Should We Jettison the Term “Indie?”

Back in the day, “indie” meant “independent.” That indicated that the artist wasn’t signed to any of the major record labels. Then things got murky.

In the UK, the words “indie” and “alternative” became almost interchangeable, even though the artist might be signed to a major. And on both sides of the Atlantic, “indie” was use more and more as an aesthetic term rather than a way to describe an artist’s business model and financial arrangements. In the minds of millions, “indie” was a sound and image.

For example, people would say to me “Arcade Fire? They’re not indie. Look how big they are! How are they ‘indie?'”

“Well,” I’d reply, “they’re signed to Merge Records, an independent label based out of North Carolina. That qualifies them as an independent artist.”

“Bah!” would come the response. “By being popular, they’ve given up their right to be considered indie.”

The same conundrum happens going the other way. If a band sounded ragged and raw and lo-fi, well, they had to be indie, right? It didn’t seem to matter that they were signed to an imprint that was part of the major label system. Think Modest Mouse.

Even more confusing was someone like Taylor Swift. She’s signed to Big Machine, an indie label that just happens to have a distribution deal with Sony. That makes her an indie artist. Technically, anyway.

So is the term indie been rendered useless? It’s looking like it.  Salon takes a deeper look.

After a four-year hiatus, the Portland, Oregon, group the Decemberists opened its new album in January with a characteristically theatrical move. In a curtain-raiser called “The Singer Addresses His Audience,” frontman Colin Meloy sings, “We know you built your life around us/ Would we change? We had to change, some.”

As Meloy explained in interviews, “That was my imagining the viewpoint of a singer in a band.” Which sounded a bit like O.J. Simpson imagining he “did it”—a rather timid leap for a songwriter known for epics about pirate ships and forest queens—until Meloy clarified he meant “a boy band.”

It seems supremely “indie” to assume that even if you’ve had a Billboard No. 1 album(on a major label, no less), conventional pop stars’ experiences are utterly alien to you. Yet perhaps Meloy was being coy: In the latter half of the 2000s, his band commanded a devoted audience given to costumes, fan art, and mass sing-alongs. The scene was a bit like a One Direction tour crossed with LARPing. So the reconstituted Decemberists may well have wondered if their fans were prepared to let them change, or if the less manic sounds and more mature concerns of their new album would draw a “WHAT ABOUT ZAYN?” kind of backlash.

Read the whole thing here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

2 thoughts on “Should We Jettison the Term “Indie?”

  • May 1, 2015 at 11:47 am

    Yes it’s become a totally meaningless term. However, music is full of them. What really is the difference between rock & roll, rockabilly and rock? What’s the difference between punk, new wave and new romanticism? Yes, people will have answers to all these questions but it gets fuzzy pretty fast.

  • May 1, 2015 at 8:46 pm

    Agreed with Dan. Don’t know when, but recently Apple got rid of indie/independent (can’t remember which one) and have now switch to Alternative as music categories.


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