A while ago someone asked me to come talk at some volunteers and students about indie music. I said sure, and wrote out a little piece lest I ramble nonsensically or dramatically off course. Turns out the audience was more interested in a Q&A which I was totally fine with as those are a lot more fun. However, I still have my little piece, so might as well do something with it, right?
Indie music is not limited to any single style; not so long ago, when people said indie it conjured up something of a specific aesthetic connotation, but i think and hope that we're moving away from that and that indie music is term that can be applied to any genre of music and, conversely, that any genre of music can be indie music. With style not being a way to define indie music, some people have moved to trying to define it according to certain economic or production models -- boutique services, smaller runs of physical copies, total separation from major labels, maybe even low operating budgets (although not non-commercial, since a lot of indie most certainly IS commercial; whether or not it's profitable is another story). And when this becomes too tricky as the basis for a definition, there's usually a move to define indie as a set of ethics, values, or a type of philosophy -- this is when you hear artists say things like, "I've never signed a contract, everything's been agreed to with a hand shake," "it's like being part of a family," etc. etc.
For today, though, I'm not offering you any definition exact or otherwise because we would probably be here all night if I tried to do that. But combination of economics and philosophy is likely the better way to approach the idea of indie because it helps us understand some of the motivations behind making independent music and understanding these motivations in turn help us understand a bit about the importance of indie music both in terms of how it function and contributes to culture at large as well as its impact on the music industry specifically.
Up until the so-called digital revolution and prevalence of mp3s and other file formats for music, people like to characterise the music industry as being controlled by a small number of major labels. But while the major labels were definitely big players and controllers of the industry, it doesn't tell the full story because for pretty much as long as there's been a music industry, there's been cycles of concentration and fragmentation. Usually what happens is you get an small explosion of small independent labels, they start to do really well, and then the majors would come along and buy most of them up. And this of course isn't even accounting for all the musicians who've had nothing to do with any kind of label, indie or otherwise.
Now these indie labels started up in the first place for variety of seemingly different reasons -- to provide an outlet for the personal projects of a group of friends, to serve a local scene of some kind, or even to import records from another country to serve a local emigre population, and this is where we get into some of why indie music is so important because what all of the reasons ultimately achieve and work towards is cultural diversification; they bring in sounds and voices that very easily may have found no other place or to new and wider audiences.
This is one of the ideas behind projects like the Ontario Independent Music Archive that I worked for and the Free Music Archive based out of WFMU in Jersey City. They're showcases of indie and are platforms for its dissemination. And this idea of serving niche and micro audiences is also part of what's allowed new businesses like bandcamp and CD baby to set up shop and grow. But in Canada catering to a local or narrower audiences isn't new for us because the desire to cater to local audience is largely what lead to the creation of a Canadian music industry -- yes, there was some government assistance in the form of cancon regulations, but this was really just giving a leg-up to the seeds of an independent music scene in this country and giving it a fair chance to develop; otherwise most of what we had in this country up until that point were outposts of the major labels and if we heard Canadian musicians or so-called Canadian content, it was only because artists had gone to the States, become successful there and then our so-called cultural exports were imported back to us through American or other international channels.
And we can see more localised examples as well -- for example in Toronto in the 60s and 70s when we first started having larger waves of immigration from Jamaica and other Caribbean countries, a fairly significant music scene developed here and it ended up not just serving the local immigrant population here but some records made here ended up making their way back to their home countries and being successful there as well.
There are tons of other examples as well -- the punk scene in Britain in the 80s, early days of rock and roll in the America in the 50s. And of course these and many of these examples didn't just stay in a vacuum -- they ended up spreading out and influencing other people and adding new sounds and styles to the cultural landscape. So the point is is that independent music can have a huge effect on wider culture, it doesn't have to mean inconsequential or marginal or disregarded. The same can be said for its economic impact. A lot of independent musicians helped make and continue to make a viable homegrown music sector in this country, and that's grown into all kinds of music festivals which promotes tourism and so on.
That's not say that profit and fame and influence are the only goals to strive for. Lots of music can be just for the pure joy of it and independent music scenes frequently encourage that -- often you hear people say their music or their label or the festival they organise is labour of love and nothing more and that's another great thing about independent music: it allows for many different kinds of engagement and participation and this again contributes to a wonderful diversity in music making practices.
To close off, i'll just mention another awesome thing independent music does which is linking up with other kinds of independent creative types and production work. There are so many independent film makers, documentarians, video journalists, campus/community radio stations, and many of them need music at some time or another for their own work so i think the linkages and almost kind of symbiotic relationship that indie music has with these other sectors is yet another way that indie music can not only continue to survive but also flourish. Also, with the way the music industry has changed in the past ten years and continues to change or die or fall apart or whatever it's doing, i wonder if we'll even continue to have these opposing ideas of independent versus mainstream or if everything will be "independent" eventually, but that's my 15mins.
By the way, if you're wondering what the image at the top of the post is, it's a diagram for one of Luigi Russolo's Intonarumori. Because making your own proto-synthsizers/noise machines and writing music for them in the 1910s has to be the mark of a to-the-bone independent musician.
What do you think of when you hear the term "The Public Domain" in relation to music? Really old pieces? Music that has no copyright? Works in the Creative Commons? Perhaps even one or two specific genres come to mind? The label is a fluid one, to say the least, and complete consensus on it appears unlikely. Tonight we'll explore some of the ways the public domain has been understood and misperceived, and listen to music that's not only representative of these ideas, but also delivers the usual multi-directional jumble of music heard on the show.
Tune in to CIUT 89.5FM tonight at midnight (EST) and have a listen. If you're outside the station's terrestrial range, you can stream the show live online, or listen to the podcast on the Playlists page starting sometime tomorrow.
Here are some great articles I read while preparing for this show; being about the public domain they are all appropriately available for free as pdf files. If you're interested in learning more about this topic, you should definitely check these out:
James Boyle, "The Second Enclosure Movement and the Construction of the Public Domain"
Anupam Chander and Madhavi Sunder, "The Romance of the Public Domain"
David Lange, "Reimagining the Public Domain"
I'll also be posting about this epsiode on my Free Music Archive profile and creating a playlist there which will include all the FMA tracks played tonight. (edit: here's the FMA post)
Edit 2: Here''s an earlier post I wrote about some of the confusion surrounding the public domain and classical music.