Saturday, 2 August 2008

The Death Of Indie, with Anne Hollowday, 27/10/2007

The Death Of Indie
co-written with Anne Hollowday for London Student

Over the past few years, the dominance of dance and RnB in the charts has waned and in its place has appeared a glut of guitar bands and quirky indie popstars. As each X Factor ‘winner’ faces a shorter shelf-life than their predecessor, the public have shifted their affections towards a cast of trilby wearing boys and foul-mouthed girls. At first this was an obvious change for the better – no more boybands on stools or vacuous gyrating ‘divas’ – but like all trends, this one has reached its tipping point. Indie music is now the most mainstream and popular genre in the UK, and anyone old enough to remember the dying days of Britpop will feel a similar dark cloud approaching over this particular fad. How did indie get so – well, un-indie? And what does that mean for the few artists who are still flying the flag for independent music?

The fashion industry has spent the past few years copying the styles of two people in particular, and you only have to look around at your fellow students to take a guess at who the culprits might be. Correct: the ubiquitous Kate Moss and Pete Doherty. Kate, after a fifteen year career and barely a word from her lips, is considered the ultimate fashion icon and arbiter of cool. Despite the fact that Pete’s music has a cult following and doesn’t sell particularly well, his career has spawned countless more mainstream and radio-friendly copycat bands that also happen to dress like him. Kate’n’Pete tread a fine line between being both bohemian, rock’n’roll icons and tabloid regulars, household names that are a byword for cool.

By coincidence – or inevitably, depending on how you look at it – these two pillars of chic came together in 2005 to become an all-powerful super-couple, elevating themselves to daily tabloid fodder. Over recent years Britain has also seen an explosion in gossip magazine culture and reality television. Celebrity Big Brother has made household names of various indie characters like Maggot from Goldie Lookin’ Chain, Preston from The Ordinary Boys and Donny Tourette from Towers of London. Preston’s love life and Donny’s rockstar pretensions have earned them countless column inches in the company of other ‘troubled stars’ of the more rock’n’roll variety such as Amy Winehouse and Lily Allen. Even relatively obscure artists like Beth Ditto of the Gossip have made an appearance in rags like London Lite. Britain’s daily gossip fix has elevated the fame of these cartoonish indie celebrities – no wonder, seeing as they’re all far more interesting and unpredictable than their US counterparts Jessica Simpson, Nicole Richie et al.

These rock’n’roll clich├ęs have become the zeitgeist whose influence is felt in the press and in fashion, in what we read, what we talk about, what we wear – not to mention what we listen to. Most importantly, Kate’n’Pete hold uncontested power over most of that holy grail of demographics: the youth. The 18-24 market is considered to be the most difficult to crack as well as the most coveted (being a generation with plenty of disposable income and no clue about saving money). This is where ad-land hijacks indie, taking its remaining credibility and style and selling it back to us on their terms. The companies that want our money develop their brands in line with whatever they think we’ll buy. Every mobile phone company seems to have sponsored a handful of music festivals and a series of ‘guerrilla gigs’ (remember them?). Drinks manufacturers Carling and Jim Beam have put their name to tours and festivals, hoping to raise their profile among the alcohol-loving youth. Step into Topshop or Topman and you can see this trend come full-circle – Kate Moss has her very own line and the Pete-inspired Dior Homme range has made a smooth transfer to the high street. The current incarnation of indie stands for taste and style but is also immediately accessible and commercial. In effect, ‘indie’ has become its own brand, completely detached from the independent music it used to signify.

The impact on the actual music has been less than positive too. A lot of truly awful bands have been unduly promoted in the race to sign up and spit out Babyshambles clones. New bands that don’t conform to the rock’n’roll cartoon have been sadly overlooked while countless scruffy teenagers in straw hats have signed on the dotted line for record deals that will no doubt leave them penniless and confused after their debut albums achieve mediocre sales.

The press and marketing companies have also become fixated with Myspace in recent years, as it’s a relatively easy way to discover the Next Big Thing. Even though a few artists have done very well from humble internet beginnings (Arctic Monkeys and Kate Nash being notable examples), there’s no reason why the Myspace fame trajectory is any better than the old method of gigging round the toilet circuit until you get signed – internet hype is notoriously fickle and many of these bands will be offered single album deals and no real support to develop their music. What seems like an explosion of ‘indie’ is actually the powerful record companies cashing in on a trend that they know will sell, just as they did with talentless teenypop in the 90s personified by fluorescent suit-wearers Upside Down and, bless them, 911.

Meanwhile, the UK hip hop scene has been mutating and evolving into something original, complex and significantly different to anything happening in the US. Under the radar, grime has become the antidote to the identikit mainstream indie bands. NME editor Conor McNicholas has been quoted as saying, “the grime scene is perceived as a lot cooler and lot more real than the indie scene,” yet the music press gives barely any space to up and coming grime acts. Whether in response to this stubborn lack of coverage or just as an anarchic joke, a number of urban artists have been collaborating with indie bands in recent years.

Lethal Bizzle is one grime act who has become a crossover star. Starting out as part of the More Fire Crew, Bizzle has since collaborated with yourcodenameis:milo and Pete Doherty, and he’s on the bill of the current NME Rock’n’Roll Riot tour. Lethal Bizzle was in the audience for hardcore punk band Gallows’ arresting performance at the SXSW festival in Texas earlier this year, and became a fully fledged fan. They’re now collaborating on a reworking of ‘Staring At The Rude Bois’, originally released by reggae punk band The Ruts in 1980. Bizzle’s latest album also features an appearance from indie’s current golden girl Kate Nash. These fusions of grime and guitars, dubbed ‘grindie’, are totally fresh and contemporary, offering the opposite of anodyne radio rock. Whether or not it’s perceived as a gimmick, it’s an indication of the two-way relationship between these two seemingly disparate genres. The term was originally coined as a joke by grime producer Statik, but it became the catalyst for a physical manifestation of the genre as Statik’s Grindie Volume 1 compilation was released last year to critical acclaim. “I think people tend to over think it,” he told the Style Slut blog last year, “all musical genres have similarities. I didn’t think about it being a good or bad idea, I just did it.”

Jamie Collinson, manager of independent hip hop label Big Dada recordings, remains largely indifferent to the ‘grindie’ effect. He says of the phenomenon: “it was just a hype-building exercise that snagged press attention for a short while. I think it was largely scorned and ignored by the grime community in general.” He concedes that hip-hop has been a point of reference for some bands though, particularly Arctic Monkeys. “Alex Turner has certainly namechecked Roots Manuva a lot, and you can see a kinship in their incisive, British lyrics, but that’s rare and these days indie kids are probably mostly influenced by The Libertines.”

Regardless of the little ripples urban music is making on the stagnant indie pond, record labels remain reluctant to promote talented acts that don’t conform to the coveted ideal of indie – skinny jeans and sharp cheekbones command more attention than an original, unique talent. When Franz Ferdinand first hit the spotlight they said their intention was “to make music for girls to dance to” – a mission statement that seemed genuinely unusual at the time. Now of course, indie is dominated by radio-friendly riffs, sugary pop harmonies and lightweight lyrical content. Recent knock-offs of this formula include Scouting For Girls’s ‘She’s So Lovely’ and The Wombats’ unintentionally ironic ‘Let’s Dance To Joy Division’, as well as most of the daytime playlist at Xfm and Radio 1. These are songs which have made the leap from MTV2 to background music on property programmes and in high street shops. It’s a testimony to their blandness that they’ve been absorbed into the mainstream so easily. Contemporary indie isn’t always boring, and mainstream music isn’t necessarily bad (there are plenty of quality pop songs around, after all), but none of it could be honestly described as ‘indie’ in the true sense of the word. Tony Wilson was a legend in the independent sector, single-handedly building Factory Records with a disregard for everything except the quality of the music, signing bands like Joy Division and A Certain Ratio to his label and even allowing bands to keep the rights to their music. These days, bands consider themselves indie if they are signed to a smaller subsidiary under the umbrella of a large company, when in fact they are still owned by a big corporation. This pattern of small independents being bought up by the big fish has done the independent sector few favours, and in turn affected the chances of success for more obscure, niche audience artists.

At this time of mainstream indie dominance the artists that don’t fit the template are often overlooked, but ironically it will be those who are signed in the latter days of this fad, like the aforementioned Wombats, who are most likely to fade into obscurity. As Collison notes, “it’s a generational thing, there’s always a swing between the popularity of urban and indie. When urban is on top you get kids rebelling against that - a build up of energy and talent suddenly explodes, as it did around 2003 with a huge crop of new guitar bands.” As indie and its rock’n’roll cartoon characters continue to be seen, heard and consumed everywhere, urban music is bubbling away beneath the surface, waiting for an opportunity to pounce. Is that time nearly upon us?

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