FEATURE BY AMANDA SPILKER
From label to genre, the classification of “indie” has never stayed the same for long.
At one time, the term “independent” was used to describe small time record labels that operated without funding from major corporations. Sun Records, an independent record label started by Sam Philips in 1952 was among the most influential independent labels of its time. (I think you have a good opportunity here to do a great lead, even using an old story of Elvis going into Sun Records… tell me something really neat
“Music deserves better than the big companies that just look at the bottom line,” said Sam Philips in 2000.
Producing albums by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis, it remained independent until it was purchased by Mercury Records in 1969.
Indie as a description of a music genre was born from alternative rock, which dominated the underground music scene from the late 1970s to the early ‘80s.
The term “alternative,” which referred to the genre’s distinction from mainstream music, lost its original meaning when grunge bands broke into popular media in the 1990s. Indie then became the go to term for those who remained dedicated to their independent status and do-it-yourself attitude.
Sub-genres such as Indie pop and Lo-fi, a type of sound recording that purposely contains technical errors such as background noise, were born as the definition of independent changed in the 1990s.
And in the early 2000s, as the music industry changed and the internet grew to become a main source of music, many indie acts found more commercial success where there wasn’t before.
Which leads to the question of what does the term “indie” mean now?
“I think it’s where the weird music sort of goes when it doesn’t really fit in with other specific genres,” says The Beaches, a four member Toronto based band. “Indie doesn’t have a specific sound. Like you can listen to a country song and know that it’s kind of true, or listen to a rap song and know that it’s rap. With indie music you can hear a riff-rock song, or synth-pop and they could both fall under the category.”
The term has evolved to describe a type of musical genre that is produced by bands that retain their independence, leaving them free to explore sounds that may not appeal to large mainstream audiences.
“It’s hard to sort of determine what the specific sound for indie is because I don’t think there is one. I think it’s just sort of where people don’t really know what to say or they just know that they don’t fit in with the norm. That’s what they sort of say, that’s us,” they say.
The all-female group, who consider themselves a synth-rock band, found it difficult when it came to establishing one collective sound.
“It took a long time, actually. Before we were The Beaches we were kind of a pop-punk band,” they say. “Just as we evolved and became older the sound of music evolved too.”
Since forming their first band, Done With Dolls, in 2008 and finding their current keyboard player a year ago, The Beaches have opened for Kings of Leon, toured with Mother Mother and have released their second EP.
Even with the help of the Internet, which gave the opportunity to help unsigned indie bands sell their products to people who might not have otherwise heard of them, making a career out of music is no easy feat.
“Being independent is really difficult. You want to concentrate on your music but you need to work to make a living,” says Serhat Kilic, the guitarist for unsigned German band Noctunes. “Finding an audience for your music is a lot easier with a label that can support you with air play, distribution and booking, As an indie you have to do all this by yourself. Not having the right contacts complicates this even further. “
The Mainz band recognizes though being unsigned is difficult they have different set of freedoms then those who are represented by a label.
“The main advantage is that nobody meddles with your music. You don’t need to put on a fake image and can always stay true to your roots. Many bands that make it big stop evolving after some time, because the label wants them to cater to the existing fan base. Indie artists can try new things, as they don’t have that kind of pressure,” says Kilic.
Noctunes attribute their sound to the diversities within the band.
“Our sound is defined by the people in the band. We never discussed about how we would like to sound. It all came naturally,” says Kilic. “Our drummer loves to play loud and has a great drive. Our bass player is really versatile. He always seems to fit in any style that we play. He always makes a great combination with our drummer, supports our guitar style and still stands out with his lines. Since I had a classical guitar education, there is a lot of finger picking in our songs.”
Since recording their first EP in 2004 the band performed at the FM4 Freduency Festival in Austria, where bands such as Radiohead and Rise Against played.
“The main reason we came together was to create music for ourselves. As long as we enjoy writing songs, we will continue to do so, without thinking about getting famous.”
Other bands have chosen the route of unsigned. After their last album in 2012, Barbers, Thieves and Bartenders, The Dudes, a Calgary based band that started in 1996, left their label. They don’t think it’s necessary for a label anymore.
“To me it means running your own show. It’s the best. We’re the CEOs, the middle management, the secretaries and even the night janitors. Especially the night janitors,” says Danny Vocan, lead singer and writer for the band. “I don’t like anyone telling me what to do or how to do it. I’m the boss. Success or failure, who cares? I do it the way I want.”
The band, which was formed by Vocan and guitarist Bob Quaschnick for a high school talent show, where they didn’t even make it past the first round, was originally called They Probably Might Possibly Be Giants. “No joke.”
Releasing their first album on the label LoadMusic in 2006, their sound has been described by the National Music Centre as having “gritty bluesy vocals and melodic guitar licks thrown in with a little flair.”
“We just made whatever songs came out of our instruments. We had no skills, really. I liked lots of distortion because it masked just exactly how shit I was at guitar,” says Vocan.
Since releasing their first EP This Guy’s Limit, the band has had seven singles, a featured song in the first season of Rookie Blue, a song featured in a national Rogers Wireless campaign and have toured throughout Canada, the United States and Europe.
In the 1950s being indie meant your record label stood on its own, in the 1990s it meant you had no label and in the 2000’s it was a distinction of music.
Nowadays, it can mean whatever a person wants it to mean, it has no strict definition and much like the artist’s who identify with it, it is always growing and changing.