Indie Rock and Modern Music: Is music a state of mind?

This post is an attempt to explain the concept of indie rock and how it has evolved during the last decades.

What is “Indie” today?

The term Indie, for Indie Rock, comes actually from the word “Independent”, which in the music argot means an artist that has no record label, represents itself, may produce its own demo tapes and perhaps finance its own records, merchandise and tours. In Wikipedia words it would be “a term used to describe independence from major commercial record labels and an autonomous, do-it-yourself approach to recording and publishing”.

Starting with clarifications, the whole sense of a music genre to become a representation of a culture or a generation in a specific point of time (in the last century used to be decades), is the transition of converting from being a music style, to a lifestyle.

Today, the indie concept we can say has gone from being a simple terminology for describing the “non-commercial” status of a band, to later become a music movement and ultimately…a lifestyle, or how I personally like to describe it better, a state of mind.


It is important besides understanding what indie means, to also set clear a term that I think has always been wrongly interpreted, which is “commercial”. Typically “commercial” is used to refer to a band that has reached the mainstream channels to a large audience.

This channels were normally TV and Radio, and until the mid 90’s the Internet, which I will discuss its impact in the Indie movement and music in general later. So, to keep it simple and clear, ANY ARTIST even underground/independent is COMMERCIAL, simply because they offer their music proposal at a certain price in the music market and they make a living out of it, or at least they try hard to do so.

One could argue what happens then for the thousands of bands that put out their demos and records available online for free. Let’s be clear, unless they do it for charity, they would expect to get to make some gigs, some fans and make a little profit out of it.

The difference then relies on how commercially, or better said, profitably attractive they are for record labels (consider the big four record labels as Sony, Universal, Warner and EMI). So to say, Tori Amos is just as commercial as Madonna or Lady Gaga, of course the music of the last two is more “commerciable” than Tori Amos’, as it certainly reaches a broader audience.

If you are skeptical about this statement just turn your radio on, but be fair, not your iTunes pre selected tracks radio, but the regular AM/FM one and you will get the point.

Indie getting “out of the closet”

So how independent artists have managed then to make their music available to their audience?, In marketing terms we will call this audience a niche, since for the nature of the band and its independent spirit, tends to be a very particular “market segment”.

Going back to the late 80’s, which is the time I can account for , a band would typically start as a garage band (for the purpose of explanation we can consider the opposite of a garage band a desk made band, so to say New Kids on the Block, Backstreet Boys, Nsync… I think you got the point), they would promote their own gigs, try to build their way in the music history, etc.

Record labels, just as bands, can also be distinguished from being indie or mainstream, so as we can easily guess, indie bands went for indie labels. Just to leave clear, a major difference of among record labels will typically be royalties, as an independent artist would financially be less costly to promote, thus, this royalties would be lower as compared to a more commercially/mainstream/ profitable artist.

This was what started creating the whole concept of the independent movement, regardless of the time it could actually have started, which is not the purpose of this essay to discuss, as for common sense, any artist is born independent, unless of course desk made ones which were already explained.

Ultimately, any band that eventually started looking as a profitable product was either approached by a big label or small indie labels would promote the promising bands to the big ones, since the cost for them to launch a big media breakthrough was difficult to finance, especially before the Internet boom.

Keep in mind that labels, either small or large are not charity organizations and they will always try to make the biggest profit from the “products” they sell, though this might seem contrary to the genuine alternative “corporate-less” spirit, it is what it is.

Even though before Internet was hard to notice, there has always been a huge musical offer, it’s just that in the old days record labels had the “monopoly” and the appropriate channels needed to promote an artist that they would select to launch.

Hard to admit, but any band that we could like from around the mid 90’s and back, is actually a product of a label that decided to launch them to the masses. Simply said, it was given to us, as we fitted the right audience of a style on demand that represented the ideals and lifestyles of any given generation. Sad, but true.

Grunge interrupted…

Twenty years back there were big breakthroughs in a movement called Alternative Rock, name given because of the demand of an “alternative” to the flashy- glamorous 80´s hard rock.

This movement in the late 80’s and early 90’s is better recognized by an emerging subgenre known as Grunge that rose from the Indie movement of the late 80’s, being the most generally identified artists Nirvana with its “Nevermind” and Pearl Jam’s “Ten” released in 1991 in Seattle. Contemporary, In UK and Chicago a couple of bands were putting their first albums “Gish” and “Pablo Honey” outshone at that particular time by the Seattle movement.

Never meant, nor wanted, to be tagged in the Grunge style, the importance and impact of these bands became more evident as they put their second albums between 1993 and 1995, “Siamese Dream” and “The Bends” respectively, bringing a huge consolidation of the alternative movement throughout the world and finally giving an identity to the ruling rock & roll genre of the 90’s, or at least to half of it.

The huge success of this style, and its legacy, is to me a strange phenomenon in terms of its impact in our generation. The latter because, contrary to this, other movements that have influenced entire generations in early decades have been part of a larger, though slower, spread of music and ideals.

Perhaps could have been the gradual access of the masses to internet in the mid 90’s to make this movement so popular and demanded, as it will continue to do so with other music styles in the future, but perhaps with less critical mass compared to the times when there was no Internet and music offer was controlled by a handful of mass media monopoly players.

Of course, the question will always remain… Why Alternative movement needed only half of a decade to mark its name in the history of rock? For many the answer is very clear, and that is the tragically, and perhaps involuntary, immortalization of a music style by one of the biggest and still influential cultural icons in history.

All what Alternative Rock needed to give a name to a whole generation was one shot, and it got it in April 5, 1994.

Immortalized, but yet questioned about how much more it had to say, grunge continued in a decline for the rest of the decade in terms of mainstream popularity. Although several artists from the time continue to put out records, and others announce their comebacks, most of what it was is buried in the decade it belongs to.

However the influence of Alternative Rock as we mentioned, relies on the lifestyle and the state of mind it created among its most faithful followers. And in fact it continues to do so, since what ruled the decade of 2000 was Indie, but that’s not a music style, it’s a concept that groups together the fragmented subgenres of rock that emerged after the internet boom.

Indie Today…

Today, indie has perhaps the strongest of its allies ever. With the aid of a fast growing mass reaching media, it is more noticeable how fragmented music has become.

As we said, music has always had a vast amount of proposals, which in early decades was carefully selected by labels that had the power to make them very profitable. But since the last 15 years, any band or artist can simply go online to upload their demos or albums.

In fact, it is curious to realize that the music industry didn’t changed its way to do business; it was pulled by platforms like iTunes that revolutionized the way music is now distributed. In other words, until recent years, and perhaps still, the record labels thought that they could still make money out of printing CD’s.

For instance, total revenues for CDs, vinyl, cassettes and digital downloads in the U.S. dropped from a high of $14.6 billion in 1999 to $10.4 billion in 2008. The Economist and The New York Times report that the downward trend is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. Forrester Research predicts that by 2013, revenues may reach as low as $9.2 billion, representing roughly a 30% drop in 13 years.

Source: The Economist (1)  and The New York Times (3,4)

The debate on how labels will survive this trend is perhaps matter of deeper analysis. Take for instance a look in the following chart that states and overall trend of the revenues of record labels in the UK.

The blue spread shows the revenues for artists that are being paid higher commissions when distributed trough platforms like iTunes. Whereas the red line show the decrease in revenues for labels.

Source: Times Online Labs blog (2)

One could think that the concept of giving away for free can be prejudicial. However let’s take as an example the case of Sweden, home of The Pirate Bay, an online community with free material available for download. In a recent study, the numbers show a similar trend of that in the U.K. where artists are paid for the revenues of their online sales.

Source: (5)
Source: (5)

Total artist revenues have increased in Sweden by 34.6 % since 2000. The model gives 50% of Total (T) Live Revenues (L) to artists after venues and promoters have taken their share, 20% of Recorded Revenues (R) to artists and 80% of SAMI (A) revenues, after administration costs.

The point is that the traditional media that labels dominated is narrowing proportionally to how mass reaching channels are increasing, and, despite free or paid downloads, the revenues for artists are in fact increasing as the effect of “eliminating the middleman” evolves.

Also, as music spreads easier and faster, one could conclude that artists with higher demand will increase their revenues, maybe not from CD’s, but from downloads, live performances, touring, merchandising, etc.

It would be fair to remember what even big bands like Smashing Pumpkins did in 2000 by releasing online for free their “Machina II: Friends and Enemies of Modern Music”, followed nine years later by Radiohead which twisted the format and said basically pay what you want for it with “In Rainbows”, making it perhaps the most innovative and successful business model in modern times due to the success in distribution. “In all, there have been three million purchases of In Rainbows (including CDs, vinyls, box sets and digital sales) since the band began selling the album officially on New Year’s Day 2008.

As of October 1999, Radiohead hasn’t  revealed how much they actually made total in the “pay-what-you-want” facet, but admitted more people downloaded the album for free than paid for it. Still, the three million in total sales — 100,000 of which came from the $80 box sets — is a hugely-successful number considering the album was both given away for free and that it was actually downloaded more times via Bit Torrent than free and legally through Radiohead’s own site…” (7)

The end of music decades…

In 2008, over 12,000 records were put out into the market, so the question always remains if in the future there would still be rock bands as big as we saw in the last century, think about Beatles, Doors, Rolling Stones, U2, Depeche Mode, etc.

Eventually it will get harder and harder for a band to get as much attention to create enough critical mass to fill out stadiums, so I guess those will be left to pop artists. Would we still see top 10 charts or we would move to top 1,000? Who will decide about this in the end, will it still be MTV or it will now be Apple? Do people really need a Top something?

Since now tastes are not determined by big entertainment monopoly players, but from people’s willingness to search for their own identity, peer recommendations and not for a mass media customized one as happened in the last century.

Today it is difficult to identify a music genre like in the past there where tags like rock & roll, heavy metal, alternative, etc represented ideals, lifestyles and states of mind of complete generations throughout decades. So maybe that’s why the whole concept of Indie is so widespread, since at the end it simply group together, not a music styles, but a state of mind that corresponds to the wants of people that look for individual representation of their lives.

In the end all that’s happening is a process of fragmentation and subdivisions that are virtually impossible to tag and, inversely to what one could think that new communications means could unite people, the reality is that perhaps what human beings want is not the sense of belonging, but rather the sense of uniqueness.

The days of a music style representing generations and tagging decades are gone, that died in the 90’s, the last decade in history that would be represented by a music style. And proudly to say that the last rock & roll music style that ruled the word was Alternative.

“I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘Fuck you’ to this decaying business model…” – Thom Yorke


(1) “Digital Sales Surpass CDs at Atlantic”. The New York Times. Nov. 25, 2008
(2) July 6, 2009.
(3) “The music industry”. The Economist. Jan 10, 2008
(6) Oct. 15, 2008
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Mexican blogger living abroad and writing about experiences of traveling around México, Italy, India and Spain.

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