music festival) has got to make the dough, right? Even if that makes the whole idea that indie is an antidote to mainstream brainwashing a bit, well, fuzzy.
Which brings us back to the role of the Internet, because online is where the kids (and most of us adults) nowadays discover our music (and how we inevitably find out what band is playing that one song from that one car ad). And more than any other genre, indie music has been affected by this digital worldwide bond, both as a philosophy and as a sound. Click away and you can discover the most obscure artists from the most obscure corners of the world. You can dive deep into subgenres of subgenres of subgenres. You can unearth a bedroom recording of an artist who will quickly be found and fought over by labels -- an artist who may have never even graced a stage, never even played in front of a single soul. This sort of free-for-all medium is ground zero for independent media. It's the essence of DIY expression and grassroots marketing, without having to run around town posting flyers, or save your babysitting money for a trip to the record store, or wait for your favorite fanzine to arrive in the mail.
So you could argue that this massive, ever-growing brain of ones and zeros hasn't deteriorated the spirit of indie music, but magnified it. It has helped resuscitate some bands' careers, making it possible for Pavement, The Pixies, Refused and so forth to reach the masses and rake in a crapload more money than they ever did back when they were actually making new music. It has also helped small bands build big careers, with acts like Youth Lagoon and Washed Out rising from their bedrooms and taking huge stages across the world. It has helped established artists take control of their music and their image: See Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails skirting traditional label practices and releasing new albums their own way, perhaps inspiring My Bloody Valentine, who unleashed their first album in 22 years via their website, late on a recent Saturday night. And it has facilitated the merging of disparate genres and disparate artists: Consider Bon Iver, once buried deep in the Wisconsin woods, suddenly collaborating with Kanye West.
Still, for a lot of people, their only exposure to indie music is bands like Arcade Fire (though maybe they're not so well-known either) and Mumford & Sons because they've won Grammys, or marketable artists like Grizzly Bear, Feist and Beach House (or least a rip-off thereof) because they've heard them in a commercial, or The Stone Roses (who might also be not as well-known) or The Postal Service because they saw them on a festival bill. But there's a whole hell of a lot of music that exists beyond that mainstream lens -- a hell of a lot keeping the true spirit of alternative thinking, creating and distributing alive. There are electrifying punk and noise-rock scenes popping up, great indie pop revivalists boosting smaller labels like Slumberland, and great artists bred on analog rock who've approached digital equipment in mind-bending ways. There's even indie R&B, for crying out loud.
So for Rhapsody's 2013 Indie Music Spectacular, we've attempted to survey how indie music got to where it is today by highlighting the genre's vast spectrum and influence. Through our numerous features, we break down indie's most vital scenes, from the U.K. to Brooklyn to Austin, from indie pop to Britpop to electro-pop to psych pop, from post-punk to post-rock to post-modern, from lo-fi ear-ringers to baroque beauties, from the genre's biggest biases to its most influential albums to key labels like Sub Pop, Matador and Merge. Hopefully, we can prove that indie music continues to be a thriving, constantly growing, ever-vital beast. Just because we can't define it doesn't mean it's dead.