Beer and Pavement

Is R.E.M. still indie?

Posted in Intersections, Manifesto by SM on November 19, 2011

So, I still mean to post daily. However, I forgot to schedule this post for Saturday. I’ll date it as such and still post something by the end of Sunday. Honestly, this was written. I just spaced on the scheduling and didn’t look at a computer all day.

I was listening to NPR the other day when this interview with R.E.M. aired. At some point, the band was asked about their transformation from indie to major or popular music. One of the band members (I couldn’t tell which one) remarked that they are still indie despite the fact they’ve been signed to Warner Brothers for nearly 25 years, a decidedly non-indie move to a major label.

How does that happen? Are they really indie? If so, what does being “indie” really mean?

I agree. R.E.M. is indie and probably always will be. It’s the same for Sonic Youth, Modest Mouse, Built to Spill, etc. All of these bands have had their indie cred  questioned when they jumped to major labels, but this is simplistic and, quite frankly wrong. These bands have always been indie and will (hopefully) always be indie.


Being indie isn’t equal to being unknown or unsuccessful. It’s keeping that human, even soulful element that corporate acts just can’t duplicate in the music. The outcome might be “boring,” but there’s a clear, albeit subjective difference. The artists still maintain creative control and aren’t simply making music to make money. If they’re lucky, they make enough to live on (or better), but that’s not why they do what they do.

I’m sure that doesn’t make indie any clearer for you. It’s really complicated, rather subjective, and somewhat arbitrary. It has to do with the spirit of the music and the motivation for making the music. Typically, this hard to determine without having firsthand knowledge of a musicians inspiration or process. Honestly, it shouldn’t matter. If the music is good, it’s good.

However, for me, it does matter. I love music for the human, soulful experience that it is. I want music and all art to mean something more than aesthetics or entertainment. The craft, blood, sweat, and tears that goes into indie rock makes it more meaningful to me. I find anything corporate to be cold and sensationalized. Indie rock is authentic and artful. That’s how I like it.

This position helps explain some of my attraction to craft beer as well. As I’ve established before, craft beer has soul. It represents the human side of beer while BMC strips the creativity and humanity from what should be a soulful experience. This is where people’s beer epiphany happens. It’s that wow moment when craft beer suddenly makes sense to the drinker. It happens because of all the humanity and soul that goes into each glass, bottle, or keg.

An indie model works in craft beer as well. Look at Founders. The brewery was nearly going under when they brewed safe, approachable beers that they thought would sell. Once they realized that they were headed for bankruptcy, they decided to brew what they liked, what made them happy until they had to close their doors for good. The uniquely challenging ales that resulted appealed to people looking for something different from the corporate-dominated mainstream beer industry. Despite the brewery’s rapid growth and sustaining success, they are indie, just like R.E.M.

Indie is not necessarily about which label a band belongs to. It only partially has anything to do aesthetics. Indie is an uncompromising attitude toward art and craft that puts it’s maker’s vision before profit margins. So, in short, R.E.M. remained indie throughout their history. They didn’t try to please the mainstream for greater profits. They made music for their fans and, more importantly, for themselves.

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