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If it's cool, creative and different, it's indie

By Catherine Andrews
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(CNN) -- Sean McCabe said he remembers when indie was truly indie.

"I spent my formative years going to record shops and spending hours hunting down obscure things," the 35-year-old art director from New York said with a laugh. "It was indie on every level."

But, McCabe said, things have changed.

The term "indie" traditionally refers to independent art -- music, film, literature or anything that fits under the broad banner of culture -- created outside of the mainstream and without corporate financing.

In music, for example, the term refers to music produced and funded by any band or label not affiliated with the four or five major corporate labels like Sony or Epic. The same holds true generally for the music and film industry.

Eugene Hernandez, editor-in-chief of indieWIRE, a site dedicated to independent movies, said the definition of indie was founded on the virtues of self-publishing and self-releasing books, magazines, tapes, records, and just about everything else from buttons to clothing to posters.

"If you're going to be as strict as possible, the only definition was DIY -- do it yourself," he said, referring to the ethos of the punk bands and labels that flourished in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Ryan Schreiber, the editor and founder of Pitchfork Media, a popular online magazine that chronicles the indie music scene, said the definition also embodies a sense of idealism and an anti-corporate attitude.

"[The term] has also, for years, been sort of the de facto label for an entire subculture of idealistic artists and music fans who place a lot of stock in the idea of making music for yourself or your friends, rather than for profit or popularity," he said.

Richard Nash, who runs New York-based Soft Skull Press, an independent publishing firm, said indie outfits are not necessarily beholden to the same profit-based bottom line and shareholder pressure that most corporations are.

They are, consequently, freer to publish and release products that may not have tremendous commercial appeal. "In our situation, we really do recognize that what we do is not always economically rational," he said.

Indie's meaning evolves

Since the scene's inception in the late 1970s with the advent of punk, some say that the term indie has evolved into something that has far less meaning than the original rebellious, creative, do-it-yourself aesthetic.

"For me indie is convenient to use as a term, but it's hard to actually accept that it actually exists on any meaningful level now," said McCabe, who is best known for his work with Interpol -- a popular band from New York City who, coincidentally, just left their indie label to sign with Capitol, one of the largest major labels around.

According to critics, indie is now nothing more than a branding tool: a highly commercial and money-driven movement, more concerned with marketing a particular image instead of culture with a truly independent nature and passion for its art.

In May, Dave Cool, a Montreal-based filmmaker, released "What is Indie?" -- a documentary that takes a look at indie musicians and attempts to determine what being indie actually means.

With major labels and corporations now handling distribution for some indie record labels and major film studios buying or inking deals with what were once independent film studios, the definition has become "irrelevant at this point," Cool said.

As far as films -- their content and development -- are concerned, indieWIRE's Hernandez has had to relax his definition as the waters of independent film become muddier.

"You just know it when you see it," he said. "An indie movie either sort of feels right or it doesn't. For me, an indie film is one that is made outside of the traditional Hollywood system, typically driven by a filmmaker who is in control of the project."

Corporations catch on

The adoption of indie music by corporations started in the mid-90s, when Nirvana, a fiercely independent rock band from the state of Washington, exploded onto the mainstream. Their success and wildly loyal fan base -- both of which continued to exist after lead singer Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994 -- convinced mainstream radio and labels that their kind of music could be popular.

"There's always been this idea that if independent music was given wider exposure that a lot of artists would appeal to a broader audience," Schreiber said.

"The popularity of bands like Nirvana and Sonic Youth in the early '90s proved that to an extent, and we're now beginning to see that again with bands like Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs."

The same happened in the movie industry with the success of films like Quentin Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction."

Consequently, the lines have been blurred between the two camps.

For example, smaller music labels, eager for financial success on a wider scale, have adopted business practices of major labels once considered anathema in the scene, like hiring PR firms and street teams to market their records and licensing songs to advertising companies.

Conversely, major labels and film studios now use the indie tag to market authenticity, often slapping an indie label on a piece of art, even if the label isn't necessarily accurate, to attract a hipper, younger demographic eager for original and offbeat entertainment.

"Films by those big companies tend to get a lot more of the attention and sort of get perceived by the mass public as being indie when maybe they aren't really and those films may take attention from the really indie films made for just a few hundred thousand dollars," Hernandez said.

Yet there are many examples that prove simply inking a deal with a corporate entity doesn't mean compromising an idiosyncratic artistic vision.

Bands like Sonic Youth and Built to Spill, who have signed with major labels, and directors like Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola, who have made films in the major studio system, have largely retained their authenticity and identity.

Meanwhile, many independent hip-hop labels that have distribution deals with larger corporations have developed and promoted acts that never cross over into mainstream pop culture.

Internet fuels indie growth

Another factor that has erased the line between what it means to be indie and what it means to be corporate is emerging technology like the Internet and file-sharing systems that have allowed for more accessibility and better distribution for smaller labels and imprints.

"The Internet is definitely the most significant influence on indie culture at the moment," Schreiber said.

Online outlets such as iTunes and MySpace have made it easier for fans to find original music, or for bands to set up their own sites and distribute their own music. And video uploading sites like YouTube allow aspiring filmmakers to showcase their work to potentially millions of people, without viewers ever having to step inside a movie theater.

Mac McCaughan of the band Superchunk co-founded Merge Records in 1989.

"The limits of physical retail don't exist in the digital world," said Glenn Peoples, a popular music blogger and veteran of the entertainment industry.

The Internet has erased the need for a brick and mortar shop, allowing for even the smallest of music labels, clothing boutiques or magazines to become available to the masses.

But technology has also made a prime staple of independent culture -- its exclusivity and autonomous nature -- nearly obsolete, diluting the intimacy that the scene often defines itself by.

"Because independent music sprung up as an antidote to the mainstream, there's probably always going to be an overarching sense of superiority there -- people who believe independent music is inherently better than pop music," Schreiber said. "But elitism exists in every subculture, so I don't know if it's an intrinsically indie attribute."

Susan Shin, who was a DJ at her Wellesley College's independent rock station for four years, was more fervent about the consequences of the increased attention.

"From the perspective of a die-hard hipster from the days of old, publicity for [indie artists] means that more people know about them," she said. "And if everyone likes them, they become a bigger name. I feel it's an affront to me that someone with vapid tastes could be exposed to the stuff that I like.

"But again, that's because I'm a snob."

A culture that's here to stay

Most observers, however, think that, despite big business dipping its toes into indie waters, true independent culture can survive, though the definition might remain ever-changing.

Plenty of indie labels like Dischord Records in Washington, Merge Records in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Drag City in Chicago, Illinois, are thriving. Independent films often make splashes at prominent film festivals and once in a while even snag an Academy Award. Independent publishing firms, though scarce in number, are slowly gaining more clout.

And even if indie doesn't literally mean independent, do-it-yourself art any longer, that doesn't mean it will ever fall off the radar. "These days indie is more of a philosophy," Cool said. "If you can maintain control and integrity over your art, whether on your own or with a corporation -- that's what's important."

The indie spirit has been commodified and re-envisioned as a marketable lifestyle just like punk, alternative and grunge before it, Pitchfork's Schreiber said. "But those are all permutations of the same very resilient subculture," he said.

"If the last 30 years are any indication, after every last cent has been wrung from it, it'll just burrow back underground and continue on its own terms," he said. "You can't kill the ideal."

CNN's Curt Merrill contributed to this report.

Observers say Quentin Tarantino's film "Pulp Fiction" proved indie cinema could appeal to a broad audience.


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