Whatever Happened to Indie Rock?

by Iain Ellis

27 July 2017

As the recent Lawrence Field Day Festival illustrates, indie rock may be artistically benefiting from an increasingly marginalized status in the music world.
Photo of Gnarly Davidson courtesy of Fally Afani (I Heart Local Music

“Without even the slightest hope of a thousand sales….
The band went in and knocked ‘em dead in 2 minutes, 59”.
Hitsville U.K.” The Clash (1981)

If punk had shown that anyone could play in a band, the birth of indie showed that anyone could make a record, too.

There has been a lot of doom and gloom surrounding indie rock in recent years, some observers bemoaning its bands’ shameless pursuit of the bright lights of success; some, conversely, wondering why they are so rarely represented in the higher echelons of the national charts anymore. Pitchfork, Stereogum, and NME have all scratched their heads in frustration, alarmed that their cash cow and raison d’être appear to be vanishing into the ether. But are their concerns warranted? Is indie rock as we know it in decline? And if so, is that such a tragedy? After recently attending the Lawrence Field Day Festival I came to the conclusion that not only is indie rock in good hands today, but that it may be artistically benefiting from an increasingly marginalized status in the music world.

In many ways Lawrence, Kansas offers an ideal case study to gauge the state of contemporary indie rock. Too small to be the site of—or accommodated by—large record companies and festivals, the college town the locals call LFK is not so small to not have its own infrastructure of indie bands, labels, media, studios, and venues. As a result, the indie aesthetic there has the autonomy to flourish on its own creative terms, without either internal or external pressures or expectations.

With a population of 90,000, a third of which attends the University of Kansas, LFK has a built-in demographic with music tastes that often lean towards independence and innovation. These predilections are fostered by the engaged student-run radio station, KJHK, and are rooted in a tradition of outsider music and art that dates back generations and boasts such former landmarks as The Outhouse, a “shithouse” venue that served as a notable stop on the underground highway of hardcore punk in the mid-to-late ‘80s. With a pedigree for alternative culture and the advantage of being ideally located for bands traveling between Chicago and Denver, Lawrence has long been renowned as a welcoming host for indie musicians, whether home-based or just visiting.

Over 100 of these local and regional indie acts recently came together to participate in the 6th annual Lawrence Field Day Festival (hereafter LFDF). Spanning three days and hosted by eight local venues, the LFDF is a celebration of the independent character of local cultural expression. Held when most of the college kids are home on vacation, it is, to borrow from Frank Costanza, “a festivus for the rest of us.” Or, as chief organizer Cameron Hawk puts it, “a time for when LFK townies can enjoy the things that make their community great.”

Reflecting an indie rock trait some see as dissipating in recent years, Hawk regards the festival as an “art for art’s sake” project, one promoting local pride in local music over any global or business ambitions. “It’s obviously not the point of LFDF to be some sort of national platform,” he explains. Instead, the LFDF provides a local and regional platform, one where bands considered unworthy or unwelcome on the stages of big city festivals are given the opportunity to perform for audiences that span the breadth of local fan bases. This objective, one that promotes artistic over remunerative pursuits, community over personal identity, and autonomy over corporate business directives, takes us back to the very foundations and motivations of early indie rock.

A starting point for this mission and history is 1977 in Manchester, when The Buzzcocks bypassed London’s corporate oligarchy by producing and distributing their debut “Spiral Scratch” EP on their own New Hormones label. After three hours of recording and two hours of mixing, the band paid £500 for 1,000 copies. The rest, as they say, is history.

That history actually consists of multiple histories, depending on the country and on how one defines that malleable term “indie rock”. Is it a genre? Is it an attitude? Does it describe a business or behavioral model? Does it speak to the type of company that produces and/or distributes the product Initially, in the UK, indie spoke to the latter, and New Hormones soon begot Rough Trade, Factory, Mute, Small Wonder, and a thousand-plus more labels, many of which were content to release a single or two before shutting up shop, never to be seen again. During the period between the late ‘70s and early ‘80s innumerable bands on indie labels re-chiseled the punk template in their own ways, all conveniently categorized under such catch-all terms as “post-punk” or “alternative” music. Rock has never seen such ambition in scope and daring in invention, such that John Peel, then the only radio DJ that would play indie records, often referred to this period as the greatest in the history of popular music. If punk had shown that anyone could play in a band, the birth of indie showed that anyone could make a record, too.

Most indie acts were content to remain in a cottage industry in the early years, usually laboring in obscurity for little reward other than the satisfaction of having produced art on their own terms, perhaps having their records played on Peel’s show or landing a “session” in his BBC studio. By the mid-‘80s the US took note, bringing indie to new levels of popularity thanks to a burgeoning college radio network that allowed student DJs to select what went on the air; they often chose the more acclaimed British indie acts (The Cure, The Smiths), alongside some of their own home-grown ones (REM, The Replacements, Violent Femmes). Soon the term “indie” morphed from a description of a record label into a general genre of music, one largely characterized by chiming guitars, idiosyncratic vocals, and an irreverent attitude. This “left-of-the-dial” insurgency took in bands signed to majors, too (The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Jesus and Mary Chain), but that didn’t seem to matter; the music was still deemed indie.

Indie shed its last skins of identity as a purely DIY or underground phenomenon in the early ‘90s—on both sides of the pond—when, first, Sub Pop brought grunge to the indie-ignorant masses, and then Britpop graced Top of the Pops with its slick, catchy anthems and the tabloid press with its manufactured melodramas (Oasis Vs. Blur!). If indie was now neither a genre of music nor working within an indie business model (most of the flourishing indie labels were being distributed by majors by this point), what was indie? What had it become?

Going into the next century the term “indie rock” seemed as meaningless as “alternative rock” had a decade prior. Last gasps, such as the lo-fi recordings of Guided by Voices or the Elephant 6 bands, arrived as intermittent nostalgic flashbacks to a bygone era as the indie rock of Modest Mouse and Death Cab for Cutie (in the US) and Franz Ferdinand and the Arctic Monkeys (in the UK) sat comfortably on the charts alongside the mainstream popular music of the day. By the end of the “noughties” we had an “indie landfill” of what Simon Reynolds describes as “drearily adequate” music.

Fast forward to 2017 and we no longer have a chart littered with so-called indie rock, even though some of the pop, EDM, and hip-hop on there is released on indie labels. What has been lost, according to Reynolds and others, is the essence and sound that were indie, that independent personality and “defiant amateurishness” that once defined the form. But is this a lost aesthetic, or has “real” indie just left the stadiums, returning to the shadows beyond the reach of an indie industry now synonymous with the mainstream? Experiencing the LFDF in July left me wondering about some of the complaints and concerns that have befallen indie in recent years; my main response to them is that what the professional critics are referring to as “indie” is categorically different than what I had witnessed on the stages of LFK. Might we now be entering a twilight zone of parallel but unrelated indie universes?

Dorian Lynskey of The Guardian refers to “Indie Rock’s Slow and Painful Death” due to declining sales and loss of mainstream relevance. He waxes sentimentally about the Britpop heyday when Oasis and Blur ruled the UK charts. But besides being on indie labels, what did these bands have to do with the traditions of indie? “Wonderwall” and “Country House” had their appeals as pop songs, but they played within well-worn musical formulas that were anathema to the innovative post-punk and C86 artists that resided solely on the independent charts. Most of the bands at the LFDF will never have a hit song; indeed, many will never make a record or CD nor release music beyond their Bandcamp sites.

But what most will have done is undergo a process of adventure during their (likely) short life as a band; they will have taken risks in their songwriting, made brilliant mistakes in engineering their sounds, and played intimate, emotional shows as if their lives depended on it. To see a band like LFK’s Psychic Heat right now is to experience the pleasures of such performances. Their soaring, improvised investigations of the sonic possibilities of guitar rock, coupled with a stage presence oozing pride and joy, is to see a band reveling in the risk-taking ambitions of indie music-making rather than the ambitions of commercial success.

“Where have all the Indie Rock Bands Gone?” asks David Sackllah of Consequences of Sound. Rock festivals have replaced them all with superstar divas, DJs, and rappers, he grumbles. But what festivals is he referring to? Personally, I would much rather see and hear—up close—the heart-wrenching soul-folk of Heidi Gluck, the understated melodic ballads of Toughies, and the wry power pop of Jon Harrison and the Harrisonics—as I did at the LFDF—than suffer the same old histrionic egotists preaching dull clichés to the choir at Bonnaroo and Coachella. The true sites/sights of indie rock are not huge, impersonal corporate rock festivals, but dingy bars where intense kids express anger, snark, sadness, eccentricity, or whatever other natural urges and feelings their music bespeaks. Seeing and hearing Springfield, Missouri’s punk-metal wits Gigantic explode with sweaty, vein-popping intensity for 20 minutes from the stage-less basement of LFK’s Tap Room in front of six or seven transfixed attendees is an experience I will not soon forget. Where have all the indie bands gone? Hopefully, for lovers of indie aesthetics, it’s back to indie land.

Zachary Lipez regards recent indie rock as lacking the rebel instinct it once proudly radiated. In “The New Solipsism: What the Fuck Happened to Indie Rock?” he drolly explains: “Rock music used to have the decency to be about doing too much coke or banging groupies while complementing itself on its own sensitivity; now it’s about maintaining your lawn.” Although I’m sure Zach can find sufficient songs out there about coke and groupies, his underlying argument that indie rock no long has anything to say is a common one. Both lyrics and music have become too safe, too content, too self-absorbed, and too middle class, Lipez claims.

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The same complaint is taken up by Dirty Projectors’ frontman, David Longstreth, in a recent Stereogum post. He sees today’s indie rock as “musically underwhelming” and “boujee” (although he doesn’t cite his own band as guilty of these), and as “mining a codified set of sounds and practices”. These practices, he opines, have become divorced from our everyday lives, disconnected from recent social concerns. Such a critique did not reflect my experience at the LFDF, which may not produce the next Kathleen Hanna or Morrissey, but in The Cave Girls’ faux-primitive feminism and Vibralux’s camp provocations one viscerally felt pertinent aspects of contemporary identity politics. Politics might not be paraded with a capital “P” in recent indie, but inclusivity, diversity, and community are avowed principles of both the organizers of the LFDF and the local labels (Replay Records, High Dive, Whatever Forever, Weepy Vision, and Datura) that offered their eclectic showcases.

In celebrating the underground DIY traditions of indie music there is always a danger of overly romanticizing willful obscurity, as if bands were not entitled to be successful (or financially rewarded!) for their efforts; or as if authenticity automatically evaporates the moment an indie band breaks through the corporate glass ceiling. Such sentimental myths are just that, yet from a purely aesthetic perspective one cannot help but reflect upon the sobering stories of thousands of bands that have artistically suffered when they lost sight (or control) of their initial intentions and visions. When Postcard bands Orange Juice and Aztec Camera signed to majors in the ‘80s it seemed like much of the ramshackle energy that made them so touching and distinct in the first place was sapped out of them. Events like the LFDF, if nothing else, illustrate that the spirit of indie The Buzzcocks bequeathed 40 years ago is alive and kicking, though perhaps located along paths less traveled by the establishment culture.

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