Once were independents…

When did we stop talking about what it means to be independent?

David Renshaw from NME declared 2012 The year that Pop jumped into bed with Indie – referencing this year’s album by Ke$sha on Sony, where Arctic Monkeys and The Black Keys appear alongside the pop chantuese. He also cites P!nk borrowing from Modest Mouse, or Robbie Williams lifting samples from Todd Terje. His thesis concludes that Indie provides a fecund ground for pop satellites to delve into and mine for hitherto unrecognised beauty – a trend symptomatic of the increasing ease with which we access music – everything is everything.

But are these actually lines of division? If so, where are those lines? The term Indie comes from Independent – from an era where indie wasn’t merely a style, but a stance –  a decision. Bands were independent when they weren’t signed to a major label – they stood outside the establishment and offered… an independent perspective.

Ok. I get it – everything is blurry now – The Weeknd release work for free, and Radiohead ditch their label to release independently. The Arctic Monkeys are on Domino – one of the longest running independent record labels left standing. The Modest Mouse release in question was funded by Epic, a division of Sony.

However, and increasingly, references to ‘Indie’ eschew question of earnings and profile.

The Black Keys? I understand they have an independent sound – or did – but they have licensed works to over three hundred advertisements, films and television shows. Instead of raising questions about what it means to call them independent, we take the style and the attitude as the genuine indicators. This is most clearly demonstrated in an interview with Q Studio, where Auerbach and Carney discuss the issue – in some discomfort – trumpeting again the story of turning down an offer for 200 000 pounds for a Mayonnaise commercial, alongside declarations they now have no problem with exploiting their work – as much as possible – through advertising.

There is a place for commercial sound – a place for artists who choose not to take endorsements and talk through overt forms of commercial exploitation. A place for musicians to have cache, make money, and a place for bands struggling to be relevant despite the marketplace, difficulties of staying afloat, gaining promotion or making an impact without finances.

Arguing that Pop has jumped into bed with Indie – as if indie just means guys with scraggly beards and cute geeky chicks who don’t talk to you in the library… loses an important way of talking about artists who make music ‘in spite of’… who won’t get a call from Ke$sha or placement with Victoria’s Secret – who provide more than just a source of creativity to steal from – but offer counter culture, questions from the edges and options beyond marketing, hype and money making.

Does an artist who refuses to take the cash simply because it is offered, who works hard in spite of the difficulties of having to pay the rent, who endures hardship that foregoes easy marketplace answers… Does that offer us, as a society, anything important?

If so, we should have a name for it.

One thought on “Once were independents…

  1. Hey TJ,
    Excellent point, identifying that we are in danger of losing an important way of talking about artists who make music in spite of the industry, those who won’t get the call from Ke$sha or be branded for Victoria’s Secret.

    This aphorism by Robert Fripp identifies the problem for me:
    the concern of the musician is music,
    the concern of the professional musician is business.

    A deeper problem is raised, that of – which ‘concern’ are we operating in? Is it possible to move between them? Would we say yes to a call from kesha? There is no doubt that the personal answers are for a confessional conversation for elsewhere.

    But it’s not too far away from the question of whether ‘the artist who refuses’ is important, and what that artist may offer us. I can imagine a host of rejections of the industry on artistic and political grounds; to be a militant of truth. For we can think of them/us as the excess to production, the necessary remainder of our hyper-market, that both threatens and enables industry. The militant would understand this paradox, of being both a source for the mainstream, and being its radical opposition. (As an aside, the speed at which current ‘counter-culture’ becomes ‘over-the-counter-culture’ is quite astounding.)

    All this raised many more questions, that became quite unruly to include in this reply, like: what is the nature of the artist’s refusal? Is there a distinction between the artist who makes music ‘in spite of’ and the artist who ‘refuses’? In what ways do the current online interactions with an audience circumvent these problems?

    I settled on the one idea that, what we are confronted with is an axis, with refusal (saying no to kesha) as one pole, and complete immersion (saying yes to kesha) as the other pole. Such an axis renders the problem in a different light, that allows us to see that there are any be number of positions between the two extremes, avoiding the problem of a strict dichotomy, and that at different times and for different reasons, one moves back and forth along this axis.

    For many of us there has always been a discomfort in negotiating this travel, even when, at different times, an artist needs to eat.

    Ke$sha, I’m waiting for your call!

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