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The EvO:R Street Journal
The EvO:R Street Journal
Dedicated to the culture, business and interests of the indie artist.
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The History of Indie Music from the 60's to present
History of Indie Music - 1960’s
Tracing the roots of independent artists is difficult, because there have been artists who have
long bucked the trends put upon them by monied powers in order to do what they feel right. Minstrels
in medieval Europe and poets in the Islamic empire risked more than their livelihoods if they did not
kowtow to the demands of the tyrants in charge (the ancient equivalent of modern big labels); they
stood a good chance of being killed and mutilated as well.
History of Indie Music - 1970’s
Modern indie artists do not exactly take their lives in their hands when they sit down at a piano and
record a genuine version of a heart felt song, but they do embody the spirit of the rebellious minstrel,
refusing to compromise for the sake of a bag of gold.
In fact, some of the musicians and composers known to us today were what could be considered indie artists.
Mozart was laughed at for his style in many different countries; it was not until his death that his
work began to be played first in Germany and then around the world.
When it comes to modern indie music, the scene began when the big labels started to monopolize everything
that they believed could make money. Elvis’ generation got a bit of a free ride; the music was so new,
and the energy so unexpectedly unbridled, that those in power had no idea how to tame it. The latter half
of the 1960s would see that change, however. Bands played on the radio and the records sold in stores
all had a common theme, if not a duplicate sound. In fact, the history of indie music, however much fans
want to deny it, is shaped by popular music as much as the shape of popular music is changed by indie
artists. Typically, there have been three music “formats” that you can find on the radio; although the
formats may change, there will always only be three kinds of music. In the 1960s, the big format was pop,
a little bit of R&B, and rock ala the Rolling Stones. Peace, love, and anti-war ruled the day, even
among the “rebels”.
And into that scene stepped the band known as the Velvet Underground. This is one of the most obvious
examples of a band that was way ahead of its time. The main members of the band, in fact, are still
regarded as some of the most influential artists by musicians today (think Lou Reed). The music of the
Velvet Underground was markedly different in message and in structure than that being produced by
studios at the time; their songs varied from fast to slow, pulsating to melodic. Their messages switched
from songs about drug use to individual takes on law enforcement. In short, they sang about everything
everyone else did not. The band sold very few records, but a movement was under way. If you listen to a
Velvet Underground song, you might be surprised that it was created in the era of the Beatles instead of
the era of Cobain, and that is what indie music is all about; the pioneers.
It is important to note that independent labels have always been present whenever records have been sold,
and perhaps now more than ever to recognize that there are artists in all genres of music that choose to
turn their backs on the big business and focus instead on their music.
The 1970s was probably the first decade in which the cynicism of a generation was widely reflected
in the popular culture and music of that generation. Like most decades, musically the ‘70s could be
divided up into five year periods; the first years saw the rise of the influence of indie band the
Velvet Underground and a shift away from bubble gum rock of the ‘60s; the Beatles broke up and suddenly
everyone was experimenting.
History of Indie Music - 1980’s
In the garages of the United States and the United Kingdom, kids were figuring out just what the hell
they really COULD do with their guitars and their electronic equipment, not to mention a pissed off voice.
While the United Kingdom turned out some synthy stuff, the States and several bands in the UK were much
more focused on the do it yourself grind that punk music offered. The indie ethos was thus created
through the actions of the proto punk bands; they separated themselves from their cultural norms through
their outward appearances as much as their music. Richard Hell, the Ramones, and in the UK the Sex Pistols
all had their roots in the indie movement, and several of them never left the scene behind. Once again,
indie was to have a huge influence on popular, although in the case of punk the major labels would not
pick up on the fervor until the latter half of the 1990s, when (just as in the ‘70s) annoying music
again ruled the day.
Another indie development in the 1970s was the creation of progressive rock. Now, this rock was totally
at odds with Beatles, Byrds, and all the other peaceful music of the ‘60s. It created its sound using
a full range of instruments, and was just as experimental as the electronica movement of the 1990s.
Unlike punk, though, progressive rock was to catch big label attention early in its development, and
made the jump from indie to “scene” relatively quickly. In fact, a big part of the growth of punk was
in reaction to the commercialization of prog rock.
New Wave was the third form of music to develop on the indie scene, and like progressive rock it was
quickly usurped and mutilated by labels, who would sign anyone with any connection to the true sound.
This type of music was pretty much right in between punk and prog; experimental and edgy at the same
time. In fact, some of the most influential artists in the New Wave movement are still cited by label
successes such as U2 today; Elvis Costello was known for his pointed lyrics, and Blondie was perhaps
the most well-known band of this era (although today they are labeled as disco in many ignorant quarters).
Sire Records and Stiff Records were two of the major players in the indie market in the ‘70s.
Of course, when a new sound is created, sooner or later someone will capitalize on the potential money.
When the big labels came knocking, it was the Clash and the Cult that answered the door; their New
Wave sound was the newest hit on radio in the early ‘80s and signaled the end of New Wave as far as
indie scene followers were concerned.
The 1980s were an incredibly important decade in indie music history. It was during this decade that the first indie charts were compiled in the United States and in the United Kingdom; whether or not appearing on these lists was considered a sell-out depended on who you talked to. Fat chicks in tight leather would probably list Sonic Youth among those who ruined the indie scene; less stringent fans might decide that any type of success was not necessarily a bad thing for the movement as a whole. What would remain constant was the watchful eye of the big labels, who were always eager to exploit the underground scene and turn a profit on the “new” sound they had discovered.
History of Indie Music - 1990’s
The early ‘80s saw unity among indie artists in the United States and to some extent in the United Kingdom. The creation of charts meant that any record released on a small label was considered independent; thus, you could have New Wave influenced prog rock like that turned out by REM in their college-playing days and the more distortion driven, under-produced sounds of Husker Du or Dinosaur Jr. in the same category. The big difference in the 1980s was that by the end of the decade, one type of music had slipped into the mainstream, while the other had not. The distortion of the garage bands would thus become known as “alternative music”.
Several big indie labels were formed during this time, which were to achieve notoriety in the 1990s, including Sarah Records in 1987 and Sub Pop in 1980. Founders of Sub Pop Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman actually went against everything indie music was supposed to stand for, relentlessly promoting their artists and seeking to popularize the music that they were turning out. Perhaps this is where fans of indie music should take a hard look at their criteria for bands; if music was not worth being listened to by a lot of people, it simply should not exist. The founders of Sub Pop embodied that in their promotion of bands such as Soundgarden, and of course Nirvana. In fact, the label would spawn a movement called the Singles club which would extend into the ultra glitzy and oily grip of Hollywood, about as counter to the idea of indie as you could hope to get.
In both the UK and the US, the indie scene was a direct reaction against the macho personas of big rock acts. Both the alternative sound in the US and the jangly genre of the UK represented artist’s thorough disgust at the excesses, prejudices, and false images of bands like Poison and Nelson.
Towards the end of the 1980s, the “major” indie artists were actually acting almost like recruiters for the big labels. Again, this should give many indie fans pause before judging one band or another as sell outs due to their “commercialization”. The term is better applied to imitators of the original sound for the purpose of money rather than to the sound developers. There is not a lot of credibility in the sell out argument when one realizes that it was Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth who set up Nirvana’s flight to fame, or that Breeder’s singer Kin Deal was an integral part of the incredibly ground-breaking and highly influential Pixies.
Although big labels have long made money by poaching out the sound developed by indie labels, nothing in the history of music parallels the success they enjoyed by swiping the alternative style that developed in the ‘80s and getting it played on the radio. Suddenly, dozens of alternative acts were thrust into the spotlight, and hundreds of more began to imitate the dirty distortion that had up until now been under wraps in the garages of the nation.
Never before has a scene experienced such a bizarre mix of triumph and angst. The very foundations of indie at this time were on the basis of the anti-movement, and with the alternative suddenly becoming the main, thousands of fans lost their identities. This was soon reflected in the artists, as major acts such as Nirvana struggled to come to terms with their new commercial reality.
The indie scene was still around, to be sure, but if one is really honest about the music being churned out, you have to admit that it sucks. After all, when dirty music gets popular, what is the new alternative? Should Bret Michaels and company now be put proudly on display on the shelf as the new Dinosaur Jr? Or, should the indie labels become the last beacon of hope for a breed that for the first time in music was not making any money at all, the pop act?
The answers were not clear for some time, until artists such as Liz Phair and PJ Harvey once again changed the definition of what “indie” truly meant: now, instead of a type of music, indie belonged to the recording style. In this case, that was a style stripped right down, and if your voice or music sounded TOO good, then you had to make your record on the worst equipment possible. While artists such as Sonic Youth continued to put out good music (as did Liz Phair and even PJ Harvey, if we’re being honest) the grunge movement had meant a big change in the indie movement: the music found there was for the first time, actually total crap. There was nothing else to draw from.
Fortunately for the whole scene, artists once considered indie soon found out why the big labels were so detested by genuine acts. Stripped of creativity and forced to work on someone else’s schedule, many of the alternative bands began to try and buck the system. Pearl Jam sued their touring company and refused to bow to the demand for videos; Nirvana made a record so under produced it was mocked. Nevertheless, the major label’s money power would triumph and they were able to still the voices in opposition, one way or another.
Perhaps the fights with artists of integrity opened the eyes of major labels a little bit as to the difficulties in signing real artists, because by the middle of the 1990s pop had once again began to rear its ugly head. The Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, and N Sync meant that the indie scene could once again be thought of as musically credible, although the big labels had now decided to destroy long time stalwart punk music. Maybe punk was the last surviving genre in indie worth listening to at the time; whatever the reason, it was about to be rudely taken away.
Sarah Records in particular was to make an impact and a statement about the indie scene in the early ‘90s; the label was closed as owners declared that they had achieved their purpose in popularizing their music. Little did they realize that the scene would be revitalized in the near future, when fans began to ask themselves “what the hell is so ‘alternative’ about Oasis?”
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