The Expanding Definition of Indie

Alex Cosper in the early 90s when indie music was more like a rumor

The term "indie" has been around a long time and it certainly doesn’t mean what it used to, kind of like the phone. The word  "cash" also used to mean something slightly different before the digital age, yet it still has the same general meaning. Most people know that indie is supposed to mean independent, but many people have their own independent definition for the word. My latest SacTV.com video explores the origin of the term. 

If you ask a punk, indie strictly means underground punk and nothing else. If you ask someone who is into hip hop, indie means hip hop that doesn’t conform to the same old school beats that still flood the pop charts. If you ask a rocker, indie means rock that doesn’t sound like cookie-cutter hair bands. The folk scene also has their definition, which leans toward acoustic coffeehouse music. If you ask someone who studies the entire history of music, you might get a very diverse definition. To be clear, indie is not so much a genre as a collection of niches that might not even fit any genres.

For the most part indie has meant music, films and fashion that does not get over-exposed in popular media. Terms such as underground, counter-culture and alternative have been used as synonyms, but each of those terms ended up meaning lots of different things. This week Mumford and Sons, an indie band, find themselves at the top of the national album charts, so indie no longer means something that isn’t popular. They are an indie artist, such as Adele, by virtue of recording on an independent label, although they are distributed by one of the major labels. Why does Rolling Stone still call them an indie band? Probably because indie represents something different from the same old copycat music on the charts that hasn’t evolved in over a decade. After all, how often does banjo music make it to the top?

I’ve always known that popular trends sometimes grow from independent movements. That’s how the United States, a country that fought corporations to become independent, gave us lots of blues, jazz, r&b, rock, punk and rap. Each of those genres started out on independent record labels. The idea that these genres became huge over time doesn’t bother me the way it might disturb someone who found the music first and feels betrayed that their secret little world got exposed to the whole world. 

Independent labels, films and lifestyle have been around for the past century but I wanted to find out when the word "indie" started being  used to reflect this culture. What I found online was lots of disagreement that seemed to hinge on the age of the historian. For example, people who started listening to "alternative" music in the 90s commonly thought that’s when indie music started, not knowing that the UK Indie Chart started in 1980. Although my 1979 Webster’s dictionary does not list the term "indie" at all, I did find that in the UK there was a book that came out in the late seventies called The 77 Indie Scene: The Story of British Independent Music. Even though the Sundance Film Festival started in 1978, I’m not sure they called it indie films back then, although independent film festivals go much further back.

If the argument is about when the term "indie" first started getting used a lot, I’ll go with the punks who say it started in the late seventies, even though the term may have been quietly introduced earlier in music magazines. But as far as independent pop culture, there is no doubt that its roots go back as early as World War I when the three original big record labels refused to put out blues records, even though blues was spreading across America. As I mentioned in my SacTV.com video "The History of Indie Music," when the patents expired in 1917 for the original record players, that’s when tons of independent labels began to issue blues and jazz records. R&B blossomed in the 1930s and 1940s for the same reasons, just like rock and roll in the 1950s and psychedelia in the 1960s, followed by punk in the 1970s. 

Today indie has a wide definition probably because so many people are bored with the mainstream and are looking for something different. To me, indie doesn’t necessarily mean anything that’s not on the charts, because a lot of unpopular niche music is made by beginners or artists who copy popular artists. Each level of popularity and unpopularity has its segment of disposable trash. I think of indie as any type of art that expresses originality and is independent of calculated conformity. 

Just like how the word "alternative" started out meaning something of value that didn’t imitate the watered down mainstream, the word "indie" is becoming part of the mainstream. It doesn’t mean it lessens the quality of the art, it just means more people know about it. I actually hope the rise of indie music strengthens the quality of the mainstream with more diversity instead of a narrow selection of the same corporate formulas over and over. You can’t really blame today’s embarrassing disposable mainstream music on the public as much as the companies who control the channels in which this carefully filtered cookie-cutter music is distributed. 

The idea that anyone now can express themselves by uploading a recording to sites like ReverbNation and SoundCloud is exciting … until you listen to all the under-developed art out there.Then again, it’s very encouraging to innovative artists who don’t want to conform to last century’s tightly controlled model that required spending thousands of dollars on recording and access to big channels even though the chances of making it big were pretty slim. So if indie music continues to overthrow the mainstream to the point the charts are not so controlled by just three companies, that can only be good for pop culture. Instead of three companies dictating what most of the nation perceives as popular, it would be much more refreshing if the national scene was fed by a wide variety of regional independent scenes. 

Disclosure: I own SacTV.com

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