MOVE: Subcultures, Movements, Aesthetics is a series of documentation, a critical-collective output of the “Researching Subcultures and Aesthetics Postgraduate Symposium” that took place at National University of Galway Ireland in September 2019. This event was organized as part of the Punk Scholars Network event series, with the aim of bringing students and early career researchers who work on subcultural movements and arts together and offering a space to connect sociological studies on resistance with the more Humanities-oriented discussions around countercultural aesthetics.
The three episodic clusters in the series are designed to reflect the gaps and connections between disciplines, aiming to demonstrate the necessity of re-conceptualizations and how each paper can be thought as both specific to itself and part of a story, an episode of a collective research chapter. Topics ranged from neglected subjects and refusals in the literary world to the politics of independent music and punk subculture, from experimental filmmaking practices that blur the borders of American video art and cinema to the occupy, diasporic and subcultural movements in Romania, Brazil and the UK.
MOVE will run the course of autumn 2020 while the covid-19 is fluctuating in different time-spaces, gesturing towards new ways of moving under restrictions. Thanks to all the contributors, Moore Institute at NUI Galway and Punk Scholars Network for support and special thanks to Abram Foley, editor of ASAP/J. You can access all MOVE essays here.
– Temmuz Süreyya Gürbüz (Editor)
“Independent music” is a term hard to define. Vague usage makes it especially difficult to identify its distinctive features and, therefore, what actually “independent music” is or could be. Most of the questions regarding this cloudy label orbit around the following binaries: Is it about ethics or aesthetics? Politics or style? Is it a practice founded on moral principles, or a music genre which is based on merely sonorous characteristics?1 It is also fair to ask: what are “independent musicians” “independent” from? The major record labels? The public? The government? Their parents? What, in fact, practice, or style, is “independent music”?2
From a Bourdieusian perspective, the subject of independence in music could be dealt with as the problem of autonomy.3 When correlating music as a field of cultural production claiming independence with Bourdieu’s concept of players in a field seeking autonomy, we perceive a search for the same objective: self-sufficiency, a trait that is a sign of authenticity, purity, acknowledgment, distinction and legitimacy. These words, in the Bourdieusian terminology, circle around the concept of power. By creating a circular arrangement of subjective dispositions that constitute the agencies and objective positions related to structures of power, Bourdieu defines a field as a game with rules which can be transformed throughout the game by the very process of how the game is played by its participants. Hence, the winner will be the one with the greatest prowess in redefining the rules of the game; the one capable of being, at once, the referee and a participant of the game. Those who achieve the triumphant position of playing the roles of referee and participant of the game are eventually the ones who gain a sufficient amount of capital. This is a sort of currency of power unequally distributed among the participants of that field. This symbolic quota asymmetrically, shared by the different actors in the field, regulates and hierarchizes the relations within the field, generating the effects of prestige that distinguish those who accumulate large amounts of the capital as the dominant, and the auras of shortage that marginalize those who are deprived of capital as the dominated. The more a field is organized according to the capital produced by its internal affairs, the more autonomous it becomes. Inversely, the more a field is seized and systematized by external capital, the less autonomy it has. Yet it is pointless to speak of fields as “autonomous” or “non-autonomous” in total terms, given that they are just “more or less” autonomous. A field’s autonomy is not an absolute state, rather, it is a relative degree.
If the debate about independence concerning music is thought through the problematics of a field’s autonomy, which is not an inherent quality but a value directly proportional to the inner capital of a field, independence, too, cannot be regarded as a static attribute of music but, rather, as a scale according to which the variables of music are certified at a higher or lower degree. But what are these variables? What are these traits capable of operating as certificates of independence, the more of which an artist is able to maintain, the more “independent” they become?
We understand that when we ask “what is independent music?”, we actually question the markers that indicate independence, the features that characterize a given artist or music scene as independent. If we bring the matter closer to the Bourdieu’s field theory , the question is: what capital must a musician or a music scene accumulate to be legitimately distinguished and widely acknowledged as independent? The answers to those questions can be found in the history of the discourse of independent music.
The seeds of what came to be known as “independent music” were planted by the generation that emerged immediately after the supposed death of punk in the late 1970s. I refer to the generation of youth that felt abandoned by punk when the movement dared to do what the punk kids regarded as the ultimate treason: signing contracts with major labels. When The Sex Pistols were signed by EMI in 1976 and The Clash crossed the golden gates of CBS a year later, it seemed like a huge sellout of the British punk movement, which apparently surrendered to become an innocuous musical style just like other popular genres. The disappointment gave birth to a new movement, committed to keeping the promises of punk, carrying out the initial mission it had left unaccomplished. It is fair to say that this new vanguard movement had an ambivalent relation of continuity and rupture to punk: “continuity”, since it only exists because of punk, inheriting its legacy and committed to completing what it had left unfinished; “rupture”, because it rises against punk, powered by the fact that punk was responsible for its own death. Two main currents derived what became “independent music” from this betrayed generation. The first current is the post-punk/new wave, marked by the complex musical arrangements and oblique lyrics that denied reality through a hedonistic, oneiric and idle escapism.4 The second current is Oi!/Hardcore, marked by the speedy, dry sonority and direct lyrics that suggested rooting in reality through political enlightenment and the sacralization of working-class values.5 Despite all the differences that separate these two traditions, we must look at their common elements for seeking the characteristics that define “independent music”, or better, the features that assign a degree of independence to the artist who carries them and play the role of the internal capital.
The first characteristic of “independence” is the refusal to sign a contract with a major label. In this scenario, the resistant artist can only count on the so-called independent labels: small companies that operate at a regional scale, mainly interested in promoting a self-sufficient local scene rather than pushing their artists to build stardom in exchange for financial profit. Since they had neither money nor infrastructure to adequately promote their casts out of their original communities, the independent labels generally adopted a strategy based on regionalism and exchange. That is, each label would sponsor the talents from its own region, generating an artistic microcosm and all communities would be committed to reciprocally helping each other, allowing their musicians to circulate among various cultural enclaves. As a result, an independent network emerges; a web whose knots are the scenes of each region. Working almost like a band union or a co-operative, this network creates a circuit within the local scenes, providing the musicians with the necessary support to survive outside of the mainstream.
While in the mainstream there is a clear division between a small universe of producers representing the artists financially supported by a large population of consumers representing the public, in the underground each individual has both functions, producing the work that will be consumed by other producers whose works they will, too, consume. Similar to the “society of artists” analyzed by Bourdieu, in the independent music scene “producers have only other producers for clients (who are also their direct competitors)”.6 Some independent labels were founded by idealistic entrepreneurs (i.e. Geoff Travis’s Rough Trade, Tony Wilson’s Factory, Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman’s Sub Pop and Bob Last’s Fast Product,), while others were created by musicians who initially just intended to launch their own work, but ended up signing other artists. Some well-known Anglophone examples of the latter would be Buzzcocks’ New Hormones, Daniel Miller’s Mute, Thomas Leer’s Oblique, Robert Rental’s Regular, Swell Maps’ Rather, Black Flag’s SST, Calvin Johnson’s K Records, Ian MacKaye’s Dischord, Hüsker Dü’s Reflex and Minutemen’s New Alliance.
It is fair to say that regional labels, almost indifferent to profit, have been bravely dedicated to developing the local scenes and have existed long before those disillusioned with punk set up their “independent labels” (i.e. Sun, Hi, Saturn, Incus, Topic and Bluebeat). Even the initial British punk who was blamed for selling out was actually carried on the shoulders of the labels such as Chiswick and Stiff Records. Then the question arises: why are the artists and labels of the generation that followed punk regarded as pioneers of independent music even though the “independent label” format existed long before them as exemplified by Chiswick and Stiff? There is an important difference between the underground scene from before and after the alleged fall of punk. Before “punk”, despite having discovered and recorded new artists in an independent way, the small labels could not always publish and distribute their own material, having to resort to the major labels for those services, in exchange for the rights over the sales profits; that is to say, in exchange for the musicians’ independence. On the other hand, after “punk”, the entire production chain becomes controlled by the regional labels, rid of any of the majors’ participation. This aspect, which started off with the generation who came out of the debris of punk, is the second characteristic of the independent artist: excluding the major labels from all phases of the work, from the prospect for new talents to the moment the needle touches the record in the fan’s bedroom.
Besides these two characteristics, there is a third element that adds to the artist’s independent capital. This third characteristic is not quite a condition; it is rather a posture or attitude towards independence. Aside from belonging to an independent label and not resorting to major companies in any phase of the production, the artist who aspires to be independent should choose and embrace independence deliberately as a perennial system of work, remaining willingly faithful to this method and refusing all other possibilities for believing that no profit out of this model will surpass the advantages of the independence it provides. The independent artist, who wants to be independent, as a matter of principle, should ideally feel as part of the “independent” community. Despite being part of a regional label that never resorts to the major labels, an artist may not be considered independent if he/she is there unwillingly, temporarily stuck to it while waiting for an opportunity in the mainstream, using its structure as a trampoline from which to jump to signing a contract with a major label. In that sense, to some artists, the local scene might feel like an inevitable purgatory where they work for an undetermined time until they accomplish the dream of signing a contract with a major label and leaving the local scene behind. To sum up, while some take independence as a means to an end, others understand independence as an end in itself and therefore regard this belongingness not as an ephemeral ordeal, but as an award they wish to have forever.
Here is the summarized trajectory of independent music drawn by the generation that emerged from the ashes of punk: (1) regional labels committed to promoting the local music scene where financial profit is not the primary goal, (2) the total exclusion of the major labels from all the phases of the production, (3) the willingness to be part of the regional community and remaining faithful to it, proud of such belongingness. This triad of DIY is what permeates the history of “independent music” discourse and practice.
Quite often, artists are acknowledged as independent in spite of holding none of the above characteristics. It is perhaps because, even in the absence of distinguishing features, their music has a sonority that resembles that of the musicians who actually do have the traits of independence. In other words, some artists are perceived as independent because they sound so, even if they are not. At this point, we notice a process of resignification of the concept of independence; this is the moment where, returning to the binary terms in the beginning of this essay, ethics is replaced by aesthetics, politics becomes style and the practice founded on moral principles turns into a music genre. In short, DIY becomes Indie.
It is fair that the gatekeepers of independence regard such a process of stylization of DIY ethics as a sad flattening, since its modus operandi, tactics of guerrilla warfare, survival strategy and cultural critique seem to have become two-dimensional and merely aesthetic. However, from a less negative point of view, this change could mean a transformation rather than an end. New technologies, among other factors, have deeply altered the music industry, repositioning the major labels in the field. Despite still occupying key positions in the world of music and belonging to the powerful entertainment and communication system that embraces new sub-companies and increases their global presence, the major labels have lost the centrality they once had. Recording a song in the solitude of a bedroom and broadcasting it is nowadays technically simple and financially viable, therefore, morally less heroic. As described here, “independent music” does not only contrast with the major labels but also stems from the decision of taking the rough path. Thus, at first glance, the term “independent music” might seem like an identity crisis, or even a lack of identity, in the face of the disappearance of the antagonism that once defined the concept of independence and the trivialization of the distinctive boldness of its older practices. However, instead of disappearing, the core of “independence” is re-signified and adapted to the field’s new order. Therefore, “independence” is no longer just ethics, politics, and D.I.Y. practice, but also aesthetics, style and indie sonority.
Pedro Menezes is a PhD candidate in Sociology at Universidade do Porto (Portugal), funded by Fundação Para a Ciência e Tecnologia de Portugal (FCT). In his PhD, Pedro researches the independent rock scene of Fortaleza (Brazil), his hometown.
- For the earlier studies around these binaries regarding “independent music”: Stuart Hall & Tony Jefferson, Resistance through Rituals: Youth subcultures in post-war Britain (London and New York: Routledge, 2006). Dick Hebdige, Subculture: the meaning of style (London and New York: Routledge, 1988).
- Richard King, How Soon is Now? The madmen and mavericks who made independent music 1975 – 2005 (London: Faber & Faber, 2017).
- Pierre Bourdieu, O Senso Prático (Trans. Maria Ferreira Petrópolis: Vozes, 2009).
- Simon Reynolds, Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-punk 1978-1984 (London: Faber & Faber, 2019).
- Michael Azerrad, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991 (Boston, 2002).
- Pierre Bourdieu, The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field. (Trans: Susan Emanuel. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), 217