Listen and you’ll see – sonic breakthroughs in independent music

In a new series of articles curated by Richard King, a selection of highly regarded writers locate several moments when artist and labels, whether by accident or design (or both) achieved a moment of sonic breakthrough and created a type of music that hadn’t previously been thought possible.

Today the word indie suggests a fairly formulaic sound. The sound of a band shuffling through a few basic chord changes, an attempt at a rousing chorus that tries to gain your attention and a final burst of energy indicated by a trebly guitar solo. Indie and its myriad genres and modifiers – especially indie rock – tends to stay well within its prescribed audio comfort zone. Although much contemporary indie music likes to draw attention to its experimental and wayward tendencies, it largely adheres to a fairly limited and prosaic sonic palette. On the whole, indie music tends to sound like indie music.

Indie originally came into use as an abbreviation of the word independent, a word that was used to define a record company’s economic position.  In contrast to a major or major-backed label, an independent record company was run on its own terms and financed by its own, usually limited, resources. At their best the hand-to-mouth precarity of indies made for streetwise envelope-pushing recordings: Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, the Funk Brothers’ beat which drove Motown through so many extraordinary recordings or the early Blue Beat singles with which Chris Blackwell financed Island Records.

The Do-It-Yourself impetus of Punk inspired a generation of bedroom moguls to start their own label, many of which released limited runs of records that artfully placed creativity and self-expression over musical ability. Labels like Postcard, Rough Trade, Factory and Mute all shared one overriding characteristic: the desire to do things their own way.

At their best independent labels were and are a dynamic partnership between the artists and their record company, a mutually agreed space in which anyone signed to the label is encouraged to take risks and be themselves. The late seventies groundswell grew into a golden age for the independent sector, by the end of the eighties releases on independent labels – from the smallest John Peel-endorsed bedsit operation to Stock Aitken and Waterman’s Hit Factory production line – accounted for nearly a third of all music sales in the UK. Along with this success came the codification of much independent music as a genre and the beginning of the use of word indie as an adjective.

Today independent labels thrive in a changing music business. ‘21’ by Adele may yet go on to become one of the biggest selling records of all time but for now it is certainly the biggest selling album ever released on an independent, a feat that was achieved in part by adhering to the core independent tenet of allowing the artist to make their own decisions.

In today’s uncertain music industry imprints like Ghost Box and Hyperdub have emerged in the tradition and lineage of some of the great independent labels that combined ground breaking music with a distinct visual identity. The result are releases that feel touched by a certain kind of alchemy, wherein the sleeve design and sound of a record combine to become more than the sum of their parts. Such labels exist side by side with Britain’s permanent white label dance culture, a tradition that has existed since a young Chris Blackwell drove around London selling Jamaican imports from the back of his car. If you don’t know how to hustle, you’re not really in the game.

In this series of articles a selection of highly regarded writers locate several moments when artist and labels, whether by accident or design (or both) achieved a moment of sonic breakthrough and created a type of music that hadn’t previously been thought possible

Jon Savage explores how Family created a masterpiece of British psychedelic:  the song ‘Voyage’ from their ‘Music In A Doll’s House’ album, which quietly emerged on Reprise a label originally started by Frank Sinatra.

Geeta Dayal describes the sound world Conny Plank created with minimal means and equipment on ‘Neu!’ Michael Rother and Klaus Dingers self-titled masterpiece, an album that was released on Andrew Lauder’s iconic United Artists imprint and whose influence continues to grow and resonate.

In 1986 the NME in conjunction with Rough Trade Distribution, the backbone of the independent sector, released a compilation cassette entitled ‘C86.’ The album became a defining moment in independent’s transition to indie.

Alexis Petridis writes about the beguiling atmosphere My Bloody Valentine created on ‘Isn’t Anything.’ Up until that point it was assumed that the band were affiliates or acolytes of the C86 generation. ‘Isn’t Anything’ was recorded for My Bloody Valentine’s new label, Creation, whose laissez-faire attitude towards the band resulted in an extraordinary an unique recording.

A year before the releases of ‘Isn’t Anything’ Rough Trade Distribution and the 4AD label had their first ever number one in 1987 with ‘Pump UP The Volume’ by M/A/R/R/S.

Richard King describes how beat boxes, white label culture and pirate radio were distilled into ‘Pump Up The Volume”, a single that indicated how music would be made throughout the coming decade by using the new technology of sampling.

As the distribution company he had helped found was having its first international hit with ‘Pump Up The Volume’ Geoff Travis of Rough Trade was spending more and more time in New York where he had met the composer / cellist / producer and visionary Arthur Russell.

Emma Warren writes about Russell’s unique working methods in his home studio, a facility that was financed by Travis and Rough Trade’s uncertain largesse.

Russell was at the forefront of digital dance production, something that independence would embrace and develop in the early nineties as recording equipment and rave culture became easily accessible to anyone who was interested.

Robin Turner explores the psychedelic properties of Underworld’s ‘Rez’ one of the first releases on the Junior Boys Own label,  a single whose euphoric momentum is a celebration of the idea that with a small studio, a creative mind and a few test pressings passed around those in the know, everything is possible.

Richard King worked at the heart of the independent record industry for more than twenty years. His first book is How Soon Is Now.


  • aziz says:

    heaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhh it is great and i love it

  • Casper says:

    Really nice post, particularly looking forward to Neu! piece and Jon Savage always good.

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