PuSh Blog


December 18, 2015

Black and white Godspeed You! Black Emperor image
Photo: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, courtesy of the artist

On February 7, the closing day of the 2016 PuSh Festival, we host a talk as part of the PuSh Assembly with a very special guest: Ian Ilavsky, co-founder of Montreal’s Constellation Records. Constellation is the label of famed Canadian rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who perform in monumental at this year’s PuSh Festival. Here Ian provides us with the fascinating premise of his PuSh Assembly talk.

“The terms “independent” and “indie” have been in popular usage as adjectives in the culture industry for several decades, particularly in music, cinema and literature/publishing. The history of “independent” can be traced back to the 1960s and earlier, in the most reductive sense of records, films or books produced outside the major label or major studio system. This rudimentary binary distinction of “major vs. indie” or “corporate vs. independent” continues to nominally define and inform the use of the term up to the present. But does “independent” mean something more than a simple matter of ownership structure and/or capitalization methods?

In music, independent labels began marking out more specific trajectories and territories within the industry writ large, starting in the late 1970s—especially with regard to punk/post-punk, rock/post-rock, techno/electronic, hip-hop and other genres of music-making on a continuum with popular forms. The proliferation of independent music institutions in the last quarter of the 20th century—labels, distributors, zines and publications, recording studios, live performance venues, bookers and promoters—profoundly shaped music culture, producing an exponentially expanding quantity of recordings, styles, experimentations, innovations, subgenres and subcultures, and giving rise to (or recontextualizing) a constellation of other terms and concepts: “DIY”, “underground”, “alternative”, “word-of-mouth”, “crossover”, “sell-out”, “anti-corporate”, etc.

The aesthetic heterogeneity and sheer abundance of recording and performing artists engendered by the independent music ecosystem of the past four decades is indisputable. But are there other values or principles—socio-economic, commercial, political—that defined this sector of the industry and added ethical and operational depth to the concept and actuality of “independent”? Does “indie” occupy a substantive and implicitly critical position in relation to “the mainstream”?

If yes, what does that spectrum of “indie” values look like—or what did it used to look like? Are those values now under threat, in retreat, or being diluted and co-opted by 21st century technocapitalism? Or does the democratization, accessibility and scalability of new technological/digital tools and platforms—from recording/production software to self-publishing and self-promotion via the internet—represent a further amplification and expansion of the terms of independence?

Have “independent” and “indie” now become empty signifiers, entirely deployed as marketing-speak and branding catchwords, while artists and culture workers who might previously have identified as such now viewing the terms as passé, embarrassing, or even piteously holier-than-thou? Or were these terms always incoherent at best, dubious and dishonest at worst?

Does the generation born after 1990 (millennials? digital natives?) even have—or have need of—a concept of “indie” in the artistic/cultural sphere? Do we need to recover meaning for this term? Should we be deploying new terms and values, as cultural workers and producers, in the face of increasing global economic consolidation and looming environmental crisis? Or is everything fine and better than ever with “the independents”, as concerns the pathways of artistic self-realization and the economies of cultural expression, labour and commodification?”

Ian Ilavsky headshot
Ian Ilavsky
Constellation Records

Attend Ian’s talk, Occupy! Indie, at the PuSh Assembly—facilitated by Rob Calder, Secret Study—on February 7, 12:00PM at The Post at 750 (Startup Studio). Free to attend, no registration required.