Indie Music: Older Than You Think

“Indie snobs!” The hew and cry of many a frustrated music fan, the word “indie” has so many different meanings to so many different people, it can seem to be almost meaningless. For some, it’s a sound, linked intimately to the alternative rock of the ‘90s, while for others, it’s a way of life, involving DIY and, depending on age, Sticking It To The Man – though for many, it’s a scene and a set of values that can be almost unbearable.

But indie music – “indie” as an approach to music, both in terms of sound and in terms of marketing and business ethos – does have a specific history. And that history begins with Pearls Before Swine.

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Although Pearls Before Swine are little known today, their use of small labels, home- and low-tech recordings and unusual, non-commercial and counter-cultural lyrics and lyrical references make them a landmark in indie music. Pearls Before Swine rose to its height in the late ‘60s and ‘70s – just in time to allow it to help foster the next wave of underground artists.

Punk music, as a whole, defined itself as being counter to both hippie “counter-culture” – which by then had become part of the main stream – and to main stream culture as a whole. As such, punk used many of the practices established by Pearls Before Swine and other early “indie” artists. However, punk also gave rise to the “DIY” – an acronym meaning “do it yourself” – aesthetic and business ethos. Many punk bands manufactured their own fan paraphernalia, and packaged their own albums.

Although some punk acts such as the Ramones gained more widespread popularity, many others remained relatively unknown until after their heydays (the Velvet Underground would fall into this category). Many cities became associated with vibrant musical scenes during the ‘70s and ‘80s, as a direct effect of the punk movement. Although New York City and London come first to mind, as punk grew and became more popular, other cities also became well-known: Washington, D.C. is one example, as is San Diego. Washington was, for example, the home of Dischord records, which gave the world bands like Fugazi and other acts from the early days of hardcore.

However, by the late ‘80s, “indie” was moving in a different direction. While still providing a home to punk, there were a number of other scenes on the rise. In 1986, the famous anthology tape C86 was released, showcasing bands like the Field Mice and the Pastels. At the opposite end of the spectrum from punk, these groups had a softer, poppier sound, giving rise to what is now known as “twee” pop.

In the middle of the punk-twee spectrum were the many alternative acts growing in late ‘80s and early ‘90s America. Many of these groups began on smaller labels, and then, as they gained popularity, moved to larger labels. This includes groups like R.E.M. and Pearl Jam – the grunge movement, which became popular at this time, grew out of various indie scenes in different cities.

For many, this popularity of formerly “indie” bands marked both the beginning and the end of indie as such. However, with the rise of the internet, many new, unknown bands have been able to find audiences, growing their own fanbases independently of major labels – or, in some cases, independently of any label at all.

Indie’s history, as a musical movement and a musical “moment,” is a lot longer than many believe. But hopefully, as new technologies allow more artists to reach more music fans, it will continue to grow.