Starting in the mid-1980’s, the do-it-yourself independent music scene had been greatly discouraged and demoralized by defection from its artists to major labels. The fact that careerist ambitions had trumped loyalty to independence from the major labels was a discouraging moment for many who had praised those who willingly chose poverty as a principled decision against the corruption of the music business. For many music writers, this trend, beginning with the defection of bands like Husker Du, meant either the destruction of independent music within the United States or the first parts of a wave of the conquest of popular music by grunge (as symbolized by Nirvana)  .
But this narrative fails to capture two contradictory trends that have made independent music both less strident of a political station than before and made it possible for people like me to be considered indie music fans. I’m not someone, for example, who is a fan of indie music as a political statement. I don’t feel a band sells out if they are with a major label, nor am I such a fickle fan that I reject a band once it is no loner on a major label but is toiling in the independents. Over and over again I have seen bands that I greatly appreciated like the Gin Blossoms and Collective Soul and Edwin McCain and the Counting Crows and the Blessid Union Of Souls get dropped from their (unappreciative) labels and continue to release decent and worthy music as journeyman independent bands. On the other hand, I have seen cash-rich independent labels sign and promote massively popular artists like Taylor Swift, showing that someone can be a massive star on an independent label.
So, what does this mean? Increased desire from major labels to only desire to sign “sure things” as bands and singers, given the massive expenses of marketing artists and music, the struggles for musicians to remain true to themselves and compete for a greatly fragmented music market that discourages cross-format efforts and that leads to small and highly repetitive playlists. The fact that labels are disinclined to really be risky or daring in their artists and are inclined to be disloyal to established artists who have any unsuccessful albums, this gives independent labels and artists a lot of room to maneuver. For one, there is a large pool of artists with established fanbases and reputations that major labels treat like yesterday’s garbage, making relatively easy investments for labels with lower overhead to have steady and successful sales. For another, bands and artists who offer higher risk/reward profiles than major labels are able to accept can find labels with the ability to support their artistic ambitions. This is a win for everyone–artists who want to be free to make the music they want, businesses who want a good profit and a productive niche, and fans of good music who do not care what kind of label releases it.
So long as the internet allows a low cost of entry of new bands and artists able to show their talent for free to potential fans and labels remain cautious about investing in artists in the search for sure profits, there will be room for independent labels and their artists to prosper. And as much as it is easy to insult contemporary popular music (as it always has been), there remains worthwhile music for those who are willing to go out and find it. Whether that means looking at the best of the “back catalog” for good music of old, or listening to the recommendations of friends as far as new and unknown bands that make great music and giving them a try with no cost or risk, there is plenty of great music that can be enjoyed by those who are so inclined. I would rather enjoy what is best about the past and the present than complain about what is the most popular.
So, therefore, those who have complained about the demise of the independent labels or artists willing to be true to their muses and willing to toil in (relative) obscurity are somewhat off-base. The independent music scene is certainly not as politically strident as it was back in the days of the “golden age” of the independents in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, but that is a good thing. Instead, these days, being on an independent label or making indie music can lead to massive mainstream success, a solid audience, and a good lifestyle, without the need to be defensive or intensely political about one’s status. So long as such bands continue to make worthy music, and independent labels continue to support those artists, I will continue to be a fan, giving my time and money and advocacy to such artists. We are all the better for it.