Film examines meaning of ‘indie’

By Chris Brook

With a film named “What Is Indie?” a seasoned music fan may expect the bulk of the movie to rely on the opinions of “trendier-than-thou” scenesters debating Sonic Youth’s relevance and whether to attend ‘Paper’ or hang out at The Other Side. Instead, the short documentary “What Is Indie?” attempts to get to the roots of the idea of indie music and everything the umbrella term can encompass.

The film examines the definition of the word “indie,” a term that has been skewered over the years and often inappropriately used as a stamp of credibility, it concludes. With the help of record labels and independent artists, the movie acutely examines the attitude and ethos of “indie” in today’s music marketplace.

Over the course of 50 minutes, first-time director and part-time record label executive Dave Cool attempts to get to the core of defining indie by interviewing musicians, record label consultants and even self-proclaimed indie music experts, in hopes of diagramming who has helped the proliferation of this proactive do-it-yourself culture. Filmed primarily in New York, Montreal, Toronto and Boston, the movie is a crude yet modest look into the ideology of musicians.

In one portion of the film, Cool discusses the concept of indie labels versus major labels with a few of his interviewees, like The Vendettas, a garage punk band from Canada; Annabelle Chvostek, a multi-instrumental folk singer; and Bloodshot Bill, a “psychobilly” guitarist, among others. Cool and his guests inevitably determine that being on a label plays no part in defining whether you’ re indie or not. In turn, Cool and company declare that even major label artists and bands can be indie, yet unfortunately are unable to interview any examples.

While Cool fails to secure any big-name players in the indie music world, he does successfully land interviews with Sonicbids CEO/Founder Panos Panay and Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby. Sonicbids, a Boston-based community that fosters relationships between musicians and promoters, and CD Baby, an online store that specializes in selling the compact discs of independent musicians, are both upstart businesses, and the insight of both owners proves beneficial to the film. Elsewhere however, some of the banter provided by musicians is nothing refreshing or surprising, and doesn’t effectively help prove Cool’s points.

Today, critics as well as musicians claim the term “indie” is thrown around too freely in describing types of music. Yet for this reason, hearing it repeated so often in the film almost becomes ad-nauseam. Yet conversely, it’ s interesting to see a film director try to approach a subject as heady as indie music, regardless of the results.

While self-financing and self-releasing a DVD is an admirable feat, Cool’s documentary will likely be perceived as too sheltered to impress even the most disillusioned music fans. While the press release states it was filmed in Boston and New York, more than 75 percent of the bands featured are Canadian. Given that Cool’s hometown is Montreal, this could suggest he had difficulty securing a wider variety of subjects.

In addition, if one of Cool’s main arguments is that being on a label has no bearing on being indie, where are his interviews with signed, successful musicians who are still doing things on their own terms?

The film is a perfectly fine slice of entertainment for those interested in the music industry, but ultimately falls short as far as plot and sources, and is underwhelming by documentary standards.

Despite releasing the film in May, Cool is still on his tour of the U.S. and Canada doing free screenings. The tour recently included a stop at Cambridge’s Middle East Downstairs Nov. 6 with featured musical performances by Boston’s Fluttr Effect, Gravehaven and Joshua Meltzer.

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