When I was younger, I discovered something new musically. Britney Spears hadn't broken down, Christina accepted that she passed away in obscurity, Pink wasn't pretending to be tough, Avril Lavigne was just as much of a joke and Famous hats had bent bills. I remember when a band I'd never heard of came to Portland one Saturday that I snuck into the Meow Meow downtown to see and I was blown away. If you'll allow me to be pretentious for a second, it really changed the music that I would follow for the rest of my life. I'm not proud of the music of my adolescences up until 2003 and I will admit a few bands that I liked at the time that I am ashamed of now. I liked a few Limp Bizkit singles, I listened to korn, mudvayne had one song I liked and yes....(I don't even want to say it) I liked creed. I am much more conscious of better musical tastes now and hate everything about nu-metal.
I still remember the lineup was some obscure people that I would see again at PDX Pop 2004 but I don't remember and headlined by a budding band called Death Cab for Cutie. I told my friend Josh that the name was retarded and went in. They had been touring to support Transatlanticism, their 4th album. I don't need to get all hipster on you or tell you how it happened, but their music speaks for itself. Chris Walla said they were an "indie" band and I got on limewire as soon as I could at home to find more of the genre. I entered a world where people would say about their musical tastes, "I like stuff you don't." or "I like music that you haven't heard of."
Now, almost everyone has heard Death Cab, Bright Eyes, Dashboard Confessional, AFI, The Decemberists, Imogen Heap and many other bands that were only listened to by about one burned cd that was tossed around my high school's J-Hall. Movies like Garden State and the TV show, The O.C. prominently featured artists without labels or on smaller record labels that weren't on the major listing. This catapulted the success of every band that could try and sound like something that Death Cab had done. A good band was usually one that meshed The Postal Service's electro-pop sound with Death Cab's acoustics and some or AFI's electric guitar sounds.
These bands are now hugely popular in an underground market that is bigger than most people think. They by far aren't selling out stadium rock shows but the music is played at more intimate venues which fit the style much more appropriately. From what I know about the industry, smaller labels offer more of a royalties percentage, almost accrue no debt for the artist to repay and even some have stock-options and profit sharing. This DIY bohemian sound mirrors the NW geographical area it stems from and often makes for a fuller sound. It's not any different really then the sound quality of a major label production, it just is arranged noticeably different. These labels are becoming powerhouses of their genres. They're hardly the independent and lo-fi lo budget grouping that they used to be.
The Decemberists aren't indie, they're Folk Revivalist Rock. Death Cab is just plain Rock, Yeasayer and Matt & Kim are definitely Experimental Rock. Animal Collective is Shit Rock (not really, I just hate them). The Kooks are Brit rock or Brit pop. Dispatch, the most successful independent band was Adult Contemporary or Jam band. They all have established genres that came from musical pioneers in the 60's and 70's. Underground artists aren't pioneering anything but they're innovating a lot of musical styles and ways of arranging music that were the "wrong" way in the past.
If you don't believe me that they've made such a massive presence then I present you with the band Owl City.
His voice is obviously the worst impression of Ben Gibbard that I've ever heard. Adam Young audibly stretches syllables to pronounce words the same way. It is the biggest attempt at continuing The Postal Service that failed because it's just bad. The Postal Service's lyrics are very introspective and have been likened to Bob Dylan, for their success in being covered. They have phrases and lines in their songs that are timeless and fit extremely well with a younger me. Owl City has lyrics deep meaningful lyrics like, "I'd like to make myself believe, that planet earth turns slowly." Wow. I've just been bitchslapped by creativity right there.
Universal looked for and found this guy and molded him to sound "indie" but put out a pop sound enough to get on the top 40 charts. It's not good music but he succeeded.
In summation, the sound of independent artists that people are referring to are not struggling or unknown. Matt & Kim topped iTunes for a week, MGMT is touring Europe and Yeasayer just finished a world wide tour. It's not Indie. Stop calling it that.