The Indie Brand Elevates the Artist? Ask Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dave Matthews Band and Incubus
The indie artist—eclectic and ever evolving—advocates for a culture of authenticity in which the quality of their music takes priority over the cost of producing it. The truly timeless bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Dave Matthews Band and Incubus began their success stories and thrived as independent, unrepresented bands.
But can the term “indie” induce struggle for future up-and-coming artists? Are the consequences of being branded independent limiting or elevating?
The music industry is competitive and demanding, leaving the less authentic to slip through the cracks into “one-hit wonder” Narnia, where unthoughtful lyrics and superficial tunes best suited for the Muzak catalog exhaust their borrowed time.
No musician wants to be pigeon-holed.
While labels often identify artists as indie when their sound doesn’t fit precisely into a clear genre, emerging bands and musicians sometimes hold onto their indie status and benefit from that culture of loyal enthusiasts.
Deprivation of major label representation and mainstream appeal accelerates the drive within these artists that attracts the attention of those industry-label giants.
In an era where pop and grunge prevailed, RHCP, DMB and Incubus manufactured a unique conglomerate of sounds that set each of them apart from the rest. The combined natural talent of these groups generated new, refreshing sounds—sounds that couldn’t possibly be assigned to one particular category.
The indie culture was dignified by this music and so thought the labels. Transcending and outdoing everyone else through each live performance, these bands’ reputations flourished.
“We, at that stage, we’re like, ‘we’ll play as much as we need to play, you know, anywhere, we’ll play—we’ll do anything…and we’ll play eight days a week,’ you know, and that’s it. It was entirely by performing and being on the road. ‘Cause that was really the only space that had accepted us.”—Dave Matthews (60 Minutes)
Dave Matthews Band, promoting the spirit of camaraderie amidst their small following, encouraged concert goers to videotape and share footage of their live shows, according to The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll.
With designs to thrive amongst the indie community, creative ideas like those eventually cultivated a fanbase impressive enough for major labels to rubberneck these undiscovered sensations. A much more extreme example would be the RHCP’s infamous “socks-on-cocks” bit, which also grabbed similar attention in a less-conventional way.
It was this sense of interaction with an expanding spectrum of listeners who were devoted to their indie idols that was a significant factor in giving these bands headway.
DMB’s first album, Remember Two Things, produced by their own independent label, Bama Rags, topped college charts as the highest independent entry in 1993. In addition to promoting bootleg circulation of their concert footage, RCA signed the band due to the mass approval of this independently produced premiere album. A year later, RCA also released a second and slightly less independent album (Under the Table and Dreaming) through their parent label.
Incubus’ story parallels DMB’s. Their first album, Fungus Amongus, was a self-released success that attracted the attention of Epic/Immortal—the SONY subsidiary.
“We weren’t signed under any kind of pretense that we were a hit-song writing band—like a radio band—we were always a live band. And we’ve kind of, we’ve morphed over the years. We’re still a live band, but we write a bunch of songs, that, thankfully, radio stations like to play, which is amazing! Cause it’s given us a chance to keep doing what we do.”—Brandon Boyd (Renman M&B)
RHCP’s first bout with label representation, however, (EMI and Enigma Records in 1983) is proof that major labels don’t always ensure success, and a band’s ability to evolve is a crucial element.
It wasn’t until The Peppers’ third studio album, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, that the band charted. Until that point, their exposure on MTV and college radio kept their reputation afloat.
Again, the fanbase is at the forefront of power within the indie brand.
It is safe to say this struggle manifested in the band’s sound—the sound that made them not good, but great—and should give today’s passionate young artists a reason to try, the confidence to fail and the perseverance to trudge onwards.
“Time or money have never been the motivating force behind why we write music. We play music for the same reason we played music and enjoyed it 20 years ago. For some reason, the well hasn’t run dry. It’s still fun, that’s why we do it.”—Anthony Kiedis (Tom Bryant of teamrock.com)
Twenty-plus years later, RHCP enjoy utterly warranted success, attributing such to making music for the sake of making music.
RHCP, DMB and Incubus represent the group of indie bands who have been liberated and elevated by major labels.
Taking advantage of being enabled, each can accredit a great deal of that success to their original loyalists well after their post-indie statuses.
Fans are the infrastructure of the indie artist, benefiting from their evolution into the mainstream as much as the artists themselves do.
The listener’s favorite band/musician gets to keep making music. The trifecta of the indie culture consists of the artist, the fan and the unique brand, which makes for a complementary, dynamic relationship.
Because of this balance, truly genuine and inventive groups like DMB, RHCP, Incubus and so many more are enabled and empowered to share their past and future success with the fans who helped to make it happen in the first place.