Thursday, May 03, 2007

An alternative to what?

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.


Random Kath said...

What an interesting post to me. Back in the day, when I was in college and a little after, REM and the B-52s were considered "indie" and "alternative" bands. Now, I wsn't way into the music scene, but that's what the people around me labeled them. Today when I think of indie and alternative bands, I think of anyone who isn't played 8 million times on the radio during the week on the top 40, urban, classic rock-y or country stations (because basically, those are the main stations we have up here in DC.) Maybe they are only played a few hundred times and disappear into low level obscurity. I think of Lyle Lovett, who's never been that huge - he is kind of indie to me - he doesn't fit into a sharp box. Eddie From Ohio (my fave local band). Any band or singer that isn't followed by 40 million screaming 14 year olds . . .

So yes, the once exclusive nature of indie rock has been stretched to exclude only a few genres, but that is because the genres have gotten SO big, but narrow, that anything a little more quirky or complex than normal feels like it must be indie.

Did that make sense? I'm not an expert like you, but that's my lay opinion . . .

Sophie T. Mishap said...

I've got to agree with random kath here. "Alternative" lost its original syntax in the early 90s. It moved beyond bootlegs and college radio and into places like KDGE (back when it was 94.5 FM).

You can almost track the disconnect as The Edge moved up the dial. Remember when they used to boast that they played Red Hot Chili Peppers first?

That claim alone demonstrates how much indie and alternative music has changed. Look where RHCP are today. Are they really alternative? Because they used to be. What the hell happened?

Well, the music industry simply packaged what was selling. Then suddenly everything got better-produced and formulaic. It's nothing new.

And if it looks like pop music and sounds like pop music, it gets a better frequency on the say...102.1 FM.

It all boils down to context. After all, the quality of a record depends on how well it's spun. ;)

Eric Grubbs said...

You make plenty of sense Mrs. Random. And thanks for the context Sophie T. I've lived in the DFW area for almost ten years and I've been doing my research about what I missed.

Adam Villani said...

Some time ago; I think it was the late '90s, I was perusing Billboard magazine and noticed that the still kept (and still do keep) separate "mainstream rock" and "modern rock" charts. This is a division that I guess made sense in 1987, but even by the late 90s all the difference meant was that the "mainstream rock" chart had a few songs from latter-day albums by bands that had been active in the 70s, plus Kenny Wayne Shepard. Otherwise everybody on the mainstream rock chart was also on the modern rock chart.