“AIM can organise a piss-up in a brewery” caws Billy Bragg midway through his acceptance speech. The tireless Essex folk-punk activist, having collected his Outstanding Contribution to Music gong from none other than a certain Michael Eavis, couldn’t have put it better for once you’ve been to the Association of Independent Music Awards – now in its third year, and again hosted amidst the spruce confines of The Brewery – you’ll bloody well know it. The headache for many, one that currently feels as though it may endure days, will throb and ring loud and clear as the vitreous awards themselves, the sauce having flowed copiously throughout a relatively lengthy, if never too overwrought ceremony.
Itself a celebration of modest, indeed humble success, if independent record labels have traditionally revelled in unearthing idiosyncratic artistic nooks and crannies, excelling in a comparatively niche market, then it doesn’t exactly show this evening with the guestlist reading more or less like a modern-day mainstream festival line up. Not only are there inspired headliners among us (Franz Ferdinand) but so too are there artists to have hosted their very own, for which see The xx who receive the trophy for Least, sorry, Best ‘Difficult’ Second Album in last year’s Coexist. It feels fitting, therefore, that the field marshal of that particular discipline, Mr. Michael Eavis, deigned to worm his way eastward for the evening. He looks positively vibrant, his unmistakable smirk glowing lustrous as the red carpeted floorboards that creak beneath his remarkably pristine sneakers.
But kept clandestine among the early evening bustle of Moorgate, there is a certain impression of infiltration that lingers longer than expected. It’s offset, however, even by a cursory glance around the room which reveals a plethora of far more pertinent person than those to swarm so bumptiously about EC1. From Rough Trade’s Geoff Travis, who later quite rightly collects the evening’s Pioneer Award when thronged by a fairly enviable entourage, to enduring indie fanboy Steve Lamacq – not only the show’s host, but so too the recipient of its Special Recognition Award – the strength of those significant figures in attendance serves as a lucid testament to the durable relevance of the independent record label. Were we to cynically perceive the music industry a machine, these would doubtless be the well-lubricated cogs that keep the thing in business. “Independent labels have been propping up majors for years” commend Franz Ferdinand, and the honed capacity of every one of these envelope pushers to intermingle a becoming business acumen with an unabating adoration of all things musical ought never go overlooked.
It’s all too easy to forget, however, just how many great independent record labels these British Isles now boast: the tonight truant Simon Raymonde’s Bella Union; Travis’ Rough Trade; Domino, whose ‘indie’ credentials remain that bit more resolute than most. And of course Warp, whose revolutionary forays into the murky undergrowths of vanguardist electronica are this evening rewarded with the Independent Label Of The Year accolade. Few could begrudge them the honour…
Though if promotion should be the ceremony’s ostensibly primary function, then reclamation feels its latent purpose. Consider music a pendulum for a moment: it swings from intangible thought and perceptible if impalpable feeling, mediated via the vibrating of tangible instrumentation, the whirring of hardware or whatever else, before being physically printed, packaged, and put out by this evening’s congregation, only to once again be reprocessed mentally. And awards, a commemoration of a job well done in their simplest of senses, reconnect the abstract with the material. “It’s not something you wake up every morning thinking about – I mean I couldn’t even tell you what awards we’ve won!” Bob Hardy, bassist of Franz Ferdinand, later confesses against the unrelenting hubbub of the secluded cupboard kept back as the preserve of the press. “The events are nice, I think they’re important, but… I mean at first I questioned it: why do they have this ass-kissy, back-slappin’ awards ceremony like the rest of the music industry?” quizzes drummer Paul Thomson somewhat rhetorically. “But actually they wanna be seen by the public eye to be making a contribution, ’cause they are.”
“My past is always very, very visible” he continues, although the one and only true infiltrator of the evening is Parlophone signee Richard Hawley who, bombered up, makes gibes at amaranthine friend and abiding champion, Steve Lamacq. “Enough about fookin’ dresses” he nebulously quips, before telling anecdotal tales of Colchester football tickets nailed to Eastern trees. “I’m fookin’ ‘avin that. You can never ‘av enough nails.” The room may react with bewildered indifference, and indeed there’s a slight dearth of whooping greeting relevant nominations throughout, though more indie than most this evening trussed up in ‘smart casual’, a career in standup surely awaits once the acid’s really taken its toll.
Though only the independent label head honchos here convened are capable of wresting the term ‘indie’ back off the NME index. “I see us as being independent, as opposed to indie – I guess the term got hijacked and became a genre, or a sound. To be honest, we’re still not exactly sure what that sound is beyond guitar music, I suppose” says Thomson, yet it’s one that, mercifully for most, has since seen most of that initial ’04 interest dissipate, allowing for the multitudinous tones of British independent music to thrive that bit more freely.
From The xx’ porcelaneous, hauntingly spectral fragility (they too commit to XL, avowing in a sort of public school acceptance speech: “Coexist would have been a very different album without them”) to Daughter’s commensurately touching introspection (If You Leave, released last March via London’s 4AD, picks up the Independent Album of the Year award), if ‘indie’ music may now be considered little more than an infinitesimal footnote in British cultural histories past, then it’s one that continues to be referenced in this very present. In rattling off Stand On The Horizon, Bullet and Love Illumination, all lifted from their staggering comeback album Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Action, even the genre’s supposed landed gentry Franz Ferdinand demonstrate a slick, funked-up redux – a variation on that very same theme that lit up their eponymous début. And the impression gleaned from the evening is that so too independent labels will continue to adapt to their surrounds and the demands made of them in these patently transitory times but with every term drawn up by they themselves, they’ve kept steadfastly classy. And that despite there being, as Thomson illuminates, “not a tux in sight!”