What does 2007 have in store for independent music? For starters, there’s the usual slew of anticipated albums from the likes of the Shins, Arcade Fire, Cat Power, Apples in Stereo, LCD Soundsystem, Air, and a host of other indie stalwarts. Even Scarlett Johansson, best known for her ability to look foxy in the midst of an existential crisis (at least compared to Bill Murray), plans to release an album of Tom Waits covers this spring. But that’s not the most exciting news.
At a recent music industry conference in Cannes, a group of indie labels—including some of the big guns, like Epitaph, Beggars Group, Rough Trade and Ministry of Sound—signed a deal with Merlin, a Netherlands-based company that aims to make independent distribution competitive with the four major labels. While this may sound like one of the hated mergers that brought us evil behemoths like Time-Warner, it’s actually a far more benign alliance. Under the terms of the agreement, Merlin will act as an intermediary between labels and digital music services like iTunes and Napster. They’ve already struck a deal with SNOCAP, meaning that albums by the Fiery Furnaces and the Hidden Cameras will be up for sale on Myspace sometime this year. That’s right: the world’s ugliest website is entering the world of online music sales.
While I’m all for good bands getting a fair shot at reaching larger audiences, I can’t help but feel a little uncertain. When Modest Mouse songs are the soundtrack to car commercials, what exactly does ‘indie’ mean? The word has lost its connection to a DIY aesthetic, and it can’t really be said to pertain to ‘underground’ music anymore. If anything, ‘indie’ is halfway to a pejorative, eliciting thoughts of hackneyed guitar tones and calculated ennui. Like ‘alternative’ before it, ‘indie’ has become an empty signifier. I say good riddance.
When indie labels form a conglomerate that enables them to compete with the Big Four, they cease to really be independent. With democratized music distribution, the old dichotomy of indie versus mainstream no longer applies. What we need now is a new binary—something like ethical/malevolent. If the Merlin labels treat their artists fairly, keep their music DRM-free, champion reasonable CD prices and avoid prosecuting downloaders, they will earn the distinction of being ethical, or ‘ethie’, if you will. If Merlin succumbs to the temptations of power, and begins arresting music fans in retribution for flagging sales like our good friends in the RIAA, they will be labelled malevolent. Or, if you prefer, mal. Of course genres like indie rock will still exist, but the possibilities for hybridization will increase: mal-indie, ethie metal, and so on.
As for Discorder, 2007 looks to be full of both promise and uncertainty. Penelope’s longstanding column “Strut, Fret and Flicker” is on sabbatical, and “Riff Raff” had to take the month off. Jordie, our CD review coordinator, just accepted an internship in Ethiopia, and we’ve been left with a mountain of albums in need of a leader. And our core staff, the triple threat of editor, art director and production manager, plans to surrender the reigns of power in the coming months. In the meantime, though, the magazine has never looked better. The extra space in this month’s issue has paved the way for a more luxurious layout, and we hope that you’ll savour each page. Aside from missing a deadline here and there, our contributors continue to work the music journalism beat with aplomb. And Gavin Walker still types up the Jazz Show listings on his typewriter each month, faithfully pinning them to our door a week before they’re due.