Defining Indie Music: a Game of Whack-a-mole – The Sanremo Controversy

What is indie music? Is it possible to define it? Does it mean it is “independent”? If so, from what? What exactly do we mean when we say that we are into indie?


While trying to write an article about the history of indie music, I looked for its appropriate definition, and I realised something: defining indie music is impossible. It may seem strange to you: indeed, if you google “indie”, thousands and thousands of articles, research papers, surveys, and websites will appear. This is why it is such a difficult term to describe: it involves a variety of different concepts, definitions, and ideas which are, often, at odds with each other. 


Music is something we can all relate to. We listen to different kinds of music and our musical tastes are unique. Often, we take music personally: when we are really fond of an artist, we do not accept criticism. It feels like a personal attack. The same goes for our idea of what music is. This is why so many people talk about what indie is, and why they hold such strong opinions.


Moreover, the term changes definition based on its context. When it comes to record labels, their job is to invest in their artists’ career by providing producers, sound engineers, and many other professionals. They also look after the marketing and the exposure of the artists and help them to spread their works. 


Independent labels, such as Domino Records, XL Records, or Jagjaguwar, are not linked to major record labels. This means that they are not supported by any of the main groups, such as Warner, Sony or Universal. Generally, these labels are, instead, smaller and they have fewer financial resources to promote their artists. This has led to a peculiar kind of entrepreneurship in which the label fights to make its artists heard in order to stay alive. The term “indie” does not just refer to a type of label; it also refers to the music the label produces.


Traditionally, many of these labels worked with artists that were not considered mainstream. Nowadays, although some of them still work this way, the situation has blurred over the years. The link between record labels and the music they sell has developed through the years. Whether an artist can be considered independent or not has become a contentious issue. Having said this, we may use the term “indie” to refer to independent labels and the music they choose to produce. 


However, people seem to define artists as “indie” even when they have signed with major labels. In this case, they are referring to the genre of music. To complicate matters further, this term has changed meaning over time and is in constant evolution. 


Nevertheless, we should be careful in defining indie uniquely based on genre. Categorising music is not always easy since music nuances may be subtle. Indeed, if we search for the meaning of indie on the internet, the word seems to be connected with a number of music genres: usually, it is linked with rock, alternative rock, post-punk, emo, to name just a few. According to this definition, My Chemical Romance, Arctic Monkeys, The Strokes, Lana Del Rey and Joy Division should all be indie. These artists are just an example of the all-encompassing nature of such a definition: they have very different styles, play different instruments, and take inspiration from unrelated traditions. 


We can notice how vast indie, intended as a music genre, can be, and how this can change based on each person’s perspective and experience. Indeed, some may include certain styles and exclude others. This is why we can deduce that indie is not a genre. 


If indie is not solely linked to labels nor to genre, could it be linked with the artist’s popularity? Indeed, one may think of independent artists as artists who do not become famous, musicians with a limited audience. They may or may not be supported by a record label. They play at smaller events with a lower budget compared to mainstream artists. Some people believe they truly represent the idea of indie. However, this explanation is not totally correct: many artists still define themselves as indie even after they have become hugely successful. 


Lastly, in my quest, to reach a definition of “indie”, I have tried to consider indie artists as those who release music using fewer resources linked to the traditional organisation of the music industry. These artists avoid relying on managers, producers, agents, publicists, and record labels in general. Indeed, especially nowadays, thanks to the use of technology, it is possible to produce and release albums without such support. Indeed, artists have a wide range of programs that help them to create music, and many of these are free. Some examples are GarageBand, Waveform, and Logic.


After spending all this time searching for a definition, something else crossed my mind: the Sanremo Festival, which is a singing competition held annually in Sanremo, will be taking place soon. Traditionally, its participants come from among the most successful Italian pop artists. What struck me the most, when reading the list of musicians taking part, was that many of them are unlikely to be known to the show’s typical audience. Indeed, while some singers are very popular (one example is 77-year-old Orietta Berti), many others, are newcomers to the mainstream music scene, like Madame, Coma_Cose, La Rappresentante di Lista, Fulminacci, Colapesce, Dimartino and Aiello. Some of these are not new to the music industry, and may have been around for years, but they have never attended the Sanremo Festival. 

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Many of these musicians are usually referred to as indie artists. For example, the band Lo Stato Sociale is defined as indie-rock, indie-pop, and electro-pop because of the genres they play. Moreover, they are signed with Garrincha Dischi, an independent label. However, can we still define them as independent after the huge success they have had in the past years? They are no longer independent from the big music industry and are now one of the main Italian bands with a huge following. Indeed, their song “Una Vita in Vacanza”, with which they reached second place at Sanremo 2018, quickly reached 15,600,000 streams on Spotify. 


Conversely, Ermal Meta, a famous Italian pop singer, is supported by Mescal, an independent label. However, nobody would ever refer to him as an indie musician. His genre is clearly pop, and his label alone cannot justify him as indie. 


Another example is Madame, a young Italian rapper and songwriter taking part in Sanremo for the first time this year. In 2019, La Repubblica, the famous Italian newspaper, described her style as rap, trap and urban. However, her record label is Sugar, one of the biggest independent labels in Italy. Does this make her an indie artist?


Arisa, the famous Italian singer, is one those names I was not surprised to find among the participants. She has sung at Sanremo before, and she is one of the most famous Italian pop singers. However, she has created her own (independent) record label, Pip Show. Indeed, after being supported by Warner and Sugar, she expressed her will to choose her own artistic developments more autonomously. 


Willie Peyote, a rapper who is one of the protagonists of the Italian indie scene, once claimed to Inside Music that he is independent. What makes him indie is not the genre he plays since, as he states, “indie is an approach to music, and not a genre”. He also affirms that indie does not mean anything: it refers to a large variety of phenomena that cannot be merged together into one category. He is living proof of this: he produces his own music but his label is Polydor Records, part of Universal Music Group. 


La Rappresentante di Lista, the Italian group, defines their own genre as “queer”, in the sense that it is without limits and unclassifiable. To them, “queer” means to be free and fluid in one’s own identity. I understand the logic of this choice. Labels and categories are created to make us feel more comfortable and certain about definitions. However, after spending some time searching for a definition of indie that could make sense, I understood something which is maybe more important: it is okay not to constantly define everything we encounter. Music involves many artists, many ideas, many styles and sounds. Some of them are very different while others are almost identical. But who should decide whether these are close enough to be included in the same category? Why should we force ourselves to find an appropriate definition for such a wide and diverse phenomenon like indie, when we could just as well stop and enjoy the music? 


Maybe the solution lies in what Rappresentante di Lista reminds us is important: let people be. This is the reason why fans should not get angry if their favourite artists, that are considered as indie, participate in mainstream events like Sanremo. It does not mean that they have sold their soul to reach fame. Musicians evolve and have new experiences, like everybody else. Indie does not always mean niche music. Indeed, as Willie Peyote reminds us the word indie has no meaning; it is the music that counts.


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