Why the Term ‘Indie’ Is Usually Bullshit…

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What does “Indie” mean to you?

Does it mean quirky or artsy?  Or does it just refer to the style of a person?  Or does it just mean that the same giant-assed companies have found a new way to make you feel like an educated consumer who is simply more aware of art than others?

So what is ‘Indie’ actually, by the current real-world definition?

Nothing but a contrived ploy, created only to pull more money out of your wallets while damaging the public conception of independent art!

Recently, The Orchard (a wholly-owned division of Sony Music Entertainment) sent Digital Music News an infographic in the hopes that we would provide them some positive PR.  Maybe they thought they had some much ‘indie cred’ that publications would want to write about them…? fail.

Instead, I made some of my own infographics to better portray their market stance.

A bit of background and why I am writing this article: When I first started seeing the trend towards “Indie” it was within the movie business.  Seeing actors and actresses who undoubtedly command huge payouts in movies like Little Miss Sunshine (budget of $8 million), The Grand Budapest Hotel (budget of $30 million), and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (budget $20 million) initially tipped me off.  This was a new marketing plan at work and it was working, because more and more movies started popping up with these “quirky” and “artsy” veneers over deadpan humor and semi-abstract plots.

It wasn’t long before this marketing philosophy started to pervade the music industry.

This seemingly harmless sales strategy is making it even harder for real musicians to get discovered because the average listener now thinks they already are listening to what’s “underground” and may not seek out more obscure music.

Today, we have fabricated legends, people like Macklemore, who really hope you think they are “Indie” because it’s “the hip new thang,” but in reality he and his cohort Ryan Lewis were signed to a division of Warner Music Group.  It’s called ADA, or Alternative Distribution Alliance, and the deal was signed before the hit song, “Thrift Shop”.

In other words, this is not an artist living some inspirational fairy tale thanks to the internet.  Instead, they had roughly $200 million pushing their song into the stratosphere.

There are far too many movies and “musicians” to list, but its safe to assume that if your mother knows about it, it’s not really not that “Indie”.


So don’t be played by the entertainment industry, please!  Let them know that you are aware of their bullshit marketing plan by not paying for the music you know is contrived and pre-paid to be in your ears.  I plead to the readers of this article to go and see some LOCAL concerts!  See some self promoted, managed and distributed artists.  You may be shocked at how much better the music is than what the major labels have been spoon-feeding to you with a bald-faced lie and a grin!

The major labels aren’t just some old cronies, scratching their heads in some high-rise office somewhere.  Instead, they are actually highly-skilled at fabricating fame and perpetuating the myth that good music is a thing of the past.

It’s due to the success of this methodology that real A&R is dying.  It’s a lot easier to choose someone who tests well in focus groups than it is to actually scout out and recruit talent that you believe in. Especially because music is just a business to them and has nothing to do with art.

It’s true for the mainstream, and ‘indie’ as well.

20 Responses

  1. Anonymous

    “What does “Indie” mean to you?”

    It means keeping 100% of my money instead of 15%, and it’s been the best decision in my life.

  2. GGG

    Uh, this is a pretty weird article. From a cultural debate standpoint, I get what you’re saying, but the solution seems pretty dumb. We can’t like or buy music from bands with a marketing strategy? Who gives a shit if labels push some “indie” ploy onto it, if it’s still good, it’s still good.

    Also, this is a pretty flimsy argument: “This seemingly harmless sales strategy is making it even harder for real musicians to get discovered because the average listener now thinks they already are listening to what’s “underground” and may not seek out more obscure music.”

    Besides the point that I’ve heard countless indie/unsigned acts that are far from being “real musicians” any more than a half-decent major label act, I’ve never ever in my life met someone who was like, “well, I found this band that I like, so I’ll never look for new music again!” We have the internet. If you care about music beyond Taylor Swift, and/or have friends who care about music beyond Taylor Swift, you’re going to hear about true indies, unsigned acts, etc.

    • Steve Andrews

      The issue is that there is increased emphasis on self promotion from people like Macklemore who publicly make it seem like they were independent when they were under ADA (Warner).
      So that perpetrates the myth that things like soundcloud can make you famous and with that not being 100% factual, it creates an additional barrier to entry. I just feel we should work to relinquish barriers to entry in the music industry and reduce the exclusivity, nepotism and cronyism. But if the public thinks this issue is being or has been resolved, nothing will continue to be done about it

      • GGG

        I guess I just don’t always necessarily equate marketing gimmicks with nepotism and cronyism. I agree those things suck and can/do put a whole lot of mediocre or outright shitty “artists” in the spotlight, but even as a big proponent of authenticity, I disagree that the indie qualifier has any real life effect besides being annoying sometimes.

        Like, it’s almost impossible to call Adele or Mumford & Sons, or even someone like Vampire Weekend at this point, indie with a straight face, but at the end of the day, let’s be real; half the unsigned acts out there are ripping off bands like that. And the ones that aren’t and/or break through are just going to end up distributed by Orchard or Beggars/ADA/whatever anyway.

  3. jw


    >> This seemingly harmless sales strategy is making it even harder for
    >> real musicians to get discovered because the average listener now
    >> thinks they already are listening to what’s “underground” and may
    >> not seek out more obscure music.

    Holy cow. “Real musicians?” Artists on major labels, or the artists who work on major label projects aren’t real musicians? That’s horse shit. And only the worst people listen to music simply because it’s “underground” or obscure. Everything that I listen to that is obscure, I wish that it wasn’t, & try my best to turn all of my friends onto it. And when an indie artist that I’ve championed for years, like Sturgill Simpson, inks a major label deal where it seems like he’s retaining creative control, I applaud it. I don’t know anyone who would say that the artist is no longer a real musician.

    Arguing about the definition of “indie” is a really stupid thing to do. But Macklemore & Ryan Adams produced their record *independent* of record label creative influence, & then signed a distribution deal with ADA. Consumers don’t care about the distribution deal, the creative process is all that they’re interested in. If ADA paid for the Thrift Store music video… so what? And where’s your proof that they even did? That’s not a narrative that I’ve heard before. You can’t just throw that stuff out there.

    Honestly it seems like you just miss the whole point of everything.

    Paul, it’s not a great look for DMN to spread this kind of vitriol.

  4. Steve Sinclair

    The term “record label” is bullshit, never mind the “major” or “indie” designation. Musicians simply don’t need them anymore.

    • Wooly

      In many sense of the word, “artist” is a bullshit word, also.

  5. Anonymous

    Don’t take it so personally, Steve. It’s just business. Like what you like and if it matters to you that an artist is truly independent, great. But taking it personally leads to mistakes. For instance, VP Records is 100% independently owned. That you assign them to Atlantic is likely because of Sean Paul. Sean Paul was signed to VP Records and then VP licensed or entered into a joint venture for that artist’s contract with Atlantic but it’s solely for Sean Paul. VP itself is an independent still owned by Mrs. Pat Chin and managed by her sons (Randy and Chris). They own a physical distribution company and do a great deal of their own physical distribution out of that company. They have various distribution agreements in place for ex-US business and work with INgrooves for digital distribution in the U.S.

  6. Not Quite

    Casting a pretty broad net here, aren’t we?

    There is a strong difference between a record deal and a distribution deal. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis are independent in the sense that they own their masters from the label side, but distribute through ADA. This in no way means they are “signed” to ADA. You probably would not label Taylor Swift as an indie artist, but Big Machine Records is privately held and only distributes through Universal Music. Beggars Group, home of 4AD, Matador, RoughTrade and XL, is also distributed by ADA in the US. Does that make them part of the evil empire even though they are known for some of the best indie artists around?

    Do you homework…

  7. danwriter

    The term “underground” was co-opted decades ago by corporate marketers. “Indie” is simply an extension of a well-documented phenomenon by which large corporations look to leverage street-level culture. We’ve seen this before, no big thing; you laugh and move on.
    Independent labels using major-label distribution is also nothing new. They offer smaller labels reach they couldn’t achieve otherwise. It’s an ecosystem that works more often than not to the artists’ ultimate benefit. And you’re including Epic as an indie in your infographic? The label was a subsidiary of Columbia from day one, in 1953. This isn’t an article — it’s a rant.

  8. an employee

    Well, I worked for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and they were indie. They did all of their own promotion for the single and just worked through ADA for distrobution.

  9. again, an employee

    Taylor Swift doesn’t do distribution through ADA.

    • Nope

      No she doesn’t, it’s universal like Not Quite wrote. Read carefully

  10. Anonymous

    this article reads like someone who just finished their freshman year of music business school and thinks they had some big epiphany about the industry.

    • Fixed!!!

      “this article entire site reads like someone who just finished their freshman year of music business school and thinks they had some big epiphany about the industry.”

      Fixed that typo for ya!!!

  11. anonymous

    It’s cute how you clearly don’t understand the day to day roles and functions of distribution.

  12. Versus

    Why should it matter if it’s on an indie label or a major, unsigned or signed?
    What matters is the quality of the MUSIC.

  13. Minotaure

    Hey Steve, enjoyed reading your post – would love to see more DIY musicians get discovered.
    a quick question: how many indie labels are out there today ? 50,000, 100,000, more ?
    And equally interesting – size wise, how they are segmented – small, medium, big ?