What’s in a name?

Anyone who is seriously into music is constantly in contact with those who are not and are sometimes faced with the inevitable question “What kind of music are you into?” or some variation of this including my perennial favourite “What’s your favourite band” (Really one? Just one?). In situations like these it’s always easier to go for an easy answer, the easy answer is always “Indie” or “Alternative” But these terms “Indie” or “Alternative” what do they really mean?

I included “Alternative” for a reason. “Indie” was not widely known as a reference to music in North American until the early part of the 2000s and because of this they are interchangeable mainly because they both share a similar origin, punk rock. In the case of “Alternative” it’s pretty clear especially considering the seminal concert film of the golden age of “Alternative” music was entitled “1991: The Year that Punk Broke.” Raucous, guitar driven Rock and Roll, it makes perfect sense but with “Indie” it seems a bit of a stretch. Actually not at all. The one album that is widely singled out as the very first “Indie” album was a punk album “Spiral Scratch” by the Buzzcocks, because of the fact it was self-released as opposed to works by other Punk acts like the Sex Pistols who were signed to major labels. Punk also did something else, it showed everyone who saw them live or heard their records you didn’t need to be a guitar virtuoso or sing like Peter Frampton to start a band and the Buzzcocks showed them you don’t even need a record label. More importantly this realization didn’t spawn a generation of copycats, it’s showed them the way to DIY, DO it yourself. You want to make music whatever direction you want to take? Go ahead, form a band, or form a label and people of course did.

Joy Division was formed after seeing a Sex Pistols show, see the similarities. 

The Smiths front man was a massive fan of Proto-punk acts The New York Dolls and Patti Smith.

“Indie” is the older of the two terms and it can be dated to around 1980 when an Indie music chart was established in the UK. The classic definition as Alan Cross put it is “an artist with no affiliation to the three major labels Universal, Sony and Warner.”

Alternative was first displayed for the masses in 1991 when the Grammy Awards included it as a category. “This category is intended for recordings of a non-traditional form that exist…outside of the mainstream music consciousness…and contain elements of rock, pop, R&B, dance, folk, or even classical musical styles.”

Because of this overlap in North America one term being the norm and one being a recent import things start to get real confusing, especially because they are umbrella terms and not referring to specific genres.

I asked David Marsden the same question and I got this answer “some people used it to suggest music that wasn’t any good and some people used it to suggest alternative music was better than the rest…I choose to look at it as a positive.”

When I asked Alan Cross for his definition, the answer for “Alternative” was very simple. “has been beaten to death” and it certainly has. That word has been placed in front of anything: Alternative-Jazz, Alternative Hip-Hop, Alternative-Inuit Throat singing….so on and so forth. Also Grunge got really big and began to mutate as the 1990s progressed. It means so many different things to many different people, on one hand it can mean any genre of music that is completely outside of the mainstream and on the other hand it means generally super abrasive bro-rock, cue “Down With The Sickness” (Ouhhhhhhwahahahah!)

Now when it comes to the term “Indie” David Marsden’s take on the subject “Indie as a label has been around since time began…Elvis Presley was on an independent label when he started his career. The Beatles were on an independent ….I always paid attention to it because generally the music… was a little more risk taking than what was on a big commercial international label and usually a bit more rebellious and I think rock music should always be slightly rebellious at all times. ….So if there’s going to be a new sound coming out you always look to the “Indie” labels to give you that sound.”

And that was basically the consensus about the term “Indie”, to everyone I asked it basically meant the same thing, music that was released via and independent label. Okay, that makes perfect sense and that is of course where the name comes from…but if that alone makes an artist or a band “Indie”, Taylor Swift, as Alan Cross noted would be an “Indie” artist, as would Carly Rae Jepson and to put them into the same category as a band like A Place to Bury Strangers is ludicrous, it’s not even the same sport let alone league. It’s still clichéd bullshit Pop. I’m not like I’m saying Pop as a sound is a bad thing either. The reverse is also true there are many acts that are on major labels that can be deemed “Indie”, Alan pointed to Mumford and Sons for instance. So in the original meaning of the term “Indie” it’s pretty much bankrupt, just because you’re on a non-major label does not make you an “Indie” artist, but you can totally be an “Indie” artist on a major label because as Alan points out current state of “Indie” as “An aesthetic, vibe, a sound, an attitude.” Now is the time to change the meaning of “Indie” and in doing so not even really change the origin of the word, except instead of independent as in independent record label now it’s independent as in independent thought, concept or idea. Also the term “Indie Rock” needs to be limited in use because that’s only a small portion or the spectrum as “Indie” is Folk, Electronica, Pop, Rap, and whatever the hell Sun Araw does but I do love it.
Personally I have used both terms interchangeably with the distinction that “Alternative” is more heavy and abrasive and decidedly more “Rockist” Whereas “Indie” is more mellow and subdued. But now I see that “Alternative had its time in the sun and it’s time for it be phased out. I mean just call it rock, what does rock and roll really mean anymore? Indie is a better term anyways.

Music Geeks will always be super genre specific. It’s “Post-Noise-Rock-Shoegaze-Minimalism” to us but for everyone else “I’m into Indie”

One response to “What’s in a name?

  1. Good post! I’ve often thought about how meaningless these words have become in their widespread use. Indie has always been a tough descriptor for me, mostly because I think of it more in terms of its literal definition of a band without major label affiliations, but its use today seems more inclined to a specific ‘Indie rock’ genre. I like the idea of its focus being more on independent thought and creative expression.

    All in all, as long as the music’s good, call it what you like!

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