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What defines indie? Why now more than ever indies are on the leading edge.
By Queenie Sataro - 12/26/2003 - 06:07 PM EST

"It is not easy being indie", I have often said. So, why, now more than ever before, is it becoming a better deal to stay independent rather than signing a label deal? First, some definitions are in order of what indie is in the first place. The definition of "indie" being from here on:

Indie -- An artist who produces, records, and promotes his or her own music without the aid of a major or feeder label.

Indie is not -- An artist that is signed to an "independent" label that is run by people from a major or feeder label.

What does it take to be indie?

Indies wear all the hats, from writer to performer to engineer to promoter. It's tough, and it takes a person that not only has uncanny business sense, but also a person that is constantly motivated to stay in music despite all odds. It takes tech savvy. Just as you would have a hard time running a small business without a computer, the indie music business utilizes computer technology so much that it has become sine qua non--essential--to promoting oneself as an indie musician. Why are so many musicians choosing to be indie then?

Is it so hard to get a label deal with a traditional or feeder label?

In short, yes. The major and feeder labels are notoriously ageist. If you are over 25 years old, you are not considered vital in any way to a major or feeder label. You are OLD. Take for example the popular television show American Idol, whose rules state that contestants must not be over the age of 25 in order to qualify for audition. Is it that people over the age of 25 are not talented or interesting enough to be signed? The major and feeder labels, by their actions and even some of their words, are saying YES. If you are over 25 years old, I wish you the best of luck when you are trying to form a deal to be produced and promoted by a major of feeder label.

Are there any good examples of artists who have had other choices but decided to stay indie?

More and more are becoming indie and doing it successfully. One of the early pioneers of indie music is the singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, who started her business touring out of a car and has grown her business to become arguably one of the most successful indie artists of all time. She is not the traditional major-label idea of a good easily promoted image. In fact, she could be considered the anti-Shania if there was such a thing. Yet she continues to blaze trails, release new albums, and tour. For stuff on Ani, visit http://www.righteousbabe.com.

The band Radiohead managed to create such a stir about its album Kid A through the internet alone that it debuted at Number One in Britain the week of its release. Radiohead has had videos on MTV and VH1. If you need proof that Radiohead is WAY too weird to ever have been signed by a traditional label, just visit their site at http://www.radiohead.tv.

Aren't the songs produced by major labels recorded better than indie songs?

That depends. The advent of computer recording technology has enabled indies to produce high quality songs that can rival the production of major label songs. Because high-end song production has reached a peak, the majors have achieved the ultimate icy perfection in digital sound. However, music is sometimes better off when it is imperfect. Think of the first Beatles recordings or a live Elvis record. Lots of imperfections there in the recording, tape hiss, people clapping. Indies can now produce very clean recordings at home that aren't as icily perfect as the latest J.Lo songs, but capture a certain mood that is patently unavailable in a "perfect" recording. Major label songs are often louder in volume overall than what you can produce on your own as an indie. Louder does not necessarily equal better, it is just louder.

Unless you are a beautiful Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake look alike and are just entering the ripe old age of fourteen, indie is looking pretty good to you as a musician, right? But wait:

Disadvantages of being indie:

1) Your money and time is spent getting and maintaining your own artist website (absolutely crucial in this day and age) and this takes away from album production and recording process.

2) The recording and production of your songs is exponentially more difficult because indies must do or organize all aspects of recording themselves, sometimes including playing the instruments!

3) There are no pre-fabricated promotions or tours. Every song review, every television appearance, every radio interview, must be arranged completely by the indie or someone he/she has hired.

4) You are not always taken as seriously by the general public because you are "unsigned" or still have a day job, even though you may work ten times as hard as a "signed" musician towards the same goals!

But, never forget, a goal is just a dream with a deadline tacked on to it!

Here are the massive benefits of being an indie:

1) Total creative freedom. No label telling you that what you write must be changed/watered down to sell to mass markets.

2) People who like you because they truly identify with your music, not sycophants that believe in you solely based on a label-created image and will discard you when you enter your thirties or beyond.

3) You will not suffer "abandonment" because you don't sell enough CD recordings, plus performing rights and recording rights will not be restricted because of a contract you have signed in blood. You can collaborate with any other indie at any time. If you ever do start making money, all of that money ends up in your pocket as there are no middle men.

4) You are not weighed down by the traditional music industry technophobes populating the labels who barely grasp MP3 technology let alone are on the cutting edge of the next wave, the MPEG 4.


Personally, I have chosen to stay indie. For me, a songwriter of introspective niche-market music who is over 30 and female, it just would not make any sense to pursue a feeder or major label. The best thing about being indie is stuff I haven't even gone into in this article, which is the creative satisfaction that the small successes and large ones are entirely mine. This has made me more creative than ever, and has been a source of inspiration. Other indies that I talk to and collaborate with daily are refreshing, fun, down-to-earth people that keep me fresh and creative and help me to keep my own business running at a full clip.

Cliched as it might seem, I believe that indies are on the verge of a musical revolution. It has a lot to do with the game of catch up in technology that I spoke of earlier in this article, but it also has to do with the fact that people want their music whether it is in the form of an MP3 or a vinyl disc. Right now, indies have music to offer that is more authentic than anything that the majors have offered in years.

Indies are soldiering on through the thick swamps of self-production and self-promotion. Many who have been forced to become indie lament the days when one could have signed away some monetary rights but gained help in the recording and promotional process. It is sad that the major-label system forgot to leave room for the over 30 artist as well as the song that did not appeal to everybody and his grandma. Perhaps it is this memory lapse that has led to the ongoing problems in the major label system.

One thing is for certain: there is more room for indies than ever before in today's market, and it is the indies, not majors, that have become the Ones to Watch.


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