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The term 'Indie' derives from the independent record labels which many British bands and music fans founded during - and in the aftermath of - the punk boom of the late 1970s. The first true indie record is generally considered to be the Spiral Scratch EP released by Buzzcocks in 1977, on their own Manchester-based1 New Hormones label.
There was a political significance to the early Indie movement in that it allowed artists to make music without first gaining the approval of the music business establishment. Punk was, after all, a reaction against the indulgences of major label-backed 'rock stars' and stadium concerts where you were one of a crowd of thousands and felt a million miles away from the 'star' performers. A combination of immediacy and interaction was the key. You could start your own record label, get a single released and get your band going without having to wait for an A & R man2 from a major label to discover you and sign you up. So small, independent record labels started to spring up all over the place - as paid tribute to by the Clash on their single 'Hitsville UK'3. Some grew out of record shops, like West London's legendary Rough Trade, and Small Wonder in Hoe Street, Walthamstow (who helped to bring shoe-gazing uber-meisters The Cure to the attention of the record-buying public). Many of the indie record labels (as they became known) soon folded - but some thrived, and ultimately provided homes for a wealth of talent. Those who began their recording careers with Indies in the UK included Madness, Elvis Costello4 and Ian Dury (Stiff), Everything But The Girl and The Dead Kennedys (Cherry Red5), Joy Division/New Order and the Happy Mondays (Factory), The Smiths (Rough Trade) and Billy Bragg (Go! Discs). 4AD, formed in 1980, gave us Pixies, Throwing Muses and Cocteau Twins among others. Alan McGee founded Creation Records6 in 1983 and soon acquired a cult following with acts like The Jesus & Mary Chain and The Pastels, and later on Teenage Fanclub, but they'd have to wait until the Nineties for their greatest triumph with Oasis.
In due course the indie movement spread to America, where the music concerned was more generally known as 'college rock' or 'alternative rock'. The logistics of record distribution across the USA made it hard for American Indies to challenge the major labels in the same way as their British counterparts, but nevertheless there were some notable successes. LA punk band Black Flag formed the record label SST and released their first EP, Nervous Breakdown in 1978. This was also the band that launched the music career of Indie legend Henry Rollins, who joined them in 1981. REM made their name with several albums released via indie label IRS Records. Husker Du on SST and The Replacements on Twin/Tone were two of the biggest alternative acts of the eighties. And Seattle's legendary SubPop, for instance, launched the massively influential career of Nirvana among many others, although it has to be said that Cobain and Co. only achieved worldwide success when they moved to major label Geffen. Green Day and the Offspring are among others that have made the move from cult indie band to successful major-label act.
Possibly the best example of a truly independent USA-based artist is Ian Mackaye - originally a member of the band Minor Threat, and now the driving force behind Fugazi. Ian started and maintains his own label, Dischord Records - their mission statement is:
'Dischord Records was created in 1980 to document the music coming out of the Washington, D.C. punk community. The label has put out the work of over 40 bands, and has distributed hundreds of other releases connected to the D.C. area. We will continue our work as long as this community continues to create music that speaks to us.'
Minor Threat were one of the most hardcore, abrasive and abrupt punk bands ever - yet also one of the cleanest in terms of style, coining the term 'straight edge', which would later become a punk style/lifestyle based around the rejection of mind-altering substances and promiscuous sex7. Fugazi are a fiercely independent experimental rock/punk band - probably one of the last big names in alternative music that remain on an independent record label.
One of the main reasons for signing and staying with an indie record label is artistic freedom - compared to an indie, a major label can provide incomparable promotional and marketing muscle, but in return for this investment they're going to want an influence on the band's image, touring strategy, musical style, which songs are chosen from an album to be released as singles, and so on. The motive for a band to sign for an indie label can also be financial - for instance, when UB40 were trying to get a contract, the major labels were coming along with derisory offers (they usually siphon off around 70% of the profits to subsidise the promotion of their latest bands) and finally, the company they are now with came along, and offered them a 50/50 split on the profits, which was nearly four times as good as the best offer from a major.
Rock 'n' Roll High School
Indie labels tend to be rather different than majors in that they dominated by music lovers rather than businessmen8. They're busier looking at the cutting edge than the bottom line. Most of the innovative dance music in the world began on independent labels and was spun by DJs in clubs months before being snapped up by majors. Major companies can offer worldwide distribution and marketing resources that indie labels can only dream of. Very occasionally there are sub-labels of majors that are bold in their choice of artist due to the influence of the person running them. Chris Blackwell of Island Records is a good example of a music lover who brought a great roster of musicians to his label in the 1970s & 1980s - Bob Marley, Nick Drake, early U2 et al. However, such visionaries are rare in the world of the majors. Unfortunately, when most major companies try to create a buzz around an untried act they end up giving the world another Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Vanilla Ice or Kula Shaker.
The definition of the word 'Indie' is highly ambiguous, especially these days. It depends who you're talking to. To an indie purist, the only true indie acts have never sold out by signing to a major record company and have always been on an independently owned and distributed label. However, said indie purist would also probably expect an indie act to be some kind of guitar band, yet qualification for the indie chart is based purely on the question of whether the record is distributed (and not necessarily released) by a major, which means all kinds of musical styles can creep in. The likes of Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Rick Astley used to regularly top the Indie Charts as they were on Pete Waterman's record label, PWL, which was one of the most profitable indies of all time. Sir Cliff Richard's Millennium Prayer has topped the indie singles chart, and Steps have technically achieved a Number 1 indie album, despite sounding like the kind of mass-market pop act that indie purists tend to veer away from.
Due to the comparatively low level of sales and the less organised nature of the independent music industry, the Indie Charts have historically been more susceptible to sharp practices9, as one researcher reports:
'Years ago I was in the 'the business'. One day I met a very famous manager of what is now a world-renowned rock group. We met in a recording studio in London. So we chatted and I asked how was things. Great he said we have just organized our own independent recording label. Mmmm said I will it be a success? Oh yeah first record will go to number one! How do you know I asked? Cos I paid five grand to get it there he replied. He told me the name of the record and sure enough it did the business. Now of course we know that could not possibly happen today could it? But it gave me a little insight into a part of that life I did not know about. Me being mainly concerned with tryin to keep my small group motivated when Clapton, Mayall and co were doing a gig just up the road! Such is life!'
Also, there is nothing to stop a major label selling its bands records via an independent distributor - thus qualifying them for the indie chart - and using its promotional might to out-muscle the 'genuine' indie competition.
It's The End Of The World As We Know It
If there ever was a golden age of indie, it came to an end when the major record companies began to realise that bands on indie labels were genuinely popular, and began to sign up talent that the indie labels had spent years backing, leaving the indies with a roster of less-successful acts. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, many major UK record companies either bought up successful indie labels or simply launched their own 'indie-style' subsidiaries to showcase the forms of music previously promoted by the genuine independent labels. Some of the musicians in question had been struggling for years financially speaking, so you couldn't really blame them for jumping into bed with a big company when someone came and waved a huge wad of cash under their noses.
Factory Records, one of the biggest indie labels in the UK, went out of business mainly because they were reliant on two acts - New Order and the Happy Mondays - selling enough records to balance the books. When they needed a major album success to get them out of trouble, New Order were going through a dormant phase and were unable to produce anything, and the Happy Mondays overspent making a bad album which then flopped10. Whereas if a major like Sony or EMI have an act that fails, they can write it off against the profits made from the many other acts they have on their roster - from boy-bands to established corporate rock acts.
Everything Must Go
In the past, most traditional indie bands have been ones who couldn't be immediately pigeonholed into an existing and 'commercial' style - and had to start out on an independent record label because major record companies tend to want music that is like music that they have already successfully sold.
But since major labels began to sign and successfully promote indie acts, this has changed somewhat. The term 'Indie' has come to denote a style of music - broadly speaking, guitar rock that is not heavy metal or AOR - rather than its means of production. The alternative term 'alternative' is perhaps more accurate, coming as it does from the USA where there was never such a distinction between left-field bands on indie and major record labels. Within this broad definition can be found many of the most critically-acclaimed and best-loved British rock acts of the past 10 years: Oasis, Blur, Radiohead, Coldplay, Pulp and the Manic Street Preachers to name but a few.
However, if you say the words 'Indie Rock' to most British music fans, they'll assume that you're talking about something that probably would never have come into being without the influence of the Velvet Underground or early David Bowie, and sounds not entirely unlike Oasis, Blur or Radiohead. However, both of the last two have never released a record on an indie label - Radiohead have always been on Parlophone, and Blur began their recording career with Food Records - an independently-run subsidiary of EMI/Parlophone - and are now on Parlophone 'proper'. And although Oasis were signed to Creation, a deal was soon made that ensured they were backed by the financial might of Sony. Which only goes to show.