The history of music is like all other histories, it is written by the winners. In this case, surprisingly for a commercial entity but understandably given the involvement of the media, that history is not necessarily always factually correct.
This thought struck me on my second watch of ‘The Story Of Indie’ on BBC 4 over the weekend. As with many previous attempts to place a movement in context, it followed a now pre-agreed line that starts with The Sex Pistols and runs through their Manchester Free Trade Hall show and its audience through the holy triumvirate of Factory, Rough Trade and Creation in the 80’s to the 90’s evil takeover by the majors and on to the new pastures of a post indie world where the biggest bands are or aren’t on independent labels and no one really gives a monkeys any more.
Along the way the usual honourable mentions are given to 4AD, Beggars Banquet and others but the lead actors remain Wilson, Travis and McGee.
Granted to try and summarise 40 years of music history in three hours will require a certain amount of hard-nosed editing and the programme itself is not my major complaint here. Rather that the co-option of fact to suit narrative shown here is one that repeatedly plays out across the ‘intelligent music’ media and, further, plays out to the detriment of the progression of music and its attendant (non-major) industry.
Such a view of the independent music sector at a stroke reduced dance music to a ten minute interlude via the KLF with no mention of a host of acts and labels that sprung up around that scene, most notably XL Recordings. There was no talk of Mo’Wax, trip hop, drum and bass and so on. The suspicion is that the narrative, ‘indie goes pop’, subsumed the facts; the dance music boom from 1989 not only created a host of independent labels, some of which are now elder statespeople of the scene, but further engaged a host of hitherto unrepresented communities in the music industry. Whatever the reasoning, it was all very, very white and outstandingly middle class outside of everyone’s favourite Northern herberts as per the usual Roses, Mondays and Oasis drafted in to add grit.
This under representation of those voices within the industry is mirrored, if not overwhelmed by a parallel in the media. Therefore, the collusion between the guardians of the music industry’s independent flame and their like minds in the media is not that unexpected.
Having been around music for over two decades I am past being surprised that such things happen. Returning to the programme the narrative for 90’s indie into Britpop focused on the majors watering down of UK indie’s initial recapture of the scene from US Bands. No thought was given, or comment made, to the long standing licensing relationships enjoyed by many leading independent labels with major cousins outside of the UK prior to the 90s but plenty of comment was given to similar set ups for Nude and Food. The cultural death that was Britpop long since established in critical minds, a quick cut away to Sleeper, Shed Seven and Menswear, a trinity of easy targets for the thinking people’s press, sealed the deal. ‘Eurghh. Popular music liked by ordinary people’ would have been the tagline.
Music criticism is not the same as music history. A brief glance at sales figures for Sleeper’s ‘Smart’ and ‘The It Girl’ or Shed Seven’s ‘Change Giver’ or ‘A Maximum High’ would make it clear that, in purely factual terms, this ‘watered down’ indie was a contributor to the continued financial success of the UK music industry in that period. More to the point, the success of those bands (and others now dumped in the ‘indie-landfill’ hole so conveniently created by Andrew Harrison of Word magazine but rapidly adopted wholesale across the music media) was a straightforward sign of their popularity with real people.
Indie, or the people that create what we call ‘indie’, has always carried around with it the lingering suspicion that it would rather not be accessible to all of the people. As Bernard Butler rightly pointed out in interview, he had always believed that ‘his’ bands weren’t interested in success’. Anyone who has worked with bands on indie labels will know that all musicians at the very least want to make a living out of their work. It is a rough irony that those bands that can most afford not to make a living by their (privileged) attitude chime with their media counterparts thus garnering the coverage that creates that very success whilst those on the reverse find themselves forever at the mercy of the dread cry of ‘sellout’, that hackneyed punk slogan coined by those most able to afford not to care.
In one sense the programme was right. Britpop made a brief space for bands to say outright that they wanted to be successful. That allowed a host of voices that had previously been excluded from the party to gain some attention, the critical walls being smashed for a time by a combination of new media voices and a Radio One that took its moment and made things happen. In the main that flowering of success now seen as the ultimate departure from the high ‘indie’ ideals into the grubby commercialism of sales remains the last great British musical movement. It is a tragedy that we remain bolted to a critical view that such a movement was an irrevocably bad thing when, in truth, it was the very lifeblood of UK music.