Music Features

Debate Series #1: The State of British Indie

With the possible exception of painfully shy teenagers forced to participate in high school English class, everyone loves a good old-fashioned debate. Our brand new Debate Series aims celebrate our passion for a good old-fashioned argument by tackling a range of divisive subjects.

The first topic up for discussion is the health of the UK indie scene. Two of our British based writers are debating this, which means the outsider’s point of view isn’t really touched upon. It would be interesting if some non-UK readers could offer their opinions via the comments section - this is a meaty subject and I’m sure some of you will have fascinating thoughts to contribute. So get involved.

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Joe Rivers argues that the UK scene is in rude health...

I’ve got a bone to pick with the BBC Sound of 2010 list; it’s an embarrassment. The idea is that music industry insiders pick their top tips for the year ahead, who’s going to make it break through and make it big. These “insiders” are either fit to give Nostradamus a run for his money or they know something we don’t - namely which artists are going to have obscene amounts of money thrown at them by their labels. For those of you too lazy to click links, the top three on said list are Ellie Goulding, Marina and the Diamonds, and Delphic. Woo-hoo! Go UK with our unknowns sticking a finger up at the man and proving that talent triumphs over all. Well, except that Ellie Goulding has already won a Brit award, Marina and the Diamonds are already having their album advertised on prime-time television and Delphic sound like an anaemic Klaxons. The 2009 list wasn’t much better - with the Brits in the top five being Little Boots, White Lies, La Roux and Florence and the Machine (henceforth to be known as Effluence and the Latrine). All massively hyped during 2009, all successful, all unimaginative and in the case of White Lies at least, pretty much forgotten already.

Now, aside from a worrying fascination with “quirky” 80s-influenced female vocalists, there’s nothing wrong with producing a list that tells you who to look out for (like you could ignore them anyway). The problem is that by holding these people up as the leading lights of the UK music scene, there’s the potential to make UK music into a laughing stock whilst besmirching the good name of indie.

Ah, indie, how I love thee. I don’t know about you, but to me indie means The Smiths, it means Morrissey flouncing around on Top of the Pops with a gladioli betwixt his thighs, it means DIY, it means the halcyon days of the NME, it means C86 and it means an attitude. It obviously meant some of these things to people with some marketing nous, as it’s now been turned into a mainstream commodity. Tell most people you like British indie, and they’re likely to assume you mean something like Coldplay (signed to Parlophone, owned by EMI) or Snow Patrol (signed to Fiction, owned by Polydor). How can these acts be indie if they’re not on independent labels? Surely that’s the very definition of indie? This anodyne commercialisation of indie-style music has its own term which was coined by Andrew Harrison of The Word magazine – “landfill indie”. Acts like The Wombats, Scouting for Girls, The Fratellis (currently on hiatus, thankfully) and The Kooks who seem to think Oasis represent some sort of musical year zero. This reached a ridiculous climax earlier this month when Kasabian – a facsimile of Primal Scream (themselves a facsimile of various 60s bands these days) were chosen to début the new England football shirt... at a gig... in Paris. No, really, it happened.

While, indie in the 21st Century doesn’t seem to mean what it used to, the spirit of indie still lives on. Though indie artists had something of a reputation to tend towards the shambolic, their fans were fiercely loyal. With the rise to prominence of the Internet and social networking, anyone can now get their music out there, thus continuing the legacy of the DIY ethos. Arctic Monkeys (Domino in the UK) built up a large amount of support from steady gigging and the use of MySpace and the blogosphere is constantly abuzz with tracks and demos from indie bands.

if you take away the meaningless label of “indie” as a particular style of music, there are some fantastic UK bands doing their own thing on independent labels. I’m not particularly patriotic, despite being as English as Hugh Grant (well, except with more of a farmer’s accent), but from The Beatles onwards, the UK has a fantastic record of producing new and exciting music, far in advance of what can be expected from a country so small.

As a quick example, why not glance at No Ripcord’s Best of 2009 list? Sure, it’s pretty US-heavy, but there’s a lot of love for Wild Beasts (Domino), The Horrors (XL), Future of the Left, Camera Obscura (both 4AD) and The xx (Young Turks). I haven’t even mentioned Rough Trade yet, with its embarrassment of riches, including Belle and Sebastian (former holders of the unofficial title of the indiest band in indiedom), Aberfeldy, Super Furry Animals and The Fall. Indie festivals were started by Belle and Sebastian in 1999, with the Bowlie Weekender event at Camber Sands, including The Delgados, The Divine Comedy, The Pastels and Teenage Fanclub. Fast-foward to 2010 and the rudeness of indie’s health is evidenced by Belle and Sebastian returning to curate Bowlie 2.

My argument could just turn into a list of artists at this rate, but that’s just because there’s so much to get excited about. Undoubtedly, the grand high priest of UK indie was the dearly-missed John Peel, who famously attempted to listen to every recording he was ever sent, and could fill his quixotic radio broadcasts with a smorgasbord of eclecticism. If he were still here today, his show would still be full to bursting with new music as it always was, bands who have been inspired to write and perform, wishing to be part of the grand heritage of UK indie – a heritage which continues to this day.

So, forget the naysayers, ignore Delphic, Effluence and the Latrine and their ilk. Indie is alive, kicking, breathing and in excellent health. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find out for yourself - you could well be some time.

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Paul Fowler believes that British indie is in a state of disrepair...

Before I delve into an article about the state of British indie, it seems wise to offer a few clarifications. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, it’s pretty essential to make it clear what I mean by indie. Indie has always been a word that suffers from considerable semantic drift, and there’s no real way to stabilise it. It doesn’t mean independent any more (seriously, when was the last time anyone cared about anyone selling out?), and nor does indie necessarily offer something drastically different to pop – another term to be wrangled over. Nonetheless, this umbrella term does offer some sort of recognisable contingent of bands and artists, even if these artists themselves seem to be far removed from each other. And it’s pretty easy to identify certain artists as not being indie, even if indie hipsters celebrate them in an ironic, genuine or so-ironic-its-become-genuine fashion. So clearly I won’t be including the likes of Tinchy Stryder, JLS or N-Dubz in my definition, and nor will I be considering the likes of Burial, Four Tet, or any dubstep, electronica, grime or anything similar to be found in the underground UK urban scene (for what it’s worth, this is an area of music that Britain enjoys a great deal of success in). The former artists are obvious examples of pop removed from any indie influence, and although the latter artists might be independent in spirit, I think it’s clear they don’t represent what indie means in terms of stylistics or their aesthetics.

Secondly, as I’m talking about the state of British indie at the moment, I’m excluding bands that have established themselves prior to the last 5 years or so. This seems a necessary step as British bands enjoyed a healthy amount of critical and commercial success in both popular and independent press – and, more significantly, amongst serious music fans – in the late 90s and early 00s. Recently, however, this hasn’t been the case. We’ve seen a plethora of indie artists being pushed to the summit of the British charts but these artists just aren’t of the same quality as those that came before them. In fact, almost without exception, the bands that have established themselves in the past 5 years in the British charts have been poor imitations of their forbearers. I think this is a pretty widely accepted point, so I won’t labour it too much.

I was sat in Up The Junction, Reading a couple of years ago discussing the enviable state of North American indie at that time. Broken Social Scene, Animal Collective, Liars, Joanna Newsom, TV On The Radio, The National; these were all bands had been discovering in the years prior and they were all bands that might be divisive but were ultimately impressive. They were introspective without being withdrawn, interesting without being obscure and catchy without being obvious. For the most part I was too young to be a serious music fan in the 1990s, so for me these bands represented an exciting departure from what I was accustomed to, and swayed me towards believing that indie was where the most exciting movements in music would take place. I pretty much stand by those assertions we made in Reading all that time back. But the conversation inevitably shifted to British indie and, much as we tried, we couldn’t muster the same enthusiasm for our homegrown indie bands. Worst still, when we went to our local indie clubs, they’d revel in bands such as Kaiser Chiefs, Kasabian, Razorlight and, slightly more forgivably, Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party. I remember thinking how much the imagination that seemed so prevalent across the pond was notably lacking in our own bands. We were boorish, predictable and more inclined to illicit yobbish howls than an interesting tune.

Unfortunately, now I look back upon those days and I actually miss them. That’s right, I said it. I’ll come clean. I miss the days when I hated Razorlight and Kaiser Chiefs. Does that make me die a little inside? Yes of course it does. But at least with those bands I could yobbishly howl along, now I’m left with an 80s throwback whose only appeal seems to be in relentlessly reminding us HOW POWERFUL AND EMOTIVE HER VOICE IS, and if not her then wordy girls whose rich parents have meant they can afford the right education, buy the right contacts and market themselves as authentic, quirky and, yep, indie. As for male-oriented bands or artists, they seem to be little more than limp imitations of more exciting music being produced elsewhere. Does this sound like a healthy state for British indie?

Ok so now I can hear objections, and it’s true I’ve gone too far just to make a point. There are genuinely talented artists just under the radar, and it’s unfair to focus only on what is being lauded in the press to account for British indie. But there’s a crucial point underlying this tactic. It’s all well and good to say we need to look beyond Noah And The Whale, The Enemy, Biffy Clyro, Pigeon Detectives or any similar acts, but the fact is that this is British indie. This is what our media is putting out there; this is what people think of when they think of our music scene. Compare that to what springs to mind when we think of American indie and the point becomes clear. Animal Collective et al may be over hyped if we’re being cynical, but they’re still relentlessly imaginative and, for the most part, relatively unique. In Britain we’re derivative, unexciting and seemingly content with that.

Here’s a case in point: recently, NME had The Maccabees as its cover with a headline that announced the band had buried landfill indie. The Maccabees. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think The Maccabees deserve to be vilified and I do appreciate that they’re at least thoughtful in their approach to music. But if The Maccabees are being heralded as British indie’s saving grace then something somewhere is surely wrong. Other bands that have received promotional pushes recently: Mumford & Sons and Biffy Clyro. Mumford & Sons are dull and Biffy Clyro used to be interesting enough, then they turned incredibly monotonous, and arguably quite evil. Guess what happened once they changed? They got hyped. Why does Britain seem intent on being mediocre?

Here we can point to a few reasonable arguments. Number one, the bands we’re producing simply aren’t good enough. This is probably partly the case, but as I’ve said, there are some decent acts that can stand up to the best of what’s on offer elsewhere. With good reason bands critics around the globe are lauding bands such as Wild Beats, Los Campesinos, The Twilight Sad and The xx. Others, such as Dananananaykroyd and Tubelord are generating a decent amount of attention in British underground circles, with a little attention from the press, too. But ultimately, these bands represent the tip of a decidedly unstable iceburg and, more crucially, they rarely receive the kind of media coverage that is bestowed upon the likes of Florence And The Machine. It’s useless blaming the media though: they wouldn’t hype it if we didn’t buy it.

It is of course possible that as a nation we’ve just got bad taste. Again, it’s hard to argue against this when you look at the chart at any given time. When it comes to music, however, popular opinion tends to be wrong; we snobs know that, and so we don’t really pay attention to the charts so much as hype and discussion forum exchanges. The state of best-of charts such as No Ripcord’s suggest a diverse group of good indie bands, and those who complain tend to be more interested in being cynical or having a contrasting opinion to the general consensus.

Finally, and perhaps most convincingly, is the notion that we British indie fans have held on to indie as a precious commodity for too long, and we need accept that it’s changed. As mentioned, indie doesn’t mean independent anymore, it means indie. Warner Bros have a great deal of influence on 4AD, Adele sits happily on the roster of XL and Duffy calls Rough Trade home. If pop is the big bad wolf, indie as a business has let him in on the first time of asking. In spirit it’s been more of a challenge, but arguments about ‘real’ indie, or lamenting the marketing of Marina And The Diamonds as being indie in aesthetics are, in many ways, counterproductive. In fact, the real stroke that our North American cousins have pulled is in accepting this and forgetting about the ‘true’ indie spirit, therefore allowing their most coveted indie acts to brush shoulders with the pop industry: Wilco are on a major, Grizzly Bear are on adverts and Broken Social Scene had a song on The Time Traveller’s Wife; the list could, of course, go on. This has a knock-on effect. If the main players are good, those who want to become bigger have to up their game. Not only that, but artists in other genres begin to up their game, even pop artists.

Moreover, doing this not only takes the power away from the marketing people that push Florence as some kind of countercultural icon, but also frees up the bands that should be at the forefront of our scene to compete with the mainstream indie bands directly. Look at it this way: if we accept that Wild Beasts and Florence And the Machine are both considered indie it becomes a no contest as to who is better. But if we herald Wild Beasts as purveyors of the ‘true’ indie spirit – emblems of British indie’s current potency – and negate Florence as mainstream and unworthy of attention, then Wild Beasts become the hoarded property of a small self-perceived elite and Florence is free to parade as what British indie means in today’s market. So if you’re wondering why good bands aren’t the ones seeing the publicity, why good bands aren’t on the Guardian’s ‘newcomers’ lists, or even why The National and Joanna Newsom are on talk shows in America when over here Jonathan Ross pushes Paolo Nutini, the answer I think lies partly in our own perceptions of indie and our fetishization of it. We know the system is bad and we can blame money, and blah blah blah, but The Smiths weren’t exactly unknown, Blur enjoyed a little corporate pushing in their day and Radiohead are hardly producing music unbeknownst to the music world at large.

Decent bands can and will be pushed by the media providing we identify in the first place that something is wrong, and that British indie is in bad health. It’s useless to cling onto those bands that are slightly under the radar and accept this as a sign of a strong music scene. The bands receiving the most attention are poor, and even those slightly below the surface fall short of what’s on offer in Europe and America. Compare our leading lights with a comparative band from America or Europe and it’s almost guaranteed we’ll fall short every time. For a nation with such a rich history of music, this is a sad state indeed. For everyone’s sake, let’s accept that indie in Britain is in a bad state, and let’s set about fixing it.

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The debate is now open to the floor. What are your thoughts on the UK indie scene? Is there a rich vein of talent beneath the surface, or are we all doomed to another decade of boorish 'anthems' and mass-marketed indie-lite? Enter your thoughts below...