I went ‘indie’ the summer of 2010. I became familiar with all the staples of the 2008-2012 indie superstars: Arcade Fire, The National, The XX, Mumford and Sons, Death Cab for Cutie, as well as the Postal Service and all the other ‘big’ names in indie rock. By this point in time, most of them were pretty popular. They had earned the loyalty of millions of fans and made appearances on late night television. Those acts were hardly obscure. Obscurity is being picked by fingertips in a messy record store in Portland, never to realize their dreams of earning a decent livelihood off the sales of their records. Yet these guys were popping up everywhere, including the front page of the iTunes store. The music industry slapped a giant yellow-and-black striped sticker on their foreheads with the word ‘Indie’ written in bold, white lettering.
That it is necessary to call them ‘brand name indie bands’ is a paradox. The word ‘indie,’ short for independent, implies obscurity. It implies unhinged creative freedom at the cost of accessibility, not as a symptom of a struggling young musician but as a chronic illness. Yet, when describing what ‘indie’ means to somebody who doesn’t quite understand it, we scratch our heads and say, “Oh, you know, like Arcade Fire and Mumford and Sons and all those guys.” We do this because Arcade Fire and Mumford and Sons are enormously popular musical acts, and both serve as an example of bands that did start off as truly independent but evolved into an entity that thrived off of large fan bases and accessibility while still retaining the indie label. Essentially, we rely on indie bands that are no longer indie to explain what indie is to people who don’t understand it.
That’s why the word ‘indie’ needs to just be thrown away. It’s a word that was once synonymous with obscure that has been feebly crafted into a label that implies a specific combination of obscurity and some alternative musical genre. Metal records are undeniably metal, as goes with hip hop and jazz and classical music, no matter how many records the artist sells. The word ‘indie’ is thrown around uselessly on a broad spectrum of popularity and to a broad variety of musical genres: indie-rock, indie-pop, indie-rap. The list goes on. It’s too broad and too useless a word.
In a way, we are all amateur music critics. Different music resonates with different people for reasons that we will never tangibly understand. As amateur music critics, we can describe the intent of the artist, which I believe is a more useful factor, rather than their score on the indie spectrum. Thumping 4-chord iTunes toplisters about twerking and partying highlight a clear goal of profit by both the artist and the record label, which is okay. Pop music creates a symbiotic relationship between consumer and producer. However, if an artist’s work is riddled with screeching lo-fi guitar distortions, cryptic lyrics and samples of Alan Watts lectures, chances are huge sales isn’t the intent. The question we ought to ask ourselves is not if an artist’s obscurity is a valid reflection of their talent. Rather, we need to ask ourselves the following: Is the popularity of an artist affecting their intent?
If only there was some catchy phrase people would have been obsessed with that didn’t make us scratch our heads in confusion when somebody asked us what it meant.