The Rise of the Indie Music Artist

Last week I read an article on the popular music tech blog Hypebot that stated that indie artists account for 50% of the Grammy nominations this year. According to the indie trade group A2IM, independent artists are nominated in 88 of the total 108 Grammy categories.

Before we make any conclusions as to what this means for the state of the music industry, we must define what we mean by “indie” artists. Director/producer Dave Cool, of the documentary What is Indie? A Look into the World of Independent Musicians, defines an indie artist as an unsigned artist. Cool says that everyone has their own interpretation of what an indie artist is, but at that end of the day an unsigned artist is an indie (independent) artist no matter what their stature in the music business. He goes on to say that he does not discriminate against Paul McCartney or Robert Plant, who in their own way, are also indie artists if they wish to claims themselves as so.

Regardless of the fame attributed to the indie artists nominated for Grammys, the nominations still give you a clear picture of the trajectory of the music industry. Even if by Cool’s definition of an indie artist we also include famous artists who happen to be independent, we can recognize the fact they were nominated for the Grammys despite lacking a major label backing.

Perhaps in the future the record labels will be so fragmented or completely different in the way they operate now that we will not make such distinctions between signed and unsigned artists. Distribution deals and promotion will be less and less about whether you are signed to a major label and more about how well you can reach your audience no matter what the medium you engage in with your fans. As mobile adoption increases and online technology becomes more seamless, expect the lines between indie artist and "famous" artist to blur further.

Although the Grammys are not respected in the underground scene to the same extent as with the mainstream pop artists that receive most of the major awards, they are progressing in a way that is friendlier to the independent or more underground artists. Back when they first started giving away awards for best hard rock/metal performance, people were shocked when Jethro Tull (a much softer sounding band) beat out Metallica for the award in 1988. In part because of that controversy, the Grammys now offer awards for hard rock and metal separately. You can see bands like Lamb of God, Shadows Fall, Slayer, and others gain notoriety for their heavier-than-normal music in the metal category. Although not all these bands are independent, many of them share the same mentality as independent artists and worked their way up the industry ladder.

Going along with Dave Cool’s definition of the indie artist as the unsigned artist, it might be a bit overzealous to lump more underground artists (whether signed or unsigned) into the same category as indie artists as a whole. However, I think it is equally important to notice that both unsigned and underground artists are receiving more Grammy support than in the past, which is a partial recognition of the evolving music industry where smaller-time artists can work their way into mainstream consciousness. If the Grammys are noticing the changes in at least a partially significant way, at least we know the rest of us are beginning to experience the era of the indie artist more fully.

What does "indie" mean to you? A genre, style, or only a distinction of independent status?