Progressive Sounds: Technology and Innovation in Indie Music

Laura Schnitker

Indie is not characterized by a particular business practice, sonic trait, or listening habit alone, but rather as an approach that relies on innovative uses of technology.

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.

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