And Finally Artist News Beef Of The Week

CMU Beef Of The Week #279: Alex James v Independent Music

By | Published on Friday 23 October 2015

Alex James

Alex James. You know, Alex James off of The Blur. He hasn’t appeared in the Beef Of The Week column for bloody ages. And given that his last appearance way back in 2012 was such a triumph, I thought it was about time for a reprise so that I can spoil that record of fine beefdom.

This week, while giving an interview in his capacity as Ambassador for Lidl’s new craft beer range, Alex James told the Daily Express that the spirit of independence has entirely disappeared from music and now exists only in the manufacture of artisan foods. And he would know, because he once put tomato ketchup in some cheese.

“That culture of independent music that I grew up with has disappeared really”, he said. “All those bands that I used to see when I went to school, such as Gaye Bykers On Acid, it’s really hard to exist like that now. The small ones are definitely disappearing, but if you can make pickled onion in your garage, rather than be a garage band, you’re in business, and there’s a market for interesting artisan foods. The spirit of independence has been transferred to food”.

So, sorry to any independent artists reading this, but I’m saddened to inform you that you don’t exist. Not in the way Gaye Bykers On Acid did. A band who signed to Virgin Records two years after forming, had a load of money thrown at them, and then set up their own label when they were dropped another two years after that. Honestly, I’m sure half of you haven’t even attempted to get a massive advance from a record label that you can then piss up a wall.

Actually Mr James, if anything, I think the spirit of independence is more alive in music today than it ever was. There are hundreds, no thousands of bands releasing and playing music entirely off their own backs, capitalising on opportunities they would never have had before but which now exist because of the internet.

Sure, for some acts the ultimate aim is to get a big record company on board to help them achieve world stardom. But for many being independent is a badge of pride. Artists like Chris T-T and Laura Kidd (aka She Makes War) work entirely within their own means and regularly advocate for other artists who wish to do the same.

Another independent artist I’ve followed for many years, MJ Hibbett, wrote a timely blog on this subject just this week. His gripe was that BBC Four’s ‘The History Of Indie’ went from chronicling the history of independent music to detailing the rise of major label-funded Britpop.

“I’d enjoyed the first two episodes as they were about LOONIES and MAVERICKS creating their own bands and labels and distribution, whereas this one seemed to decide that in the 90s that all stopped and everything was handed over to the major labels”, he wrote. “The bands featured were ALL the corporate big names of Britpop, with hardly anything mentioned about the massive boom in actual independent acts around the time who had discovered this thing called ‘the internet’ as a way to reach new people”.

He continued: “Strangest of all was the fact that Stuart Murdoch from Belle & Sebastian had been a regular talking head on ALL of the episodes, but his band was not mentioned AT ALL! AT ALL! Belle & Sebastian were THE band of indie in the 90s, they were one of the first bands to have their fanbase create itself online, through fan pages and tape swapping on email lists”.

Ironically, I think you could possibly argue that James’s band basically killed off old ‘indie’, but in doing so allowed a rebirth and a massive growth in its wake. Blur made ‘indie’ just a name for bands with guitars who sounded like Blur, and as a result freed independent music from the shackles of the term. People now make music in all genres entirely independent of the traditional music industry. There are whole scenes you don’t know about, made up just of people entertaining other people for the fun of being entertaining.

Classical music! There are people self-releasing classical music now. Saving up money from their day jobs to hire the music industry’s most expensive category of session musician. While opposingly, cheaper and more powerful software has allowed people to make ever more sophisticated electronic music in their bedrooms. The new House Of Black Lanterns album, featured in the Approved column last week, is a comment on exactly this.

If it’s independent spirit you want, Hibbett saves up all of his holiday every year so that he can go to the Edinburgh Festival to perform a new two man rock opera he’s written with his mate Steve. For no reason other than it might be fun.

Equally, another independent artist whose work and spirit I admire endlessly is Matt Farley. As you may know, under various names he has written and released tens of thousands of songs in an effort to take advantage of economies of scale where big budgets for promotion are unavailable. But also, every few years he makes a new low budget movie, because making low budget movies is fun, and someone might want to watch it when he’s finished.

You might think that Farley’s self-imposed task of attempting to pre-empt every possible random search on Spotify or iTunes is ridiculous (and I realise you almost certainly do). But I’d still urge you to listen to his podcast, where he often has insightful things to say about the plight of the truly independent artist and the disingenuousness of those with major financial backing. Cue regular rants about Tom Petty.

This week’s episode is particularly worth a listen, as he ponders the problem that being a totally independent artist also forces you to become a salesperson. He ponders whether it would be smart, or even bearable, to cold call people to ask them to stream his newly completed film, ‘Slingshot Cops’, when it comes out. Then, noting the increase in the number of podcasts asking for donations and running adverts to keep them going, he examines how wanting to create music (or podcasts) for yourself and the people who might be interested almost inevitably forces you into selling out, if you want to carry on long term.

But that uncomfortable feeling of having to sell your own art doesn’t stop you from being an independent artist. Nor from having a spirit of independence. Just because there are more people independently making food now, doesn’t mean all that has gone from music. There are people independently creating all kinds of things, from videogames to beer. It’s everywhere, and it’s brilliant.

What is more likely is that these days Alex James engages more with the food industry than he does the music community. And that while he’s giving interviews about beers for a major supermarket chain, he’s no closer to independent music than he was at the height of Blur’s fame.