Back when the Shins' Wincing the Night Away came out, I noticed a rather peculiar quote in Rolling Stone from frontman James Mercer. Explaining the appeal of his band, along with a band like Modest Mouse, he used the term "indie." I found that rather strange because neither the Shins nor Modest Mouse are on record labels that are indie. All of the Shins albums have come out on partially-owned-by-Time-Warner-since-1996 Sub Pop. Modest Mouse's last three albums have come out on Epic/Sony. Thinking about this for a few months, I finally came to the realization of something that's been staring right in front of me: what was once considered an independent alternative to major labels now has barely any competition from major labels.
With today's publication of the NME/XFM's Greatest Indie Anthems Ever, the "i" label gets stretched some more. Looking at the top ten songs listed, I see a few songs that were never released on an independent record label. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" came out on Geffen. "Last Nite" came out on RCA. So I wonder: what gives? Has the once-exclusive nature of indie rock become so stretched out that the only things it excludes are cheesehead stadium rock and prefab pop?
Something that further questions this positioning is how certain large media outlets brand themselves as "indie" or "alternative." Here in Dallas, radio station KDGE went by the title "Your New Rock Alternative" for a while up until last year. Now, the strange thing is, KDGE is the only major rock radio station in town that doesn't play classic rock. It wasn't always this way. Hard rock/metal station the Eagle was blown up into a lite rock station a few years ago. AAA/modern rock Merge went classic rock a few years ago. Beloved Q-102 was blown up almost ten years ago. So what does KDGE's current playlist offer as an "alternative" to in regards to mass appeal rock music? Maybe that's why they dropped the "alternative" part from their positioning statement and became simply, "New Rock."
If anything, the playing field has leveled off. Sure, there was a time when that division was very rigid. But we're not in 1981 anymore folks. Face it: while the Big Four major label groups still have a very strong influence, their space in the parking lot keeps shrinking. All kinds of independently-run labels have sold amounts only majors could once sell. It's pretty cool to see, but the terms "alternative" and "indie" just don't seem to make any more sense in these regards. It just seems like "alternative" and "indie" are codewords for dense rock music pure and simple.