Like goth, indie music is one of pop’s most nebulous genres. The myriad bands operating within its parameters are usually labeled “indie rock” or “indie pop”, but in reality its boundaries are much broader. What must be emphasized above all is that the notion of independent music derives from the word “independent”: in this context, small and relatively low budget record labels inspired by the DIY spirit of punk and releasing music for the misfits made by maverick outsiders who reject the corporate world of rock ‘n’ roll.
The rise of independent music
The history of indie music as we know it begins with Buzzcocks spiral scratch PE. First released in April 1977, this influential four-track 7-inch by Manchester’s iconic pop-punk quartet is widely recognized as the first independently financed and distributed rock record. The fact that he sold his original pressing of 1,000 copies and then sold another 15,000 copies effectively created the template for independent labels in one fell swoop. In fact, such was spiral scratchThe impact of ‘s that by the end of 1978, the UK alone boasted hundreds of self-starting imprints with breakthrough labels such as Rough Trade, Factory and Mute already well into their infancy.
Yet while those landmark imprints drew heaps of critical praise, commercial success initially proved elusive. Published by Rough Trade, the incendiary debut of Stiff Little Fingers in 1979, Flammable materialbecame the first independent album to sell over 100,000 copies, while a few choice independent singles, such as Joy Division’s sublime “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Depeche’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” Mode, entered the UK Top 30 charts in good faith at the dawn of the 80s. However, many small imprints were still the preserve of the adventurous entrepreneur whose aims were simply to release a single single and maybe get a session on BBC Radio 1’s John Peel show.
The stock of indie music, however, increased dramatically in 1983, when Rough Trade signed The Smiths – arguably the UK’s most prominent guitar band of the decade. In the United States, meanwhile, Murmurthe debut album by a little-known quartet from Athens, Georgia, REM (published by Miles Copeland and the independent imprint of Jay Boberg, IRS), retrieved rolling stonewon album of the year, taking on the challenge of michael jacksonsold millions Polar In the process.
By the mid-1980s, the DIY ethic resonated around the world, with respected American independents such as SST, Touch & Go and Twin/Tone gaining a foothold, and notable imprints from faraway territories such as Hot Records of Australia and New Zealand. Flying Nun entering the market.
Also by this time, the rock press had begun to refer to albums released by self-financed labels as “independent music” – something reinforced by the influential 1986 compilation C86. Originally a cover-mounted cassette released by the British rock weekly NMEthis collection included tracks from future indie music crossover stars, including Primal Scream and The Wedding Present, and showed that a new breed of bands attuned to post-punk and 60s pop focused on the guitar was back in fashion.
Indie goes mainstream
Signs that independent music was on the verge of collapse appeared in the late 1980s. American tours by emerging British bands with independent origins, such as New Order and Echo And The Bunnymen, were playing arenas still larger, while the albums of groundbreaking American indie rock bands, including lively youthit’s Reverie NationPixies’ Doolittle and Dinosaur Jr’s Bug remain among the defining records of the time. Indeed, by the end of the decade, indie music had turned into a real major player, with Manchester’s indie dance icons, The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays, riding the zeitgeist; The treatment playing a massive international stadium tour behind their multi-platinum masterpiece Disintegration; and Depeche Mode’s Music For The Masses tour ending with a show at the 90,000-seat Pasadena Rose Bowl in California.
The 90’s, however, are generally considered the golden age of independent music, both creatively and commercially. During the first years of this particularly seismic decade, grunge music spearheads Nirvana, pearl jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, and sound garden burst into the mainstream, achieving multi-million sales and a global profile beyond the wildest dreams of independents who emerged during the post-punk era. Inadvertently spawning another indie-related catch-all term, “alternative rock”, the success of the pioneers of grunge has also given rise to a host of young American stars in waiting, ranging from punk revivalists Green Day and The Offspring to the ‘experimental lo fi stars beck and Liz Phair to win over the long term
In the UK, independent music played an equally central role in the pop scene of the 90s. Oasis, britpop superstar, Pulpget confused, the verveSupergrass and Elastica all come from independent backgrounds, while the much-loved label Creation (home to Oasis, Primal Scream, Super Furry Animals and more) has been hailed as one of the cornerstones of what the UK media has Called ‘Cool Britannia’, the resulting exposure led to label boss Alan McGee and Oasis’ Noel Gallagher having tea with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at 10 Downing Street.
Independent music continued to cast a long shadow into the early years of the new millennium. Respected imprints such as Heavenly, Creation and a revitalized Rough Trade promoted many influential players of the era, including early Australian outfit The Vines, stylish Swedish garage rockers The Hives and two super New York outfits. cool, The Strokes and Yeah yeah yeah. However, the biggest independent draw of the 2000s was surely Sheffield’s Arctic Monkeys, whose profile first rose through their interaction with fans via MySpace before their highly acclaimed debut in 2006. Whatever people say I am is what I’m nothas generated multi-platinum sales and international recognition.
indie is not dead
Changing trends and the way we now consume music via digital platforms have, however, led some cultural commentators to abandon independent music in recent years, with a 2012 article in a UK newspaper. The Guardian even referring to the “slow and painful death” of indie rock.
Yet a wealth of conflicting evidence abounds. Indeed, in 2018, genre godfathers The Cure, New Order and Depeche Mode continue to fill stadiums; old (Cherry Red, Fire, Rough Trade) and new (Dead Oceans, Spinefarm) indie imprints remain innovative and active, while acclaimed albums by new indie/alt.rock visionaries Arcade Fire, Tame Impala, St Vincent, Vampire Weekend , Glass Animals, Fat White Family, and Shame all conspire to suggest that rumors of this resilient genus’ demise are recklessly premature.