Progressive Sounds

Technology and Innovation in Indie Music

by Laura Schnitker

9 May 2010


Indie in the Age of the Internet

Indie in the Age of the Internet

As the 20th century drew to a close, the music industry was at an important crossroads. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 had been enacted in part to deregulate electronic media markets, which would allow the entire entertainment industry to champion the creation of a so-called “celestial jukebox” on the Internet. Digital technology had begun to permeate all aspects of music production; Pro Tools, a software program designed for use on home computers, was enabling both professional and amateur musicians to create commercial-quality sound recordings, and the digital compression of sound files into MP3s turned music from a physical format into a virtual one. The recording industry was beginning to consider the ramifications of moving their products online. But a couple enterprising individuals beat them to it.

In 1997, Michael Robertson founded, which started with three thousand MP3s available for free download. Two years later, Northeastern University student Shawn Fanning created the technology that enabled users to share their MP3 files with one another. Through Napster, millions of online users could exchange music for free, an unprecedented method of consumption that dealt a heavy blow to the recording industry. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued both Robertson and Fanning for copyright violations, which shut down their file-sharing services in 2001. But rather than adapting their business models to court music fans’ new habits, major labels remained on the defensive, suing its consumers for illegal file sharing and devising copy protection devices for CDs to prevent downloading.

Meanwhile, independent labels, media, musicians, and fans seized the opportunity to take advantage of the Internet’s liberating potential. Their recent innovations have brought independent music to new heights of accessibility and contributed to the decentralization of the music industry’s power over distribution.

Participation in and access to popular music skyrocketed with the advent of social networks like MySpace and music blogs such as Stereogum, which feature MP3 streams and free downloads in addition to providing open forums for discussion. As a result, blogs have become an important outlet for independent artists to gain both exposure to and feedback from fans. Many of these sites have also initiated a kind of social activism in response to the ongoing battles over musical ownership. According to sociologist Michael Ayers, some bloggers and “bedroom DJs” use blogs as a public sphere in which to advance individual resistance on issues of copyright laws while calling for a commitment to “art for art’s sake”. This is certainly true for Downhill Battle, which went online in 2003 and immediately launched a call for peer-to-peer file sharing as an act of civil disobedience. For others, like Brooklyn Vegan, blogging has been primarily a means for providing information such as tour dates, album reviews, photos, MP3s and “just about anything else a music fan could want”. Whether they take an overtly political tone or not, music blogs and networks have given music consumers a much greater role in the process of circulating popular music.

Merge Records, founded in 1989 by Laura Balance and Mac McCaughan, is exemplary of the ways in which many indie labels have successfully harnessed Internet exposure. In 2007, McCaughan reported at the Future of Music Coalition’s annual policy summit that unlike their major label counterparts, Merge’s business over the last few years had grown. In Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, author John Cook attributes this in part to lower overhead costs. He points out that as digital sales have rapidly replaced CD sales, the physical distribution of music is less crucial to a label’s success. Whereas mass distribution was once the exclusive domain of the majors, selling albums through online retailers or through labels’ own websites has made it an easier and more profitable enterprise for the indies. Furthermore, marketing and promotion have been bolstered by the proliferation of alternative media on the Internet. College and freeform stations, traditional purveyors of independent music, now have much wider audiences thanks to online streaming. In the past decade, says Cook, the internet radio audience has increased 600 percent.

Then there’s YouTube, the great media equalizer, which could well be the most popular website for the dissemination of music. It is as much an archive as it is a stage for the up-and-coming; I have used it to find historical footage of a 1982 Black Flag performance, as well as a means of acquainting myself with indie bands recommended to me by friends. Uploading and viewing videos on YouTube is free, and while Sony, Warner, and Universal have partnership deals with YouTube, they cannot control the distribution of music outside their own copyrights. This means a Lithuanian ukulele ensemble can share the same virtual stage as Lady Gaga.

As with independent waves in the past, however, the most recent rise of indie music has been a paradoxical one in which the minority unwittingly creates the next popular trends while attempting to distance themselves from that which has mass appeal. Because doing-it-yourself has never been easier, the sheer volume of music that is now available can be overwhelming. Many of the freeform DJs I have spoken with voiced a similar complaint over the fact that anyone with Pro Tools — or any other of the music production software programs that have since come on the market — can make a CD, and the number of albums that they have to wade through in order to find the genuinely good artists has become unwieldy. Listeners, too, often attest to feeling alienated by the spate of musical information that’s out there, including that which resides in their own iPods. In his “Retroactive Listening” article, “Filesharing from Carter to Obama”, Kirby Fields lamented the irony of feeling increasingly disconnected from his music collection even though it is now larger than ever. “There’s scarcely time to digest the Next Big Thing before the Next Bigger Thing comes along,” he sighed.

It is not only increased access to music that has become problematic, but access to certain roles as well. As Jennifer Waits pointed out in “Technology and the Soul of College Radio”, many college DJs have become robots, broadcasting shows by simply plugging in their iPods instead of searching the stations’ archives for music. As a college DJ myself, I have also witnessed this pattern and it disappoints me to see so many DJs disengaging themselves from an important process that has defined freeform radio in the past. They’re missing out on the thrill of showing that Imelda May, Anouar Brahem, Blind Willie McTell, and Peter, Bjorn and John are not only worth listening to, but that Irish rockabilly, Arab folk, American blues, and Swedish indie rock sound really cool together. And in a society in which Clear Channel dominates the radio industry with standardized, repetitive playlists, the freeform DJ’s voice is arguably more important than ever.

So what, precisely, has the Internet done to independence? Have the musical experiences once defined by passionate and technologically oriented communities become so fragmented, individualized, and excessive that they’re no longer relevant?  Hardly. In fact, the current active minority is already responding to the Internet’s social and musical shortcomings by revitalizing older technologies. With techniques like dynamic range compression compromising music’s fidelity, more listeners and artists are abandoning digital music and returning to vinyl formats, long considered by many to be the most superior means of sound reproduction to date. This trend did not escape Merge who, in 2005, became the first label to create the LP3, which is a vinyl record accompanied by a free digital download of the same album. They’re definitely onto something, as Rolling Stone recently reported that vinyl sales have tripled in the last four years. This is no small figure in light of the fact that in the last ten years, major labels’ revenue has been cut in half, with album sales falling an average of 8% a year.


My effort to define “indie” led me to make an important connection between sound technology and creative approach. Just over a century ago, the development of mechanically reproduced sound gave rise to an industry that was built on the commodification of music. As mass consumerism grew, many critics feared that widespread use of such technology would lead to the cultural and intellectual decline of music. Critics like Adorno failed to appreciate, however, the ingenuity of individuals who used that technology as a means of empowerment through which they pushed the boundaries of popular music. Gennett and Paramount blazed a trail for indie labels by bringing lateral-cut recording into the public domain and establishing a market for regional music. Underground DJs in the 1960s forged a new territory for music broadcasting when they explored the sonic possibilities of FM radio with artfully crafted playlists. More recently, indie labels, musicians, DJs, and consumers were among the first to create virtual spheres of musical activity on the Internet, which has irrevocably altered the power structures of the industry. Whatever type of indie waves may arise in the future, I am certain that new technology will again be an integral component in their unleashing.

Laura Schnitker is a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at the University of Maryland. In addition to independent music, her studies have included Gullah culture of the southeastern Sea Islands, Western art music, radio history, and clarinet performance. She is also a sound archivist at the Library of American Broadcasting and the host of “Laurazaural Fixations”, a weekly program on Maryland’s freeform station WMUC.

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