What The Heck is Indie, Anyway?

I woke up this morning with a question rattling around in the space where my brain stays.  WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO SAY, “INDIE” when referring to the independent music scene within which I am trying to reside and thrive?

The question came to me as I was fiddling around in Reverb Nation, I ran into an artist who was handled by Curb Records. I looked up Curb Records and it claims to be, “one of the world’s leading independent music companies.”  After checking them out I began to get confused.  It seems that they have a crib full of some of the biggest and most MOR country artists out there, and they have a major amount of power in the music industry.  All of a sudden I was not so sure I actually understood what Indie meant.  I can tell you what I thought it meant.

I thought it meant that the term itself reflected that branch of the music industry that was not connected to, or actually part of the controlling interests within music that impinged their will upon both artists and listeners to tell them what they would like and what they would write and produce.  Yet here is an “Indie” label that looks like a major label, acts like a major label, and probably smells like a major label, calling itself an independent label.  WOW!  You can understand why I am perplexed.

Then I got to thinking about one of my good friends who is an Alligator recording artist, and how Alligator bills itself as an independent label, and how much power do they yield?  I understand that the traditional understanding of a major label is that to be a major record label it needs to own its own distribution channel, thereby controlling both ends of an artist’s  access to listeners and fans. So I suppose that while this distinction is a valid one, once cross deals get cut between the independent labels and their artists, and the major labels and their distribution, the line of difference gets finer and finer and more obscure.

Power and money seems to be what music is about, even though we try and pretend differently.  Indie songwriters mostly try to stay independent in the sense that they do not like being told what to or not to write, which is OK.  Actually it is OK right up until some A & R jerk from an Indie label informs the artist that they aren’t interested because there is no market for what they are writing.  Then the artist must make some hard choices.  Sometimes an artist gets to do it their own way broke, and sometimes with a healthy bank account.  But it seems that now days Indie record labels aren’t as creative or as risk-taking as the majors were years back.  Let me finish with a story.

I have a very good friend, Jim Romain, who has an uncle, John Palladino, who used to work for Capitol Records.  John managed and produced Joy of Cooking, Quicksilver Messenger Service, The Steve Miller Band, and The Band.  He had heard a band working in the Bay Area, called The Fourth Way, and he went to his boss and said that while there was no profit to be made from recording and producing this band, they needed to be recorded simply because their music needed to be perserved.  He was given the go ahead, and he went down to the New Orleans House in Berkeley on San Pablo Blvd. and recorded them.  Checking in Wikipedia it says this “The Fourth Way was a jazz ensemble composed of Eddie Marshall, Mike Nock, Michael White, and Ron McClure. They formed in 1967 and worked primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area through the early 1970s, releasing three albums.  Capitol was the first label to release them.

I suspect that for many musicians, being considered Indie means simply that they can say “F**k” from the mic at a bar, but for most of us it is a means we have chosen by which to get our music out to a wider audience.  However, I do believe that it should also mean to take risks with our sound, our lyrics, our melodies, and it should mean the same for the independent labels as well.  I think that if a label is too conscious of their bottom line or has investors who want the music sacrificed for the sake of their investments, then, whether it has its own distribution channel, then it is not an independent music label.


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