Bring on the Major Leagues

by Ryan Gillespie

26 January 2006

When major labels promote indie bands, sucking up the air that truly independent music needs to breathe, will the music stop developing altogether? Will we be stuck with Strokes and Rilo Kiley retreads forever?

The success of the Garden State soundtrack and the glut of major label- released “indie” music by bands like Keane, Snow Patrol and the Killers made 2004 the year indie music established itself, proving finally that it could be the one thing the marketplace demands: sellable. With the existence of an indie ringtones service, with once-indie darlings Death Cab for Cutie’s major-label debut landing at number four on the Billboard charts, Bright Eyes having two Top 20 singles, and the Fox’s ever popular The O.C. sell driving music sales, indie music may have reached its pinnacle of popularity.

Or has it? I don’t mean to pronounce indie music dead—writers can be overeager to proclaim the death of emerging genres, as when the British press declared that “punk is dead” concurrent with its birth—but rather to argue that truly independent music has never really had a day in the sun. Defining such bands as Death Cab as indie only serves to subjugate truly independent music—music written, recorded, and released independently.

Whether a band is signed to a major like Warner or an “indie” like One Little Indian, whether it’s Sony BMG or Sub Pop, really doesn’t matter: Neither one can be considered truly independent. Though indie rock is still largely conceived as resistant to corporatized methods of production and distribution and symbolic of antiestablishment sentiment, today’s indie music world is becoming impossible to distinguish from the mainstream.

The truth is, many indie record labels are run like any other business—to make money. They pay for hip clothing and fancy press photos and work like hell to get their bands publicity. The artistic freedom indie labels promise is supposed to distinguish them from the majors, but when was the last time you heard a mainstream rock band complain about its label dictating material? Now you might be saying, “But what about the great Wilco Yankee Hotel Foxtrot drama? A major label turned down an artistically adventurous album!” And yes, Reprise, a Warner imprint, dropped Wilco. The band was then picked up by Nonesuch, a diverse label with solid indie cred, who then released the album. So the indie world saved the day? Perhaps—if you forget that Nonesuch is also a Warner subsidiary.

Another once-defining element of the indie world is amateurish production values meant to convey a DIY aesthetic, a rejection of slick marketability. Though there are many exceptions, the quick glance at indie’s biggest and brightest turns up some of the shiniest, glossiest pop material in the marketplace. Is it any surprise that the slickest sounding bands—Rilo Kiley, Postal Service—have the most crossover success?

So in a world where the mainstream sounds like the underground and the underground acts like the mainstream, what happens to truly underground music? When major labels buy indie bands by the cart and the indie labels act and operate like major labels, how does a truly independent release get heard? Pick up any indie-music magazine or look at any indie-music related website and count how many bands are self-releasing their work. You’d be lucky to find two or three in the entire lot. Of course, indie isn’t just about self-releasing, and few would argue that Saddle Creek or K, even with dozens of bands on their rosters, are close to a major label. But such labels, which tenaciously preserve their integrity, are the exception to the rule.

For comparison, let’s look at the latest installment from the prime purveyor of so-called indie music to the masses, Music From the O.C. Mix 5. Of the 12 songs on the album, five are by bands (Subways, Rogue Wave, Youth Group, Of Montreal, Stars) who are on so-called indie labels (Wea, Sub Pop, Epitaph, Polyvinyl, Arts and Crafts, respectively). But none of those five made their most recent record independent of any label influence—i.e. label money. Granted, many of these bands having been truly indie at one point in their career: Rogue Wave self-released its first album and Kaiser Chiefs financed their first single themselves. But grassroots support for indie bands has been supplanted with the label-run, Astroturf campaigns for bands like My Chemical Romance. A band’s credibility no longer seems dependent on dues paying.

It’s possible that the reduced backlash against indie bands gone mainstream shows a willingness to go beyond the dichotomous thinking of previous generations. And that many once-indie run labels are now owned by or have become larger labels has not necessarily lead to homogenization. Since bottom-line-loving major labels treat bands as stocks in a portfolio, they clearly understand the power of diversification.

Indie’s seeping into mainstream culture is perhaps best explained by the indie-music world adopting better business sense. The work of independent publicity teams to get Death Cab featured on The O.C. or the Concretes’ songs in a string of Target commercials reflects the modern approach to art, one that rejects the very notion that a band can sell out. As long as the music remains untouched, as long as the artist retains artistic control, the concept of selling out is so 20th century. Isn’t having an audience important? Doesn’t everyone want as big of an audience as they can get, a large forum for their ideas? Why should financial success negate artistic integrity? Couldn’t it verify it? And as the bands get bigger audiences and more money for tours, music and videos, the world becomes full of better music. Where’s the harm in that? What’s to get bent out of shape over? As Pavement quips, bring on the major leagues, right?

The danger lies in the classic wheel of hegemony. When emergent culture is sucked in to the dominant culture, it fortifies that dominant culture and reduces emerging cultures to mere transitional modes of creating, a minor-league system for the mainstream. If mainstream music sounds like indie music, then why buy real indie music? As 2005 draws to a close, the mainstream still pimps indie aesthetics. But during this heightened indie sale-ability, truly indie releases are suffering.

One truly independent release from 2005 was Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s self-titled, self-released debut album. While garnering many raves in the indie press, the band remains relatively unknown to anyone who is not hyper-motivated to seek out new music for themselves. [Editor’s note: As we you read this, the record is being heavily hyped in major UK music magazines.] In comparison, look at the post-punk-cum-Strokes-aping band the Bravery. Their self-titled debut was released in March on Island records—a division of Universal and home to acts like Bon Jovi and Mariah Carey—and sold 33,000 in its first week of US release and was gold in the UK in barely a month’s time.

None of this is meant as a knock against bands like Death Cab for Cutie or the White Stripes, or Nirvana before that. But if they are indie, then what are the truly independent to be called? If indie-oriented labels are continually being sucked up into the mainstream, who will be the avant-garde? Who will push the boundaries of pop music and how will it ever be discovered amid the clamor of major and major-owned minors with deep pockets? Will you and I be able to cut through the label hype to find truly independent music to support? If you’ve got an answer to any of that, call me later; The O.C. is about to start.

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