The argument that “indie” equals “progressive” originally came from post-punk circles.
Joel Schalit, editor of Punk Planet magazine and a self-described “anti-rock” artist, wrote about this in an article called “No Alternative to Transcendence.” (It’s available at http://eserver.org/bs/46/schalit.html.)
In the article, Schalit refers to Tim Yohannon, the late editor-in-chief of Maximum Rock and Roll, a famous punk zine that is still going strong.
Schalit writes that Yohannon “defined the punk rock party line about fin de siecle counter-cultural capitalism: Doing everything yourself [through an indie label] was the only categorical imperative necessary to adhere to…According to Maximum Rock and Roll, transgressing the boundary between art and mass culture emptied rock and roll of its utopian content.”
Of course, as Schalit correctly points out, Yohannon’s claim overlooks the fact that “economic formations underlie every kind of artistic practice, mass-produced or homespun. Wherever culture is being made, in whatever format, regardless of content, routinization is inevitable.”
The Maximum Rock and Roll position also ignores that “art and mass entertainment can coincide…artists, from the Clash and the Gang of Four to Linton Kwesi Johnson and Public Enemy put out not only the right word but really challenging art as well.”
Maximum Rock and Roll’s writers had in mind truly marginal businesses selling aesthetically extreme product. However, its party line was soon transferred — without a hitch — to the indie phenomenon in general.
For example, in 1999 music critic Neill Strauss wrote a story for the New York Times called “A Chance to Break the Pop Stranglehold.”
In the piece, Strauss uses the terms “corporate,” “major label,” “record establishment” and “the system” interchangeably, in apparent disregard for the fact that many indies are large, well established and musically conservative — and some are multinational corporations structured much the same as majors.