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The Rise and Fall of the “Indie” Artist

I came to college radio in the ’90s, when “alternative” was earning itself a capital “A” among marketing types and when bands that existed for as long as a 7-inch were snagging major-label deals. This was also the period of slackers and Slacker, when corporate rock continued to suck and when Coca-Cola’s attempt to tell Gen Xers that they’d created a soda that was totally OK was met with derisive eye-rolls.

The palpable tension between the creation of culture and its ever-quicker path toward commodification was probably best    exhibited in my world by the extended argument — written in Sharpie and a variety of pens — that covered the inlay of Built to Spill’s 1997 album Perfect From Now On. The trio’s major-label debut was a marvelous album full of sprawling songs and gorgeous textures, with singer-guitarist Doug Martsch tossing off explosive solos and meditative drones featuring lyrics about finding eternity’s true size and standing up to the demands of the metaphysical world.

Perfect remains a fairly astounding piece of work, a shining example of what could happen when a scrappy band from Boise and their producer, Phil Ek, were given ample resources to create. Heady and confident, it’s an example of a band not just finding its true identity, but settling into it with gusto. But my colleagues at college radio were worried about the album’s pedigree; after a couple of years on the Seattle-based label Up, Built To Spill had up and signed to Warner Bros., a division of Warner Music Group.

At the time, Warner was the smallest of the “Big Five” major labels that commanded approximately three-quarters of the world’s music market. (Universal Music Group, Sony, Bertelsmann Music Group, and EMI were the other four. Sony and BMG merged in 2004, and EMI split its assets between Sony and Universal in 2011.) The radio station where I worked was located just outside of Chicago, which at the time had a fairly robust FM landscape that included a proto-triple-A station and an aggressively marketed alt-rock outlet, as well as a smattering of other college outlets.

The station where I worked staked its claim on being independent, and it did so admirably. We played jazz in the mornings and experimental music in the evenings, while weekends were given over to community DJs who brought folk, country, reggae, and ska onto the airwaves. (The ska show was so popular. The ’90s!) The “rock” programming went full-on into a world that was then called “indie,” in part because of its economic underpinnings. But Built to Spill’s labyrinthine, ambitious album presented a bit of a challenge: Should the rock show, which was so devoted to new music that it mandated a “50% new music” rule for all its DJs, even touch this record, which was probably going to get enough of a push that it might land on one of the commercially minded stations to the right of us on the FM dial? The argument ensued all across the booklet as it sat in the “new music” pile, and the tension it caused remained stuck in my mind after I graduated later that year.

If you ask a passerby what “indie” means to them, they’re as likely to toss off a tiny cassette label as they are a band that released it’s latest song through a car commercial.

In the years since Built To Spill signed to Warner, which released the band’s latest album Untethered Moon earlier this year, the dividing line between “indie” and “major” has become even more muddy than it did when big independent labels like Sub Pop and Matador inked distribution deals with music’s bigger players.

A few factors are at play here. First, the people who have gone to work at independent labels have just been really good at their jobs — they’re professional and friendly, knowing who to target and injecting just enough personal passion into their jobs to be successful. At the same time, conditions have shifted as such that “indie” has become a category not really tethered to how records actually come to market. If you ask a passerby what “indie” means to them, they’re as likely to toss off a tiny cassette label as they are a band that released its latest song through a car commercial.

This is in part because of a cultural hegemony where the target demographic of indie has become one extremely desired by marketers — young, urbane and flush with just enough disposable income to be likely to socialize in places where bands play. (Think Coachella, only without the stigma of celebrities being there, so as to make the resultant ads more “relatable.”)

People within that demographic, too, have become tastemakers of sorts, a designation that’s even more accessible in the era of social media, where one’s Spotify history or assorted Facebook “likes” have become the equivalent of a “This car climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker. It’s a proclamation of taste that doubles membership in a club. It is also, for this former indie lifer, kind of boring.

Keep in mind that my ennui about “indie” as a category doesn’t negate the fact that there’s quality independent music out there. There is so much of it, in fact, that it’s hard for me to keep up. I do my best by going to house shows in Boston or hitting up Bandcamp for small-batch releases or keeping up with far-away friends’ radio shows. But “indie” as a category has become a useless description, one that needs to be retired if only because of the confusion it causes, and the withered politics that it once represented.

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