Indie in the digital age

In the final installment of his three-part celebration of indie’s 40th year, Lewis Oxley looks at indie’s foray into the digital age.

If the 90s proved anything, it was that the independent record labels driving the movement on would hitting a new brick wall – step in the major buyout period. This would be postponed a few years however, due to the success of bands like Blur, Pulp and, Oasis. This new phenomenon was ‘Britpop’ where, nationwide, another musical revolution was happening not seen since the 60s. The usual press hounds of the NME and Melody Maker jumped on this new wave like flies and, all of a sudden, British music became hip again and replied to the gloomy shoegazers of grunge with a big up yours. It was all very well to say that the fever of ‘Britpop’ was spun just to sell the best British export, but, behind the scenes, the people who were making this possible were sure to make it a big success.

McGee and Creation, despite selling out to Sony, were in the midst of a revolution, releasing not just two great albums (Definitely Maybe and What’s the Story) but becoming the epitome of what the independent movement could do. The success of Creation and Oasis led to some unlikely fans. In the run-up to the 1997 General Election, Labour leader Tony Blair turned to the Scotsman in order to rejuvenate the party’s appeal to the youth. This, Blair thought, would get him and the party on board with the ‘Cool Britannia’ vibe. This contrived project did work, and Labour won an historic landslide victory. Oasis didn’t see the 90s out with Creation. In late 1999, the label went defunct with McGee becoming rather disillusioned with it and Oasis’ spending habits beginning to bite back. Oasis themselves went on to find their own record label, Big Brother, just in time for their 2000 release: Standing on the Shoulder of Giants.

As the millennium came around, indie acts kept coming and going, and the genre was now catering for more mainstream tastes. The launch of Richard Branson’s new label v2 is a prime example and the signing of Welsh newcomers Stereophonics saw the band become an archetype of this new radio-friendly style, a stark contrast to that of the foundational bands of the 70s and 80s. Its sound was now reaching across the pond; American artists, with the tag of grunge not yet erased, built from the sounds of their British contemporaries. Bands like Pavement, The Flaming Lips and The Strokes were proof of America’s strong claim to the genre.

The Strokes’ success was the result of a rejuvenated Rough Trade, leading Geoff Travis to revive the label with help from a collective of artists known as the Zomba Group. They enjoyed further success in London too, this time with a band who found fame digitally, with fans filming gigs: The Libertines. The success of The Libertines was sometimes overshadowed by the notoriety the band caused, mainly from the interplay between members Carl Barat and Pete Doherty and various substances. This notoriety did not bode well, and the band called it a day in 2004, but have undergone multiple reunions since.

Rough Trade’s revival saw it still had life left, but by no means was it a phoenix rising from the ashes. Its miraculous journey saw it personify the cliché that nothing in music was an easy ride. While the scene at Rough Trade dwindled in the background, down in London there was a new name on the scene, a label, whose success is still in the making.

Founded by Lawrence Bell and his partner Jacqui Rice, Domino was the latest label to cause an earthquake on Britain’s music scene. Their success was instantaneous. Firstly, signing Glasgow outfit Franz Ferdinand, whose debut album won the 2004 Mercury Prize and whose second, You Could Have It So Much, topped the charts. However, their next act would go beyond that, for this they went with a small band from Sheffield, who had a growing following on social media outlets. They were one of the first bands to use YouTube as a source to share their music with listeners. They were the Arctic Monkeys and they told us to ‘not believe the hype’. The irony of this is incredible, their success was more than anyone could have imagined, and they earned their place as Indie’s big thing. Six albums later, it’s safe to say, that title hasn’t been removed.

The legacy that the founding fathers of Indie have left is incredibly rich and curiously unpredictable as to the future of the D.I.Y movement. In contemporary music, the D.I.Y element is everywhere, whether Soundcloud or Bandcamp, the method is well and truly living. The bedroom has become for many the recording studio and in homage to its pioneers, it is something they would be truly glad to see.

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Lewis Oxley

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December 2021
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