Indie culture roundtable
Is "indie" dead? Alive? Meaningless? We gather five of Chicago's most independent minds to discuss.
Shawn Campbell, 37, president and founder of CHIRP, the Chicago Independent Radio Project. Before CHIRP, she ran WLUW 88.7-FM, a community-oriented radio station, and had a stint as a producer at Chicago Public Radio.
J.C. Gabel, 33, editor and publisher of the soon-to-be-shuttered Stop Smiling, a literary pop-culture magazine that’s moved into publishing books under the same name
Anne Elizabeth Moore, 39, lifelong self-publisher, artist and former co-editor of the now-defunct Punk Planet, a zine about that genre’s subculture. She also wrote Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity (New Press, $15.95).
Scott Plagenhoef, 36, editor-in-chief of Pitchfork.com, and responsible for the site’s day-to-day operations
Bryan Wendorf, 46, cofounder, programmer and artistic director of the Chicago Underground Film Festival —when he’s not working his day job at a warehouse
Like any good dinner party, TOC’s has three elements: an intriguing space, exemplary food and—this is the most important part—endlessly interesting guests (who can hold their liquor).
But this isn’t merely a social event; it’s inspired by an ongoing cultural conversation about the word indie. Somewhere along the line, the word—not to mention what it stands for—got twisted. Now, it’s unclear if it’s still an apt description for the underground, or something corporate and corrupted—or whether that distinction even matters.
This being the week of the Pitchfork Music Festival —whose parent company, Pitchfork.com, has indie culture in its brick and mortar—seemed like an apt time to put the conversation on the record with a few people who are intimately engaged in independent media.
To keep them on track, TOC Music editor Brent DiCrescenzo joined the conversation as moderator. Chef Chris Pandel and his restaurant, the Bristol (2152 N Damen Ave, 773-862-5555), hosted and fed the guests. If this party leaves you hungry for more, we’ve made it easy for you to emulate it: Get the recipes for each dish (and every cocktail) at timeoutchicago.com/features. As for copying the conversation, the following excerpt from the night should give you plenty to talk about.
The first question is the obvious one: What does the word indie mean?
Anne Elizabeth Moore The term independent had a very specific political reason for existing. And the term indie is a marketing term that was applied to the aesthetic that came out of that.
J.C. Gabel It’s also an extreme disservice to people in Indiana.
Shawn Campbell I get that question all the time. “Wait, aren’t you in Chicago? Why is it Indiana?”
Scott Plagenhoef The assumption that most of our readers have is that it’s more of a social classification than a political one. There probably hasn’t been a strong political meaning to the word indie in music since—
AEM —the term was invented as a marketing term.
SC I think of that classic Supreme Court case on pornography. “I don’t know how to define it, but I know it when I see it.”
SP Right. There’s a certain aesthetic style, probably more in England than in America, that’s associated with certain types of music. And that goes way back to the Smiths, Orange Juice and C86. Clearly, indie is more of a marketing style now. But Pitchfork is “independent” because we’re 100 percent independently owned and operated.
JCG We banned the use of the word indie from Stop Smiling.
AEM We also banned indie from Punk Planet.
Bryan Wendorf I use Underground [instead of] the Chicago Independent Film Festival for largely the same reason. Independent has very specific political connotations that indie has watered down. Most people going to Pitchfork.com or its festival aren’t looking for political engagement. They’re going for music. It’s become a genre. But within that genre, there is an implication of an attitude towards corporate culture.
AEM Indie’s become such an amorphous thing. Yet you can identify people on the street as living in an “indie rock world.”
SP It’s a style. In the ’80s, it seemed like you were into indie music because you weren’t trying to fit in. Increasingly, it’s a uniform.
AEM When I talk about independent as being a political stance, I mean being an economically independent, noncorporate venture.
In that regard, with sponsorships and advertisements, I’d say that almost none of us are truly independent.
AEM I could argue with that. [Laughs]
BW I know Pitchfork has corporate advertising. I have had corporate sponsorship. So none of us are clean.
SC CHIRP will be noncommercial, but there will be local business support.
JCG I always viewed it as a Robin Hood situation—take money from the corporations to fund your art.
BW When the term indie was being co-opted—
BW Invented…we were already skeptically sniffing it out. Whereas when I was younger, I would openly say I was punk rock. Deep down in my soul, I feel like I’m still punk rock.
Funny how punk began as a fashion. Or just old people shaking their fists at “those darn punks.” But then it became political. Whereas indie started out at the opposite end, politically meaning independent before becoming a clothing style.
SC I’m so relieved that those arguments are over. I had friends who would argue for hours. “I’m punk rock and you’re indie.”
BW Are 18-year-olds still having those arguments?
JCG I don’t think they are. I think they’re at Urban Outfitters.
BW When you’re 18, you need to have that argument.
SC If Michael Jackson had died in 1991, I would never have been able to say that I enjoyed Michael Jackson with the group of people that I hung out with and the person I was supposed to be. It’s nice being able to go to a dance party where someone plays a Kelly Clarkson track and all the hipsters go, “Yeah! ‘Since U Been Gone’!” Acknowledging that’s just a great pop song, and it doesn’t really matter where it comes from.
Inherently, there’s nothing about the word independent that connotes quality and nothing in the word corporate that equates to evil. Most people are judging art on purely subjective grounds. What does this argument bring to culture? Why is it important?
AEM To have individuals create and own their art instead of having it distributed in a way that benefits a corporation that you have no ownership of or voice in? Of course that’s important.
BW It’s very, very, very hard to find anybody who’s living in a squat, completely disengaged from corporate culture. So then the question is, How am I going to engage with it? What am I going to do? And I think that’s a struggle that everybody has to decide for themselves.
AEM Calling corporations evil is a problem. The problem is not that they’re inherently evil. The problem is that they only want one thing. And all decisions get made around that one thing: profit.
In that case, is there anything that’s truly 100 percent independent anymore?
BW I struggle with that. You want your music or your films or your writing to be read and heard by people. But how much corporate sponsorship is too much? What am I willing to do to get the money that I need to put this event on?
SC I’ve gotten to a point where, personally, I don’t necessarily care about that too much. I care about people who are producing something that I enjoy and who respect the work that they’re doing. And if it required them to sell a song to a commercial to allow them to have an independent career, personally, I don’t mind that. You have to make a living somehow. But there was a time when I was in college in the early ’90s where there was a lot more discussion about that, like, “so-and-so is a sellout.” That whole conversation seems to have gone away.
SP It’s gone away over the past decade. At this point when people aren’t buying music anymore, it’s pretty difficult to have that debate.
AEM No, it’s gone away because the corporate system has infiltrated further and further into what we mean by indie. And disguised itself in a very particular way to cut that political engagement.
JCG There is some truth to that. When money appeared and nothing was asked for it in return, Stop Smiling took it and did things with it. That worked for a long time. When the economy became a struggle, they did start to ask for things. It was clear that they had objectives for how they wanted to spend their money.
AEM For Punk Planet, when we shut down, it wasn’t an issue of, this isn’t viable, it became an issue of, like, nobody gives a shit anymore.
SC If you change what you do, if you try to make yourself more palatable or more corporate-friendly and you change your artistic vision to make it more friendly, that’s one thing. That’s not cool. But if companies come to you and enable you to make your art and you don’t change a thing that you’re doing, I can’t criticize you for that.
JCG Is this the “three out of four Wilco members drive Volkswagens” argument?
AEM That’s not the way that system works. There was a moment in time where that worked fine, when people were just handing out money in return for a product. Now it’s becoming more about, we scratched your back, what are you going to do for us?
How aspiring can a project be if it’s hoping to stay independent? You can start off small and indie and have a corporate mentality. You can run your business like a corporation and dream of being big. A small-business owner can be an awful person. On the flip side, it’s possible for there to be a corporation that has feeling and takes care of employees.
AEM No, it’s not possible. Not when you are profit-driven.
BW I feel like I’m agreeing with Anne more and more. I don’t know if I would have agreed with her statement ten years ago. But I’m becoming more politically engaged with what underground means to me than I was when I started CUFF.
SP In the ’80s there was a well-defined duality, at least between music that was put out and created in an independent network and music that was mainstream. Now, especially for guitar rock bands, there’s nothing to rebel against in the mainstream. Grizzly Bear can be on Warp Records and have a top-ten record.
JCG We really are having a conversation about the 20th century versus the 21st century.
SP There’s not even a nationwide delivery system anymore to fire people’s imaginations. If the audience isn’t all looking at a specific place, MTV, or isn’t all tuned in to the same radio and everyone isn’t having the same sort of experiences, you can’t have that kind of shared reaction to something like Michael Jackson. There will never be a monoculture.
AEM I think there is a monoculture. We have a much more diverse monoculture. But it’s still a monoculture. It involves a lot more interesting elements than when we were growing up, but it’s still dictated by certain forces.
SC Is it Jon and Kate? What is it? What does everybody know at this point?
AEM If they’re not all looking at MTV then they’re all just looking at Pitchfork or listening to Clear Channel and they’re picking up their music from their best friend’s YouTube stream. It’s still very prescribed.
JCG I think we should all bow our heads and be thankful that we can even sit here lamenting this. The generation after us isn’t even going to be aware of this stuff. The nuance will be lost. And this entire discussion probably wouldn’t happen.
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