Is your music cool enough? Reconsidering notions of ‘indie’ and ‘alternative’ music

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.


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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.


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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.


Are jazz musicians  and classical musicians America's truest indie artists? Image source:

Are jazz musicians  and classical musicians America's truest indie artists? Image source:

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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The Art of Independence: A Riffs, Beats, & Codas interview with jazz vocalist Karen Marguth

San Francisco Bay Area jazz vocalist Karen Marguth is one of the most acclaimed vocal jazz artists to emerge in the 2000s. Marguth is an independent musician who has released six albums as a leader including The Best Things, Carols Everywhere, All the Waiting, Karen Marguth, A Way with Words, and Just You, Just Me. 2009’s Karen Marguth (Wayfae Music) earned four and a half stars in Downbeat magazine and is considered her breakthrough. 2013’s A Way with Words, and 2015’s Just You, Just Me have also earned strong critical recognition.


Jazz vocalist Karen Marguth performing live. Copyright   ©   Tomas Ovalle. Courtesy of Karen Marguth.

Jazz vocalist Karen Marguth performing live. Copyright © Tomas Ovalle. Courtesy of Karen Marguth.

Riffs, Beats, & Codas recognized her voice and bass album Just You, Just Me (recorded with bassist Kevin Hill) as one of the finest new albums of 2015 in the November 2015 blog “2015’s Raves & Faves.” Marguth is an instructional coach for the arts and literacy in a school district in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also writes periodically on her blog Marguth on Jazz and previously hosted “The Vocal Hour” a weekly radio show on Fresno’s KSFR.

 In late December I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Marguth over email about her career as an independent recording artist, the process of recording Just You, Just Me, and her philosophical approach to the arts. Below are her reflections.

 R, B, & C: To begin: In the music industry what distinguishes the career of an independent artist from a non-independent artist?

  KM: The first thing that comes to mind is the sense of creative control that independent artists have. When you connect yourself to a producer or a label, you give away control of some aspect of the creative process, as well as some of your earnings. In one case, I considered working with a label that would allow me to create whatever album I wanted, and then I would pay them to take over control of things like manufacturing the physical product, and deciding how and where to promote it. For many artists, who don’t want to deal with the business side of things, this is a perfect relationship.

 Another valuable aspect of being independent is that you are free to move with the ebb and flow of your own muse. I can’t imagine having any outside pressure on my process, for example, being required to meet someone else’s deadlines, or adjusting my vision to meet someone else’s taste, or having to select songs for some marketing person's target audience. 

 The challenge of being independent is that it’s a lot of time and effort to manage things, and you have to be willing and able to book gigs, manage rehearsals and studio time, acquire recording rights, pay for photography/design work, and do all the mailing out to radio and reviewers and such. If you enjoy the process of learning how to run your own business, then being independent is a joy.

 Finally, I think each artist has their own goal, their own definition of “success.” For me, I am as much in love with the details of the process as I am with final products and performances.  

 R, B, & C: Your response is very illuminating in terms of the sheer scope of responsibility and the struggle for artistic and creative control. Just You, Just Me has gotten consistently positive notices. As an independent artist how impactful is popular media support for your work?

 KM: Media support is that rare, elusive gem for an independent artist. I used to work at a jazz radio station, and the volume of CDs that come in each day would astound you. I’m talking hundreds of CD’s each week. It was impossible for us to listen to every CD. I did a show about female vocalists, so I would sift through the bins for those and try to listen to every one, but even in just that small category there were dozens to consider each month. I would imagine that the same is true for magazines and reviewers; there are just too many CDs to consider. 

 If a CD comes in from a well-known promoter, or a respected record label, then it definitely gets listened to, that's just the reality. So, as an independent artist, I know that I may mail out 350 CDs and not get a single spin on radio or a single positive word from anyone. But again, for me, I love the process of making music so much that I'm not really focused on what others may or may not say about it. 

 Once, I was corresponding with the great John Clayton, and I shared with him a great review I’d gotten. His response was so lovely and perfect. He wrote: “Do remember that while we celebrate these groovy and uplifting reviews, would it have affected your art, your expression, your joy and commitment if it had only received one star? My mentioning that is not to add some sort of dark cloud to the party.  It is to encourage you, stand next to you in support of what you do, no matter who encounters it. Keep doing what you do.  You and your art are too important to the world.”

 I didn’t address impact. It helps tremendously. After I received my first review in Jazz Magazine of France, you better believe I ordered stickers with quotes from the review, stuck them onto every CD, and mailed those out to hundreds of radio stations and reviewers. 

 And it made a difference. Shortly thereafter, I got reviews in both Downbeat and Jazz Times, and a steady trickle of CD sales and downloads began. 

 R, B, & C: Speaking of bassists: You have written previously about working with and learning from bassists Kevin Hill, Jason Jurzak, Sam Rocha, and Pat Olvera.  And Sheila Jordan pioneered the bass and voice duo style. What attracted you to the format?

 KM: I started learning to sing jazz in a trad jazz band. When not singing, I’d sit back by the bassist (Jason Jurzak). From that spot, I could really hear what he was doing, and how he interacted with the other sounds on stage, how he prompted some things and responded to others. I tried to hum along with what he was playing, as he played, and learned a lot from doing that. As he made choices in the moment, my understanding of each song deepened, which informed choices I could make in the future. 

 I’m attracted to the bass lines in songs, the same way I’m attracted to the harmony lines when there's more than one vocalist. I’ve always been drawn to the roots of chords, and inventive counter-melodies. 

 I also just feel so happy when I hear a bassist who can really swing. I’m always looking for that sound, always so moved by it. 

 R, B, & C: One highlight of the album is the variety of the repertoire. For example, I adore Phoebe Snow and your choice of “Harpo’s Blues” was surprising. What shaped your song choices for the album?

 KM: Song choices are such fun. 

 I keep lists of songs that I love, and then I group them into categories that seem to fit together. Some songs, like “Harpo’s Blues,” end up in multiple categories. If a song keeps showing up, again and again, I’ll most likely record it or perform it at some point. 

 In the case of “Harpo’s Blues, I only discovered it five years ago, when someone came up after a gig and suggested it as a song I might like. I love it when people do that; I’ve found so many untapped beauties that way. I heard it, and loved it, and then researched everything I could find about it. The more I learned about it, the more I loved it. And, I found that very few people had covered it, so I knew it hadn’t been done to death. It’s such a gorgeous tune, with wonderful lyrics, and it’s strange that so few other people have recorded it. 

 And, the content of the lyrics resonated with me. I definitely get that feeling of grief and loss when a wonderful collaboration or project comes to an end. 

 When putting together the choices as a whole for this album, I considered tunes that I loved, that lyrically fit the idea of “just two people,” and which would feature Kevin's inventiveness.

 R, B, & C: This is interesting to me because I imagine vocal artists must have some system to decide on what to sing. There are some other gems that are relatively obscure that grabbed my ear. I enjoyed your rendition of “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives Me” which I had only previously heard on a Dinah Shore collection. When did you first hear that one? Similarly, I was totally unfamiliar with “Love’s Got Me in a Lazy Mood” and it’s fabulous. 

 KM: I was schooled on “Naughty Sweetie” by Brady McKay, a vocalists who tours on the Trad Jazz circuit and who wrote the hilarious fast verse on it. And “Lazy Mood” I learned from a Susannah McCorkle album I found at the radio station one day, as I was digging through female vocal CDs. 

 I feel like one of my responsibilities is to mine for those hidden gems from the past. I’m in agreement with Becky Kilgore that some of the finest songs were crafted before the 1960s, and that a jazz vocalist needs to be carrying those songs forward so they aren’t forgotten. 

I also think that there are songs that have been done too many times, over and over again, with no value added. If I can’t add something new to a song, or if there’s already a stunning version of it that's been done, then I'm wise to respect that and find an overlooked gem and present that instead. 

 R, B, & C: As an independent artist it seems that live performance is an essential aspect for sharing your art, as well as developing comradery with local and regional musicians. What role has the Fresno jazz scene played in shaping your artistry?

 KM: The Fresno jazz scene is almost entirely responsible for shaping my artistry.

 The “bad boys of Dixieland,” Fresno’s Blue Street Jazz Band, gave me my initial experiences with performing jazz. I'd been a listener of it all my life (thanks to the Columbia Record Club, with albums arriving every month throughout my childhood). But working with Blue Street pushed me to learn to sing many, many, many tunes. In some cases I was asked to master the band's arrangement; in other cases, I was asked to just know the tune and be ready in case it was called, to-be-arranged-on-the-spot. They didn’t ever make set lists, they'd just call tunes as they went, so I just had to have the tunes in my head and be ready if a tune was called. It was what I call scary-fun.

 Fresno also has several weekly jam sessions, an organization called Jazz Fresno which brings in performances, and several great venues which feature weekly jazz gigs. One band, Espacio, invited me to join them at their weekly gig for several years, and that collaboration deeply enriched my growth. Getting out a few times a week to either perform or listen to live performances is THE way that jazz artists develop. And the musicians there, well they’re just so open and supportive of each other. Everyone works gigs with everyone else, in varying and ever-changing configurations. I was made better by every single musician I got to hear or work with in Fresno. And last summer, I was invited to serve as an instructor at the Milestones Youth Jazz summer camp in Fresno, which was such a gift -- to see hundreds of kids there, at all levels, just loving the chance to learn and jam. 

 I’m not in Fresno now; I’ve moved to the Bay Area, so ‘'m back to that phase where I have to find connections and make gigs for myself. It's a new challenge. But I go back occasionally and record and perform in Fresno, and really really miss all the great musicians there.  

R, B, & C: As an educator working in a vulnerable field, the arts, how do you convey your passion for the arts to your students?  In a related vein, in addition to teaching and singing you are also a radio show host and blogger. What motivates you?

 KM: As an educator, I have found that children are inherently motivated and engaged by the processes in all of the arts, whether music, visual art, drama, or dance. When I’m able to incorporate arts into, say, a math or history or science lesson, student engagement shoots through the roof, and learning of concepts happens on a deeper level. Students start to lose interest in the arts when it becomes separated out from the academic curriculum and called “an elective.” It becomes something that's separate, extra, not-everyday. That’s when you start to hear kids say things like, “I can't take art, I'm terrible at drawing,” or “I can’t take choir, I can’t sing worth beans.”  Or, their parents say, “You don’t have time to take band, you need to get in all those AP classes!” 

  share my passion with students and colleagues by continuously pointing them to research on the benefits and rigors of artistic habits of mind. Fortunately, the pendulum in US public educations seems to be swinging back toward valuing at least music, if not the other arts, in a quality academic environment. 

 My motivation for doing what I do comes from a clear sense of my own purpose, and that has grown over a lifetime of trying different things, different jobs, and finding myself always circling back to the power of the arts and the creative process. There’s so much wickedness and worry and fret and garbage out there, but then look what happens to people when the aesthetics of their neighborhood is improved, beautified, or when live music is performed—they get uplifted, and they behave better towards others. It seems to me that we've gotten away from the things that sooth our souls, and connect us as human beings, and remind us of our common frailties and our goodness and our capacity for joy. Making some good jazz music, and advocating for the arts in education is my small way of adding some goodness to my community.