The Null Device

Indie music isn't working

The Independent has a pretty authoritative piece on the terminal decline of the genre of "indie" in the UK, from its origins as independent, defiantly noncommercial popular music (typically released on small DIY labels) in the late 1970s and 80s, through the Britpop hype explosion, and to the present day, when "indie" means formulaic, commercially-oriented guitar rock by image-conscious young Blatcherite careerists:
John Niven was an indie fan in the 1980s, an A&R man in the Britpopping 1990s, and is now the author of Kill Your Friends, a sadistic satire of the record industry of which he was once an enthusiastic member. "I was in Gap a few weeks ago and there was some sort of generic indie music playing," he says. "I was with a friend who's a promoter and a bit younger than me. After about three or four tracks I asked him: 'Whose LP is this?' And he said, 'No, it's a compilation.' Every track sounded identical. The guitars, the production; all these bands sound like they're made in the same studio with the same producer. It's such a ball-less, soulless, generic whitewashed indie sound. You could probably take a member from each band and throw them together in a new group and no one would be able to tell the difference. They're completely interchangeable. Scouting for Girls are like the sound of Satan's scrotum emptying. They're abysmal."
"[Britpop] was great fun," wrote the journalist Andrew Collins in a 2006 piece for Word. "But it wasn't indie, and it pushed a whole slew of workmanlike guitar bands centre-stage, where they were even expected to represent their rebranded country, giving the quite false impression that Cool Britannia was an Indie Nation. The essence of New Labour, indie was capitalism dressed up as revolutionary socialism."
These days the term 'indie' is little more than a generic sonic description for any band that plays guitars and probably wears skinny ties, skinny jeans, and skinny cardigans. Collins, a former NME writer and ex-editor of Q, says now: "'Indie' has become a meaningless term. It just covers guitar bands. But it was never meant to be about a type of music, it wasa spirit and an attitude. When I glance around the bands that are supposedly 'indie' today, I don't see any attitude. I don't see any content in their records, any political interest in the band members. They're a terrible generation, unfortunately, but they're becoming famous overnight and selling a lot of records. I've heard them called 'mortgage indie'. It's a career path – a way of making a lot of money very quickly. The Kooks did so well so quickly. Scouting For Girls, from a standing start, have become a really big band. The Fratellis have become massive in a remarkably short time."
Here's another term for the indie glossary: a "firework band". It means a widely touted young act whose label has a debut LP to sell. They begin their professional lives by exploding into the top of the charts, shine brightly, then drop out of sight. The turnover of new acts is terrifying. Parklife, lest we forget, was Blur's third album.
Also in the Independent, an apposite example of "mortgage indie" as a career move, in which a Cambridge indie band named Hamfatter turns to venture capitalism to bypass the recording industry. Which is something I have mixed feelings about: on one hand, from a business perspective, this is as indie in attitude as it guest. On the other hand, when art is seen through the jaundiced lens of business, with market research and venture capital, business plans and promotional campaigns, that is somewhat saddening. What happened to art made for the sake of art, without commercial calculation? Is there even a place for it in the post-Blairite marketing society? The new indie revolution may be about allowing the little guys to be as soullessly mercantile as only the old, huge record labels could afford to be.

There are 8 comments on "Indie music isn't working":

Posted by: ianw Tue Jul 22 08:25:10 2008

call me old, but in a way this is nothing new - Indie was already pretty formulaic (and not-independent) by the mid-80s, and (IMHO) from a cultural-imperialism POV the Englishness was already quite distasteful by the early-80s, when I realised that all my favourite Aussie bands (eg. Hugo Klang, Laughing Clowns) would go nowhere, because audiences everywhere were championing music that was basically schmaltzy big-money stuff, thinking it was 'indie'. A big example at the time was when Rough Trade (once, a classic art-punk singles label but already a mainstream hype-machine) sidelined (then dumped) the GoBetweens (who admittedly were unmarketable, despite their protestations of pop genius) in favour of the Smiths, who I still maintain were a crappy Smiths covers-band - good songs played badly and produced abysmally, compared to say The Fall. Thanks to Nirvana and MBV the bad production stayed in the 80s but BritPop really was just a govt-repackaging of a brand that was already worldwide big-biz. The use of the

Posted by: datakid Tue Jul 22 23:51:11 2008

lols...finish it ian!

Posted by: acb Wed Jul 23 00:58:20 2008

I'm not sure that I agree about Englishness being distasteful. For one, a lot of British indie of the 80s was Scottish in origin (the Glasgow School/new optimists, for example), and secondly, a lot of it was explicitly socialist/leftist in politics, during the heavily polarised Thatcher era.

Posted by: acb Wed Jul 23 01:04:04 2008

Also, while you're right in saying that 1980s UK indie (of the post-C86 jangle) variety often followed a formula (and listening to any of the Sounds of Leamington Spa compilations, or indeed different Factory or Sarah bands, drives this point home), the crucial difference is that back then the idea of indie as a path to wealth or stardom was absurd. Indie back then was defiantly anti-aspirational, and obscurity was seen as a badge of authenticity.

Posted by: ianw Thu Jul 24 05:23:06 2008

oops! (where was I? didn't know it was cutting short), all agreed of course. But "obscure" 80s UK Indie sold thousands, worldwide, at the expense of local variants now forgotten (they were, comparitively, really obscure). I think my last sentence (above) was: the use of 'Indie' to mean old/90s/commercial dates at least to the (2001-2) early80s revival a la the Rapture, Vivian Girls etc.

Posted by: acb Thu Jul 24 07:42:53 2008

Once I have some time, I'm going to put in a character counter on this page. Along with several other much needed fixes.

Posted by: Greg Sat Jul 26 01:48:19 2008

There's a cycle that's very general over media(*) that goes something like; 1) Small number of people do something exciting or revolutionary .. 2) Larger group get excited and get involved .. 3) Someone makes money selling (1) to (2) .. 4) Bigger business notices, makes bad copies of (1), sells them to mainstream.

(* art, technology, maybe life in general)

Posted by: ajcebuk Sun Jun 28 21:38:12 2009

Thank you all.

So its not just me going mad in the corner.

The only thing is, how do I explain all this to my contemporaries (at the tender age of 19) who follow bands and memorize lyrics simply because their mates are in them and regardless of the sound.

Its become about the mere social implication of supposedly being part of a 'movement' or i.e. having a good saturday night out with all your mates a la "I'm with the band".

There's no lust for political awakening instead some kind of morbid and - as becomes evident but your collective histories of the use of the word 'indie' - ironic escapism, all cluttered under the eponymous, almost horrifically marketable, blanket term...

ohhh rants and raving a year alfter the posting. if anyone reads this please do offer a solution for the dissolution or rather disillusionment of this misguided art form, so to speak, rather than simply detailing the problem, however much appreciated.

cheers, Al