‘Indie’ as a musical term has become relatively ambiguous in meaning over recent years. Canonically, it originally meant independent, i.e. an artist or band who were not involved with any of the major labels. It has grown to essentially generic status however, with several generic signifiers being identified such as predominantly guitar-driven music (Bannister 2006). However, extra-musical generic signifiers are also important within this genre – Kruse identifies a ‘high cultural elitism’ and pursuit of uniqueness (2003) as indie signifiers.
It is interesting to consider the dual definitions of indie within music in relation to a recent artist whose identity is closely tied to the word – Chance the Rapper. The Chicago-native has seen a huge amount of success whilst repeatedly and publicly rejecting major label involvement, being hailed as a pioneer in several instances (Shamsian 2016; Austin 2016); it is clear to see how he is seen as an indie musician using the above criteria. It is intrinsically part of his identity – an underdog story where a young rapper from Chicago who got suspended from school has beaten the industry and risen to the top off the merit of his own talent.
The canon surrounding the term ‘indie’ within music is, however, problematic. The contemporary music industry is simply no longer defined by a ‘big 3’ companies. The insistence that without involvement from these three companies or their subsidiaries an artist is ‘indie’ is simply no longer true – it is part of a canon used (knowingly or otherwise) by journalists, artists and labels to help create an identity. To use Chance the Rapper as a case study, his activity outside of major label rejection would certainly indicate a non-indie identity, outside of the ‘indie canon’. His releases Surf and Coloring Book were released exclusively through Apple, one of the largest companies in the world (Statista 2015)) The nature of these distribution deals and their similarity with other artist’s deals have led people to question Chance’s authenticity (Friedman 2016). In addition his management team are very competent and connected – his booking agent Cara Lewis also represents industry heavyweights such as Kanye West, giving Chance opportunities to play higher profile shows during his rise (Quora 2016).
I would argue that the resources a major label would provide – connections, distribution, high profile shows – have been provided by major companies/entities of comparable nature (Apple and Cara Lewis), and that outside of the indie canon Chance is simply not an independent artist. This isn’t to sully his musical output – it is universally praised regardless of his indie authenticity – but it is important to be able to differentiate between the legitimate and the canonised.
Another important aspect of his identity is his hometown Chicago. Much of the narrative surrounding Chance focuses on his hometown, with many of his songs referring to the city (Bennett and B 2016). Interestingly, Chance goes against the academic consensus on musical heritage – he represents a wave of artists who take it upon themselves to proudly flout their hometowns, rather than relying on the cities to capitalise on their success (Fremaux and Fremaux 2013; Frost 2008). This is an interesting shift in the industry, with more artists and genres holding on to their roots within their music (Barron 2013) – this is epitomised in Chance’s Chicago festival Coloring Day, held in a creative quarter of Chicago with little industry backing (Gwee 2016) – he is managing the city’s management of their heritage in Chance and his scene.
- Austen, B. (2016). The New Pioneers: Chance the Rapper is One of the Hottest Acts in Music, Has a Top 10 Album and His Own Festival – All Without a Label or Physical Release. [online] Billboard. Available at: http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/magazine-feature/7468579/chance-the-rapper-coloring-book-laels-grammys [Accessed 26 Nov. 2016]
- Bannister, m. (2006). White Boys, White Noise. Aldershot, England: Ashgate.
- Barron, L. (2013) The Sound of Street Corner Society: UK Grime Music as Ethnography. In European Journal of Cultural Studies 16(5) pp.531-547
- Fremaux, S. and Fremaux, M. (2013). Remembering the Beatles’ Legacy in Hamburg’s Problematic Tourism Strategy. Journal of Heritage Tourism. 8(4), pp. 303-319.
- Friedman, A. (2016). Why Chance the Rapper is not a truly independent artist. [online] FACT Magazine: Music News, New Music. Available at: http://www.factmag.com/2016/05/20/chance-the-rapper-independent/ [Accessed 26 Nov. 2016].
- Frost, W. (2008). Popular Culture as a Different Type of Heritage: The Making of AC/DC Lane. Journal of Heritage Tourism, 3(3).
- Gwee, K. (2016). Festival Review: Chance the Rapper’s Magnificent Coloring Day. [online] Consequence of Sound. Available at: http://consequenceofsound.net/2016/09/festival-review-chance-the-rappers-magnificent-coloring-day/ [Accessed 27 Nov. 2016].
- Kruse, H. (2003). Site and Sound. New York: P. Lang.
- (2016). [online] Available at: https://www.quora.com/How-did-Chance-the-Rapper-get-so-popular-off-of-his-mixtape-Acid-Rap [Accessed 26 Nov. 2016].
- (2015). Most valuable companies in the world. [online] Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/263264/top-companies-in-the-world-by-market-value/ [Accessed 26 Nov. 2016].
- Shamsian, J. (2016). A 23-year-old rapper who refuses to sign a record deal is tearing up the hip-hop world all by himself. [online] Business Insider. Available at: http://uk.businessinsider.com/chance-the-rapper-refuses-to-sign-a-record-deal-2016-6?r=US&IR=T [Accessed 26 Nov. 2016].