Progressive Sounds: Technology and Innovation in Indie Music

[9 May 2010]

By Laura Schnitker

I’m writing my dissertation on indie music. As it happens, my thesis committee is curious to know what I mean by indie. It’s a fair request. So, like any fledgling scholar, I looked first to the experts. Stephen Lee, a music historian who studies British record labels, defined indies as “innovative and creative oases for new or unconventional musicians in the midst of a capital-driven and profit-oriented record business”. That sounds pretty good. But how might we describe the music of those mildly disheveled, thirtysomething artists who stare meaningfully into the distance from the pages of Under the Radar magazine? The music director at WCBN in Ann Arbor, Michigan, explains, “When I’m using indie to describe music, often times it’s a sort of moderate-level production, not whole lot of money has been poured into it, it’s obviously not a large commercial release.” Makes sense, I suppose. Then how does someone in a live audience perceive it? “As part of a smaller audience, I get the feeling of a closer connection, and a more direct and authentic experience of listening to and through their music,” reported a thoughtful indie fan in my Facebook survey. That sounds about right, too.

All of these are perfectly valid statements, and all point to a common characteristic of indie as favoring creative autonomy over mass appeal. However, as I require a more inclusive definition, I began to consider that indie is not characterized by a particular business practice, sonic trait, or listening habit alone, but as rather as an approach that relies on innovative uses of technology. Historically, indie music has developed as an aesthetic response to the musical chasms left by the industry’s commercial goals. The do-it-yourself methods by which those responses were realized always hinged on creative adaptation of newly emergent technology. The means afforded to independent-minded musicians, labels, and DJs by these technologies have played a vital role in broadening the spectrum of not only independent music, but ultimately popular music as well.

Before looking at the interplay between indies and technology, however, we must understand how and why these waves of independent activity first developed.

Pre-Independence: The Birth of the Popular Music Industry

Thomas Edison created the technology to reproduce sound in 1877, but it was a Prussian immigrant named Emile Berliner who envisioned sound recordings as both a means of mass communication and commercial revenue. Eleven years after Edison introduced his phonograph, Berliner invented the flat disc, which made both reproduction and playback more manufacture- and user-friendly than its predecessor, the wax cylinder. In the early 1900s, as Tin Pan Alley began cranking out hit songs in an industrial, assembly-line fashion, the nascent recording industry saturated public and private spaces with popular music. Jukeboxes in train stations, ferryboat landings, shopping areas, amusement parks, hotels and cafes encouraged public consumption of sound recordings. The subsequent introduction of phonographs into American homes replaced the piano, which had been middle-class homes’ primary means of musical entertainment since the mid-19th century. Radio’s emergence in the 1920s further expanded the availability of music, which comprised over 60 percent of all broadcasting time.

Music was everywhere, and the few entities controlling its distribution prioritized maximizing profits. The best way to do this, of course, was to attract the largest possible audience. Sheet music publishers had long been aware that repetition was their best method of advertising, and by strategically planting song pluggers in all manner of public spaces, including department stores and restaurants, they bombarded consumers with songs that had the most hit potential.

Yet, as the outlets for music grew, the types of music that found public exposure declined. In his study Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music, David Suisman describes the narrowing effects of the music industry’s aggressive marketing tactics:

…this expansion of the music industry infringed on the limited social and cultural environments and psychic space people had available for making music and listening to it. This issue ultimately was not that the simple, fun, cheap, disposable songs of Tin Pan Alley were inherently pernicious, only that they developed in tandem with a promotional system whose tendency was to crowd out alternatives, a tendency that increased as competition within the industry grew.

Though a great many people were delighted with the proliferation of popular music made possible by new technology, others approached it with more suspicion. Early detractors of jukeboxes in the 1890s lamented the perceived decline of culture signified by swarms of working-class citizens who favored cheap public entertainment. Although recordings of his music were some of the biggest sellers in the early 1900s, American bandleader and composer John Philip Sousa feared the phonograph would put music teachers out of business. Journals such as Atlantic Monthly and Musical America featured articles with such titles as “The Case Against Popular Song” and “Music Versus Materialism” in which critics compared popular songs to infectious epidemics.

Perhaps the most vocal and influential critic of popular music was Frankfurt theorist, Theodor Adorno. In his 1945 essay “A Social Critique of Radio Music”, Adorno claimed that the mass production of music led to “commodity listening…whose ideal it is to dispense as far as possible with any effort on the part of the recipient”. He believed that “the listener suspends all intellectual activity when dealing with music”, and cited the uniform responses in fan mail from a rural Midwest station as evidence of “standardized enthusiasm”. As an exile from Nazi Germany, Adorno thought the American music industry’s approach to industrializing popular music resembled the fascist methods of spreading propaganda in his former homeland; that song publishers manipulated public tastes through repetition, robbing listeners of their freedom of choice while convincing them that their “pseudo-individuality” enabled them to control what they heard and what they liked.

Subsequent scholars, however, have been more cautious about casting the music industry as faceless corporate machine and popular music audiences as entirely passive. In 1950, sociologist David Riesman, author of The Lonley Crowd, published a study of teenagers’ listening habits in which he addressed Adorno’s assumptions about the power of the music industry over consumers. After interviewing 150 youths, Riesman found a minority group whose critical attitudes toward mainstream popular music led them to make alternative choices. For Riesman, this minority group was characterized by “an insistence on rigorous standards of judgment and taste in a relativist culture; a preference for the uncommercialized, unadvertised small bands rather than name bands; the development of a private language (the same is true of other aspects of private style) and then a flight from it when the private language is taken over by the majority group, [and] a profound resentment of the commercialization of radio and musicians”. This was a youth movement that deliberately sought to avoid inclusion in the mass media’s construction of a teenage audience.

Riesman’s study suggests several important things in regards to consumer behaviors. First, the preference for uncommercialized music implies that there were spaces in which popular music, whether through sound recordings or live performances, was exchanged outside mainstream outlets. Second, the minority’s commitment to aesthetic standards in a variable context confirms that, contrary to Adorno’s claims, individual agency did exist among music consumers whose tastes were not necessarily dictated by the industry. Third, their cultivation of cultural practices and the subsequent abandonment of them when “taken over” by the majority indicates an uneasy relationship between the two; while the minority clearly wields some influence over majority behaviors, mainstream acceptance is not considered a desirable outcome. Maintaining a marginalized status was a key component in this social environment.

If we open up Riesman’s definition of “active minority” to include not only consumers, but anyone who applies a similarly critical approach to also creating or distributing popular music, it becomes possible to trace their presence in the music industry over the last century. Of course, it would be erroneous to claim that the industry exists as a set of binary oppositions between passive versus active audiences, or independents versus major labels. There are, in fact, many levels of activity, and overlapping networks that comprise the process of creating, distributing, and consuming popular music — indie labels have often relied on majors for distribution, and discriminating tastes can be found among all types of musical crowds.

A defining characteristic for generations of indie communities, however, has been the engagement of sound technology as a means of exploring and expanding music within alternative culture, and of empowering creative expression through innovation. In the 1920s, for instance, some of the first independent labels won legal access to Berliner’s patented recording technology and went on to become important purveyors of regional styles. In the 1960s, underground DJs used FM radio to refashion the role of the musical mediator at a time when Top 40 programming dominated the airwaves. More recently, Internet communications have brought radical changes to the distribution of independent music, affecting labels, DJs, musicians, and consumers. In every case, the impact of technology on the development of popular music has been profound.

Indie Label Pioneers and the Liberation of Technology

At its outset, the American popular music industry was a business dominated by large corporations. In the late 19th century, the biggest sheet music publishers vied for hits as vaudeville and minstrel shows gave popular songs a national stage. When sound recordings became viable products for home use at the turn of the 20th century, three phonograph manufacturers — Victor, Edison, and Columbia — secured all the patents that were necessary to produce both phonographs and recordings. A variety of music historians have noted how they marketed their products as instruments of cultural uplift and refinement in an effort to distance themselves from the cheap entertainment of jukeboxes. William Kenney, author of Recorded Music in American Life, affirmed that while they recorded and sold many types of music, both Edison and Victor actively promoted opera, symphonies, and military marches, and downplayed their “race” and “hillbilly” catalogues since these were considered antithetical to what American musical culture should be. For nearly two decades, recorded music was their exclusive domain.

In 1915, however, when several key patents expired, the market expanded. Independent labels immediately began cropping up, usually as small enterprises located outside coastal urban centers like New York and Los Angeles. They were operated by businesspeople whose priorities included finding and recording music from local communities in order to serve more regional audiences. Gennett Records was founded in 1915 by the owners of Starr Piano in Richmond, Indiana. In 1922, they won a lawsuit with Victor over the rights to lateral-cut recording technology, which allowed them to press records that could be played on more than one kind of phonograph. Gennett was one of the first outfits to recognize the value of New Orleans jazz, which had recently migrated to nearby Chicago, and they famously immortalized a young Louis Armstrong’s supporting role with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.

At the same time, Paramount Records in Port Washington, Wisconsin, was mining the rural music of southern, eastern, and Midwestern areas of the United States. In 1924, Paramount began pressing discs for Black Swan, the first black-owned record company. After Paramount eventually bought out the company, they retained their focus on recording African-American musicians. Paramount’s talent scouts were less interested in discovering national stars than they were committed to serving their primarily black clientele, and wound up recording some of the greatest blues artists of the decade, including Son House, Ma Rainey, Charley Patton, Skip James, and Ida Cox. Thanks to Gennett, lateral-cut recording technology was now in the public domain, and smaller labels were able to compete in the industry.

In their book Little Labels, Big Sound, Rick Kennedy and Randy McNutt provide snapshots from independent label history, and describe some important ways in which their methods differed from the majors. Gennett, for example, generally used staff from their piano factory to operate the studio, and because they weren’t music professionals, they gave their artists creative control. Musicians could hone their own styles and play their own songs, a privilege not often granted by major labels who wanted their artists to record popular published songs. For its part, Paramount figured out that selling records to their consumers via mail-order catalogues enabled them to work around retail centers that refused to sell race records “in fear of attracting too many black customers”.

Gennett, Paramount, and most of the other fledgling independents of the decade did not survive past the 1930s. The Great Depression and the spread of network radio wiped them out and, in what would become a pattern in the following decades, the majors poached their best artists once the potential of their popularity became evident.

Nonetheless, these early independent labels left an important legacy. They helped to create a space in which smaller businesses could compete with the majors, and proved that even modest success could have an impact on the entire industry. Their interest in experimenting with recording technology, and willingness to fight for the right to do it, showed that entrepreneurial initiative in a corporate-dominated industry was a worthy endeavor. And while they often exploited their artists’ ignorance over royalty rights — a symptom of racism that was widespread throughout the entire industry — they did help to legitimize the voices of marginalized communities in the United States by recording their music and preserving its unique sounds for generations to come.

While the newfound ubiquity of lateral-cut recordings that enabled Gennett and Paramount to compete in the industry unfortunately did not ensure their economic survival, it did in fact establish their sonic legacy. The people who refashioned radio music programming forty years later would broadcast many of those aged lateral-cut recording across an infant air wave band, another new technology utilized by an active minority to initiate another wave of independence.

The FM Revolution Expands the Airwaves

In the early 1950s, a radio disc jockey named Tom Storz developed the idea for the Top 40 format when he noticed that teenagers tended to repeatedly play the same songs on jukeboxes. He developed radio programming in a similar fashion, featuring the week’s Top 40 hit songs in heavy rotation. With major networks NBC, ABC, and CBS migrating to television, radio was becoming an increasingly musical medium and Top 40 radio became the music industry’s most profitable and popular method of selling songs. As with song pluggers years earlier, radio stations relied on repetitive, uniform programming to capture young audiences and draw them into record stores. The trend became so widespread that in 1965 FCC chairman Newton Minow complained at a meeting of the National Associations of Broadcasters that radio stations had become “publicly franchised jukeboxes”. It wasn’t long before a growing active minority started to seek alternatives in radio technology that would allow them to broadcast music on their own terms.

The advent of frequency modulation (FM) after World War II enabled broadcasting at higher frequencies than amplitude modulation (AM), and, as Jay Somerset mentioned in his “Retroactive Listening” piece, “The Day the (AM) Music Died”, FM radio was primarily the domain of audiophiles and amateur radio operators for its first couple decades. It was soon realized that FM’s superior sound quality and lower susceptibility to electrical disturbances made it a better format for broadcasting music. The early ‘60s saw a rise in commercial FM stations where music programmers often used classical music to take advantage of the high fidelity. But, according to radio historian Michael Keith, as America was rocked from widespread social unrest, “commercial radio went underground to do some rocking of its own”. By late ‘68, there were over five dozen underground radio stations (also known as freeform, alternative, or progressive) in operation around the country. Many of them, like KRAB in Seattle and KMPX in San Francisco, were broadcasting near college campuses and cities that were steeped in Vietnam-era counterculture.

Susan Douglas, author of

Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination

, acknowledges that there was a number of factors that contributed to the rise of FM radio. However, echoing the attitudes of Riesman’s minority group, she maintains that it was marked by a profoundly anticommercial, anticorporate ethos and a new passion for listening. In stark contrast to the predictable and uniform playlists of Top 40 stations, underground radio DJs featured a wide range of music and spoken word, from Chinese opera to poetry readings by Ezra Pound. They played deeper cuts from the albums of well-known rock musicians, as well as more obscure tracks from those early independent recordings of jazz and blues — Paramount’s recordings had been rediscovered in the 1960s by collectors who reissued them on vinyl compilations during the decade’s folk revival. FM DJs juxtaposed these sounds in creative ways, crafting their playlists out of the audio similarities from seemingly disparate genres and eras. They enjoyed far more autonomy than their AM counterparts and built their shows on moods and muses, which meant for freeform DJ Jim Ladd, that “you could play your show like a musical instrument”.

The comparison to live music points to another important technological development of the 1960s: the stereo system. Whether on a sound recording or an FM radio broadcast, stereo delivered sound through two channels, which gave music more lifelike qualities. Sensitive receivers were designed to intensify the experience of being surrounded by the various instruments coming out of both speakers. Listeners got what Douglas calls “a more geological sense of music” in which every layer, level, and seam mattered. Juxtaposing Buffalo Springfield, Mozart, a Balinese gamelan ensemble, and John Lee Hooker could make aesthetic sense when their common musical elements became discernible.

While FM DJs were not the first on-air personalities to feature hand-picked music that fell under the mainstream’s radar—African-American disc jockeys in the ‘40s and ‘50s deserve the credit for that—they created a new role for DJs as curators of music who provided their audiences with a radio listening experience that was an active and intellectually engaging process. Many FM DJs were record collectors who were looking for outlets for their music, and helped build station libraries with the likes of Spirit, the Doors, Canned Heat, the Youngbloods, and Leonard Cohen, whose music was rarely, if ever, featured on AM radio. Others wanted to share their fields of expertise, like KRAB DJ Gary Margason, an ethnomusicologist and musician who had a penchant for Japanese court music. His colleague, a former KPFA host named Robert Garfias, would go on to set up a department of ethnomusicology at the University of Washington. For them, popular music wasn’t signified by a small, repetitive set of current hits, but rather a broad spectrum of styles, voices, and cultures.

As with independent waves in the past, the increasing popularity of FM radio eventually caught the attention of larger commercial interests, and in the early ‘70s, the corporate giants of the music industry began their takeover of the FM airwaves. They bought and consolidated FM stations and took their usual systematic approach to maximizing audiences by compiling demographic data and record sales figures to create more uniform programming, robbing DJs of their autonomy and homogenizing their playlists. A lot of commercial freeform stations either went off the air or were swallowed up by corporations. However, some managed to stay afloat through savvy business practices and a steadfast commitment to autonomy. WFMU out of Jersey City, New Jersey, for example, is the longest running freeform station in the country. They started broadcasting in 1958, became freeform ten years later, and have adhered to their philosophy of “blending musical styles high and low, from around the world and spanning the history of sound recording” ever since.

The use of technology to reinvent music broadcasting as a powerful and diverse sensory experience would have an important influence as the century came to close. By the ‘90s, Internet technology started to revive freeform radio through online streaming and a subsequent regeneration of interest in sound quality and listening as an active process is now contributing to one of the most recent trends in indie music.

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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