I’ve been thinking more and more recently about the term ‘unsigned’ and why it is we accept it as a useful label. When you think about it ‘unsigned’ means “I don’t have a record label”, which to an everyday consumer of music could be interpreted as “not very good”.
In real terms ‘unsigned’ usually means you aren’t signed to, or distributed by, any of the big 3 record labels (Universal, Sony, & Warner). And to be fair most of us aren’t. Bands often use it as a label to establish that they are up and coming, independent, fresh, and exciting. Although interestingly many ‘unsigned’ bands are actually signed to 1 or more of 100,000 or so independent record labels worldwide.
Perhaps the issue is that the word ‘Indie’ which used to describe many of these bands became associated with a genre of music made popular in the mainstream by the explosion of the grunge, Britpop, and alternative scenes in the 90s. Add to that the fact that the internet, and more recently streaming, has enabled millionsof artists to make their music available to potentially billions of fans without having anything to do with even an independent label, and you start to see why the term ‘indie’ has little meaning anymore.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be replaced with ‘unsigned’, and I don’t think it’s doing any of us any good. The prefix ‘un’ means ‘not’, there are negative connotations in almost every word in the English dictionary that uses it. Think about it, do you associate positive thoughts with these words; Unsteady, Unfair, Unable, Unseen, Uniformed, Unheard… and so on.
The first step is to agree on a name. I have experimented over the last year or so with the term ‘grassroots’, taking a lead from Music Venue Trust, but in truth it doesn’t work. The issue with that is most ordinary people seem to think it’s a genre somewhere in between bluegrass and roots.
Instead my vote goes to ‘Independent’. There’s a sense of empowerment, self-reliance, and individualism about the word independent all of which bring up positive, inspirational thoughts. It’s not that you are not good enough to be signed to a major record label as ‘unsigned’ suggests, it’s that you don’t want or need to be. And even if you’re signed to an Independent label not associated with the big three, by definition they’re independent, so you’re still covered. It’s an all-encompassing positive affirmation of this amazing scene.
Now here’s the implementation strategy… go and tell everyone. It’s as simple as that. You’re no longer in an unsigned (read: not very good) band, you’re in an Independent Band. You’re no longer looking for unsigned (read: unpopular) bands to play your show, you’re looking for Independent Bands. You are no longer asking people to support the unsigned (read: not popular) scene, you’re asking them to support the Independent Music Scene. You are no longer offering video, radio, photography, or graphic design services to unsigned (read: can’t afford to use a proper provider) bands. You are providing independent artists with vital PR and marketing services.
You get the idea…
Go out and spread the word and don’t stop, soon even The Guardian will be using the phrase ‘Independent Musicians’.
Originally published on gigride.live in September 2017.