The definition of "indie" I like the most is surprisingly the one that Google provides: (of a pop group, record label, or film company) not belonging to or affiliated with a major record or film company.
I like this definition because it is short and gets to the point. In today's age, anything labeled "indie" is in -- indie films, indie comic books, indie video games and the like. As a consumer of all those things, it is exciting to see creative people take their career in their own hands and make thing happen themselves.
The term "indie" is derived from the word "independent" and means just that, independent. People often conflate the definition above with the unique sound that indie-rock bands produce but before that sound was created, the term was first used to differentiate between mainstream pop artists and artists who either were not signed to a record label or worked with an independent one.
Some of the original indie record labels in America were created because the major labels were very selective about what artists they signed, they wanted a clean cut image and sound that could appeal to the masses so they could get radio play. Indie record labels and artists didn't care so much about mass appeal, they just wanted to record their music that was still seen as contemporary. Some of these rebellious labels include Sun Records, a country and blues label which was founded in 1952, King Records, who had country and r&b artists founded in 1943, Vee Jay Records, the presumably first African American-owned record label whose artists made jazz, blues, and rock music founded in 1953 and Stax Records in 1957 whose artists made gospel, soul and funk music. They gave a start to some of the biggest music acts in history such as Elvis Presley, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Otis Redding.
But over time many of the original indie labels merged with the big major labels or simply went out of business. At the time they did not realize the power in being independent and many of them jumped at the chance to be mainstream.
What's the difference between the indie and major label, you ask? Well the best pro about being on a major label is of course the money. Major labels are money making machines, this is what entices artists to sign with them. Label's have the resources to give their artists big advances, pay for state of the art recording studios, the best producers and engineers, and tours an indie label could never had funded. That being said there are definitely perks to being signed to a major label but there is another side to it.
Sure, a label will pay for all of the things an artist needs, but it's a loan, not a gift. Everything must be paid back and that's where artists get caught up. It's not uncommon for an artist to run up a bill they simply can't pay. Another issue that artists face while signed to major labels is naively signing incredibly long contracts when they first get exposure. For ages, young emerging artists have just signed whatever the label puts in front of them because of excitement and end up tied to a label that they may end up not liking for several studio albums. That is how we end up with terrible out of character albums from artists. For example, the album Lasers
by Lupe Fiasco is a far cry from Food and Liquor,
you could tell the album wasn't just Lupe taking a new artistic direction but rather a product of what his label wanted him to make, probably because he owed them money. That's what happens when you become beholden to a major label. You lose creative freedom.
Indie record labels started to make a comeback in the 80s because of the punk rock era. The punk bands all had this "screw the system, we can do it all ourselves"
attitude that really fostered the type of environment where independent labels could thrive. Indie labels like Sub Pop Records and Berserkley Records led the way in why signing emerging punk and power-pop artists. This new indie revolution gave birth to several genres including alternative rock and grunge.
This DIY attitude paved the way for what is currently happening in the music industry now. But now with the advent of the internet and cheaper recording materials, artists of all genres are realizing they do not need a label to be successful. With the right equipment and and a social media presence, artists can make a chart topper all by themselves. You no longer need a big fancy studio to record quality music. Need instrumentals for your song? No problem. Artists have created communities of support for themselves on social media where they can sell and buy beats from each other. There's no need for major label promotion when your song goes viral and when you've built a solid fanbase online. Plus, a completely independent artist can get their music up on any streaming service from Spotify to Apple Music on their own. With streaming services increasingly becoming the main way people consume their music, the power is all in the artist's hands.
The most well-known example of a successful modern indie artist is Chance the Rapper. He first started to get attention from fans when he dropped his mixtape 10 Day
while still in high school serving an out of school suspension. He gained popularity in the Chicago hip-hop scene quicker than anyone before. Flash forward to 2016 and Chance dropped Coloring Book,
one of the most acclaimed projects of the year, and he did that with a mixtape. With no major label backing him Chance relied on production and features from the artists he's met along the way. He's old school because he relies on the network of artists in his hometown Chicago and elsewhere to collaborate with. In many ways these type of networks are replacing the labels. He released Coloring Book
for free on all platforms, making it easily accessible for everyone all at once. Coloring Book
was so good even the Grammys couldn't ignore it. They changed their rules to make it so that streaming only projects could be nominated. Not only was Chance nominated but he won Best Rap Album for his mixtape alone with two other Grammys.
Chance's victory at last year's Grammys was a game changer for every artist that wasn't interested in being on major labels. Not only did he win the awards, but he was also able to have a successful stadium tour and headline what feels like every major music festival. He proved that one can have major success without the aid of a major label.
More and more artists are ditching labels and taking control of their own careers. Although being indie isn't new it's finally sustainable.