What is “indie”? The word often conjures up images of hipper-than-thou scenesters in skinny jeans and Converse sneakers, blasting music you’ve never heard through their large, black, ear-enveloping headphones. The term is used to describe everything from fashion to a lifestyle to a hairdo. While a great deal of baggage surrounds the term, the truest meaning of indie is a band that is not signed to one of the four major music labels: Warner Music Group, EMI, Sony BMG or Universal Music Group. While the definition may be simple, the history of independent music is a long and varied one, spanning four decades and innumerable songs.
In the 1960s, the Federal Communications Commission began to issue class D radio licenses to promote then-new FM radio. Dozens of colleges and universities received licenses and began to broadcast music by artists without major label affiliations. This commitment to music outside the mainstream is still heard on MSU’s radio station, Impact 89FM; the station’s list of top songs on Jan. 15 included bands such as The Frantic and Electric Six. Neither is signed to a major label.
[emily]The term “indie,” short for independent, gained popularity in the mid-1970s with the advent of punk rock, when music fans began to use it as shorthand for artists who did not have the backing of a major record label and instead funded their own recording. By then, the “big four” music labels were umbrellas for a plethora of smaller music labels in various regions and markets around the world. However, the term “indie” is commonly used to describe any music not played on mainstream radio. “When I think ‘indie,’ I always think undiscovered,” social relations and policy and English sophomore Sarah Rankin said.
The trend of an underground music culture stemming from local FM stations continued and expanded into the 1980s. Acts like R.E.M. gained exposure and obtained deals with major record labels based on their positive reception at independent radio stations. In the 1990s, however, an increasing number of radio stations began to stop broadcasting and were folded into National Public Radio or other local radio stations.
“[Indie] is different from [other kinds of music] because there’s more variety… the songs deal with different issues,” James Madison freshman Emily Mortl said. She cited songs like “Crooked Teeth” and “Someday You Will be Loved” by Death Cab for Cutie, “Brighter than Sunshine” by Aqualung and “Take Me Out” by Franz Ferdinand as examples. “I think that the emotional aspect of indie lyrics are more poetic and creative [than the mainstream culture]. It is a different side or emotional stance to an issue,” Mortl said.
Luckily, the Internet also gained popularity at the time, and became the new means of spreading music throughout the country. Peer-to-peer file sharing networks such as Napster or Kazaa enabled people all over the country to listen to obscure bands without the promotional budget to make their music available to a wider audience. This new development vastly increased the popularity of indie music and has played a huge role in breaking new artists. “I always check out the free song of the day on iTunes,” political science freshman Marta Johnson said. “And this is kind of embarrassing, but MySpace also has free downloads.” Word of mouth also plays a huge role in spreading new music. “I usually find out about new music from my sister,” Johnson said. “She goes to underground concerts in New York before bands get big, and tells me about the ones she likes. I also really like XM Radio.”[marta]
Interestingly enough, indie music has found popularity in network commercials, major films and television shows, embracing the very consumerism and corporate values that many indie artists reject. Singer-songwriter Ingrid Michaelson gained popularity after placing several of her songs on her Myspace page; offers to use her music in television shows and commercials followed. Her 2007 album Girls and Boys topped the Billboard Heatseekers chart despite her lack of a recording contract with a major label, mainly because millions heard her songs every week on the ABC television show “Grey’s Anatomy.” “I’ll hear a song in a TV show or in the background of a commercial and look it up online to see who it’s by,” Johnson said. “It’s a really easy way to find out about new music.” Mortl agrees. “I heard the song ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ by Feist in an iTunes commercial and downloaded it.”
Artists who licensed their songs for commercial use were once viewed as sellouts, but now both prefabricated pop princesses and so-called “edgy” alternative artists offer their music for use. Cat Power’s cover of Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone” was prominently featured in a Cingular ad. Iron and Wine’s cover of The Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” was used in an M&M commercial. Many artists find freedom in this option: they are able to expose their music to a wider audience without being forced to alter their image to conform.
Films are no exception. The recently released movie “Juno” has a soundtrack that includes artists as varied as Kimya Dawson, formerly of The Moldy Peaches, Belle and Sebastian and the Velvet Underground. According to Nielsen Soundscan, the album has sold 75,000 copies since Dec. 11 and debuted at No. 8 on the Billboard 200. “I was tempted to go find the music that was in “Juno” [after seeing the film,]” Rankin said. Likewise, director Wes Anderson’s films always include a bevy of carefully selected songs by little-known artists. Musicians such as Nick Drake and Elliot Smith gained popularity after being featured in one of Anderson’s movies. Perhaps the best-known work in the genre is the soundtrack to the 2004 film “Garden State,” which won a Grammy Award in 2005 for Best Compilation Soundtrack for a Motion Picture. The album found critical as well as commercial success, being certified gold by the Recording Industry of America (RIAA).
While independently produced music is gaining popularity at the current time, it is unclear if this trend will continue. However, millions of people feel a strong emotional connection to the tunes and lyrics that develop from the scene. “I listen to whatever’s popular a lot of the time, but if I’m feeling really thoughtful or want to relax, I usually pick something a little more challenging,” Johnson said. “And indie music does that for me.”

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