This is an essay I wrote for a class called Concepts In Literary Criticism

The independence, or “indieness,” of music, and the quality it signifies


Since just before last summer, a friend and I have been locked in an episodic dispute about music. It concerns whether a band that is on a major label can create its music independently of, the profit motive, and the trite convention of popular music, or music that sells. The independence of a band’s music is important to gauge because, my friend argues, independence denotes quality. He extrapolates from that to say, only bands that are not on a major label can be considered independent, and thus it is only these bands’ music that can be considered good, in the sense of advancing the progress of music. I feel that, for my friend, the signifiers of “major label” and “independence” have become their signified, “non-independence” and “quality,” respectively. My friend has forgotten that the signs of these correlations, firstly, a major label which chokes its musicians’ independence by subtly or obviously demanding they record “hits” and, secondly, an independence which ensures quality, are not necessarily truisms. I define “quality” of music in its advance of the form as measured by either or both of two things: its acceptance by a majority of credible music critics or its influence on other bands’ ideas. Given that definition, I would argue for some examples of bands that have released great music, while signed to a major label, which did not compromise with the popular norms of its time and thus remained independent. Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin not only performed the aforementioned function but transcended their respective eras by motivating bands in the future to play music like theirs. There are also myriad examples of independent bands on small or no labels whose music is neither accepted by music critics nor by other bands as excellent. I would also add that a band whose music is influenced by popular norms of the past or present can still be said to be “good” in a not- wholly-independent way. Thus a band like Radiohead, who exhibit signs of Kraftwerk’s and Pink Floyd’s influence, are still considered to be excellent in terms of quality, and mostly independent from the popular forms of today. Similarly, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, a band both my friend and I value highly, that is on a small label and sells few records, is not wholly independent of the influence of popular bands like The Rolling Stones and Simon and Garfunkel. Therefore, in concluding my response to a friend’s viewpoint, our overall signified, good music, is shared, but our signifiers are different. His signifier is, “bands whose independence comes as a result of being on a small or no label, and thus not on a major label,” while my signifier is the bands themselves, independent of the label or lack thereof. The sign in his correlation is historically inaccurate, while my sign, “bands who produce good music, never mind their affiliation, or lack thereof, with a label,” viewed through history’s evidence, is tautological.


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