The college students I work with, professional colleagues, and friends frequently describe bands or performers I’ve never heard of as “indie” or “alternative.” I frequently bite back at them by noting that indie does not describe a style of music, but rather a distribution channel. In the late 1980s/early 1990s college rock stations were significant launching pads for new bands/solo acts who were too unconventional for mainstream pop radio (Think R.E.M.). The performers usually cut their teeth performing in local communities, released self-financed recordings, and after building audiences they were able expand regionally and gain enough of a following, and sufficient exposure, to be commercially viable for a major record label. Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Hootie & the Blowfish (remember them?) are obvious examples of groups that followed this path and experienced tremendous commercial success.
For these bands indie simply referred to self-financed records distributed outside of the big pop machine. They had to build audiences organically by performing and selling their music themselves. A lot of innocence and purity is typically assigned to this process, but none of the bands mentioned resisted the commercial allure and broadened distribution offered by Warner Bros (R.E.M), Geffen (Nirvana), Epic Records (Pearl Jam), and Atlantic Records (Hootie & the Blowfish). In their 1990s heydays they each got on MTV and a radio station near you by pursuing major record label support. Whether you enjoy their music or not the indie aspect of their identity was generally less about a style than the issue of access. A major record label can get songs on the radio and albums in stores, as well as artists on TV, with a global scope and efficiency generally beyond that of smaller local and regional independent record labels. The record industry is not a static being, but major labels still have an edge.
Arguably, from a musical perspective R.E.M’s wan, cryptic style and the intense Seattle-bred sound of Nirvana and Pearl Jam differed stylistically from a lot of the music popular when they began so they did offer a sonic alternative. Hootie was essentially meat and potatoes rocks of the Mellencamp-Springsteen variety, with sprinkles of Crosby, Stills & Nash, except their music was a little poppier, lighter and less angst ridden than the “alternative” music popular in the mid-1990s. Indie and alternative, once referred to as modern rock are essentially shifting terms, yet they still have affective meaning for today’s listeners. A lot of conventional pop/rock music is labeled indie or alternative and it falls on deaf ears for me because these labels allow the listeners to posit it against something you’re listening to that’s totally vulgar and mainstream.
In 1995 filmmakers Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg wrote the Dutch Dogme 95 manifesto in an effort to distinguish an emergent avant-garde contemporary film aesthetic from mainstream Hollywood style films. Directors like von Trier continue to carry this torch making unconventional, if often difficult and frustrating, films that nonetheless feel very far removed from anything coming out of Tinseltown.
Popular music is comparatively more diffuse especially with the advent of the digital music revolution. The digital age has made it easier for musicians to promote and distribute music through channels relatively accessible to a wide range of folks. You don’t have to tour when you can upload a video on YouTube. Granted this means the quality of music varies wildly, especially since there are fewer filters regarding quality. Record labels used to pay Artists & Repertoire (A&R) folks to travel and listen to bands to pick out future stars. The A&R system didn’t guarantee “quality,” but a person who acquires a working database knowledge of multiple acts over time and witnesses how performers operate in a live setting, as well as observing audiences’ reactions to musicians in the flesh is poised to offer a different level of critique than someone who pushes a thumbs up/thumbs down button on YouTube button.
Today when someone claims a musician is “underground” they are usually just referring me to a link that was shared with them through social media, and symbolically saying, “Here’s something out of the ordinary beyond pop.” Yet, this typically means listening to someone performing in an obvious commercial style (e.g. hip-hop, rock, R&B) rather than someone innovative. The whole music industry has had to scale down to accommodate music piracy as well as the rise of independent musicians distributing their own music. But the digital revolution is largely comprised of acts who want to be signed by major labels so indie is more a liminal state than a permanent wish, and it has little meaning aesthetically.
Jazz and classical music are the least popular musical genres commercially. According to 2014’s Nielsen Music U.S. Report 29% of music purchased is rock, followed by 17.2% Hip-Hop/R&B, 14.9% Pop, 11.2 % Country, and the remaining genres are single digit percentages: 3.4% Dance/EDM, 3.1% Christian/Gospel, 2.6% for Holiday/Seasonal and Latin, with Classical at 1.6% and Jazz at 1.4% Few recording artists in Classical or Jazz record for major record labels. Jazz musicians, who I know far more about than classical musicians, make limited profits from albums and rely heavily on various forms of live performance. Because jazz requires a more advanced ear than pop its practitioners are at the mercy of specialized radio stations, PBS stations, performing arts centers, nightclubs, and soundtracks. You rarely see jazz performers on network TV or hear them on pop radio. A substantial portion of jazz musicians self-release music on their own labels to generate reviews and (hopefully) garner enough buzz for them to become viable live acts. More often than not they finance their own recordings and fund them through day jobs. Jazz has become more institutional within college and even high school music curricula, and symbolically jazz is widely understood as a legitimate, compelling form of American art. But its symbolic stature is far removed from its commercial impact.
The internet is a viable promotional channel but jazz audiences and consumers tend to be older listeners who are less likely to discover or purchase music digitally, and because jazz acts are less likely to be signed by major labels it is rarely a stepping stone to great fortune. In this sense the digital revolution is a tool, not necessarily a solution to sluggish sales and the lack if industry investment in jazz. Most internet acts are pop/rock/R&B or hip-hop, and are not likely to get signed by a major label. But they are more likely to get signed than a jazz or classical musician, thus jazz musicians are far more likely to begin and remain independent acts. Even understanding this reality I rarely-to-never hear anyone refer to jazz musicians as indie artists; the term remains deeply tied to modern rock and the feeling of status that comes with feeling that one has discovered or stumbled onto a so-called ‘underground’ act. So much of above ground pop strikes me as less of an “alternative” aesthetically than a continuation of well-rehearsed formulas that have simply gotten more exposure. The distinction seems as important now as ever as our filters for quality and distinction feel as diffuse as the internet itself.
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