ONTOLOGICALLY SPEAKING, there are few squirmier genre descriptors than "indie," that colloquial shortening of "independent" that rolls so easily and unchecked from the collective tongue and onto the cultural operating table. Lashed to music and films and fashions and haircuts and God knows what, it's become a code for an increasingly mild-mannered aesthetic supposedly derived from seventies punk and the network of fan-run record labels that followed in its wake. But in the age of mechanical reproduction, it has meant a lot of things to be independent. And in the digital era, it's become a catch-all genus for anything outside the granulating monoculture. Which is to say; it means everything and subsequently nothing at all.
But in the 1950s, one could travel west from the ad-men lined canyons of Madison Avenue, across a still glitzy Times Square, and into seedy and comparatively low-skylined Hell's Kitchen, to find Jukebox Row. A 1953 Billboard report hyped the neighborhood — home to Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler's recently established Atlantic Records — as "one of the most vital and stimulating avenues of the music business” powered by "the hard work and boundless optimism of a score of indie labels, indie distributors, one-stops and jukebox operators." They were everywhere. In Cincinnati, Syd Nathan's King and Federal Records built an empire on bluegrass and soul. Across southern California, the R&B-powered network of Otis Rene's Excelsior Records, Joe Bihari's Modern, and others prepared the golden coast for surf-rock.
Documented lovingly in John Broven's Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock 'n' Roll Pioneers, "independence" — that most American of declarations — began to take root in the pop vernacular during the post-War boom, around the same time the American lingua franca turned to more down-home, genial shorthand like "indie." Few launched their own labels for ideological reasons or even fandom — though Syd Nathan's King was one of the first integrated record companies in the country — but the best of them seemed to implicitly understand the true existential nature of their tasks. While more bottom-line driven than their post-punk peers, the stakes were the same. True independence was more than just an economic position but a way of thinking; the most American way of thinking possible, even. By the end of the sixties one of Syd Nathan's soon-to-be-former stars, James Brown, was starting to phrase it less passively, equating music with self-agency. He sang "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door, I'll Get It Myself)" on one of his last hits for King in 1969. Brown soon set up his own People Records.
Bernard Stollman's ESP-Disk', which issued 125 LPs between 1964 and 1974, might have been the most independent record label of all time. Celebrated in a valuable new book, Jason Weiss's Always In Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk', The Most Outrageous Record Label in America is a fantastic but incomplete adjunct to Broven's massive work, providing a bridge into indie's more recent mutations. Comprising some 40 interviews with Stollman and his cast of spiritual jazzmen and anarcho-surrealist folkies, Always In Trouble is the story of ESP's improbable existence and its real-life consequences.
With offices at various midtown Manhattan locations on the fringes of the City's power centers (including one at 156 5th Avenue, almost exactly halfway between Jukebox Row and G...read more