The one thing you probably aren’t thinking while watching the Grammys is “wow, look at this amazing showcase for independent music.” (Last night, I expect you were thinking something more along the lines of, “I was supposed to get 3D glasses for this? Augh! I’m dizzy! Switch it off!”)
But keep score, and independent artists and labels are a huge part of the Grammy Award-winning roster. And with indies invading even the most mainstream of music events, that’s a strong indication of how big a part of the industry independent music is becoming. (Side note: yes, I’m aware that the definition of “indie” is murky at best. But looking at the broad trend, there’s still something here. There’s a difference between an artist self-releasing and being on RCA; examples below. In short, this may not be what most of us would call “indie,” but it’s a big shift away from the traditional role of the “major.”)
Want an example? How about “Album of the Year” Taylor Swift’s Fearless? And it’s not incidental that Taylor Swift thanked said label for allowing her to write all her own songs. (My own personal fandom of Taylor Swift ranks up there somewhere with Kanye West’s, but I think that’s worth noting.)
One of the groups keeping score at the Grammy Awards is A2IM, a not-for-profit that represents the independent music community. This year, says A2IM, some 43 awards can be considered “indie,” including the categories Pop, Rock, Alternative, Country, New Age, Jazz, Gospel, Tropical Latin, Tejano, Norteno, Bando, Americana, Bluegrass, Blues, Folk, Hawaiian, Native American, Zydeco/Cajun, World, Spoken Word, Comedy, Surround Sound, & Classical genres, and also scored for Best Recording Package.
Artists (aside from Taylor Swift) include PHOENIX, Steve Earle, and one of my long-time personal favorites, Buckwheat Zydeco. Looking over the list, I see quite a few indie selections. Rounder Records alone won Best Pop Instrumental Performance (Béla Fleck), Best Bluegrass Album (winner Steve Martin — yes, that Steve Martin — and nominee Rhonda Vincent), and two nominations for a Woody Guthrie re-issue. Rounder last year won best album of 2009 for “Raising Sand.”
Electronic music gets just one category, and that was won by Lady Gaga. (Interscope, her label, is part of Universal so, erm, definitely not indie.) But nominee The Crystal Method went their own way with Divided by Night, releasing on their own Tiny E Records. When I talked to the duo in the spring, they talked about how important it was to focus on their own creative muse rather than the demands of a major label.
Being an independent artist isn’t necessarily the right decision for every artist. Imogen Heap is signed to RCA. But being an artist who’s independently-minded, too, can be important.
I think it’s a really powerful statement that Imogen Heap won a Grammy for “Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical” for her record Ellipse. It’s rare for artists engineering their own albums to win, period, and this is a profoundly dude-dominated category, to boot. Whoever you’re signed to, you know it’s the artists who are motivated who can achieve the most. Imogen Heap’s savvy use of Twitter, her connection with her fans, and her ability to manage her own career must make the folks at RCA and Megaphonic Records very, very happy. And incidentally, even this demonstrates the way the majors themselves have changed: a lot of the majors have gone to small imprints that operate with the agility of the indie labels.
It’s a new world out there – even if we still have those dorky 3D glasses from the 50s.
The full list:
*Disclaimer: I can’t actually stand the Grammys, generally speaking. But that’s why I looked for something interesting to pull out of it, which this, to me, was. It means even at the awards ceremony that’s the greatest expression of major label power, major label power is waning. I’m sure I won’t be misunderstood, of course, that each commenter will read with great care all the nuances of what I’m saying.