Earlier this week as I wrote “On Why Zach Braff (and the Other 46,000 of Us) Are Right About Kickstarter,” an essay exploring the idea of patronage and why it’s important to fund projects on Kickstarter and other platforms, even when those projects are done by established artists.

Braff raised more than $3 million from 46,000 backers, which predictably generated a backlash. One of the main arguments from critics was the idea that arts patrons should only fund passion projects that would otherwise not get made or not make money. If there was a commercial viability, the artist’s ethics were called into question for approaching patrons.

Setting aside why artists may seek patron funding so they could maintain creative control or marketing considerations, I was disturbed at how easily these writers trafficked in the mythology of the “starving artist,” holding this ideal of the artist eschewing commercial value for his work as something that we should aspire to instead of something from which we should flee.

The more I explored the logic of those who questioned modern artistic patronage through crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, the more I came across arguments that separated “indie” artists from commercially successful artists.

That got me thinking: What does it mean to be considered an independent artist, or more colloquially an “indie artist.” Did it mean created outside the traditional systems of power, e.g. music labels, publishing houses? Did it mean self-funded? Were there different ways to describe “indie” that may muddy the definitional waters?

This should have been an easy question to answer since so many people used the idea. I’ve been writing about indie artists since 1999, when I first wrote about the convergence of art, technology, and society for Wired magazine and Wired.com. And the term is so ubiquitous that I imagined a relatively standard definition must exist, a way for everyone to coalesce around an idea of what “indie” meant.

Yet I saw none emerge.

To answer the question, I turned to my own social networks on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn. I asked people to help me define what it meant to be an indie artist. This is the conversation that happened.

Indie: It’s About Control

Bruce Haring is the managing director of JM Northern Media, a company that produces web content and live events such as the DIY Convention: Do It Yourself in Film, Music & Books, the DIY Book Festival, the New England Book Festival, the Los Angeles Book Festival, the Green Book Festival; the San Francisco Book Festival; the Paris Book Festival, and you get the idea. He’s also a friend from my days at Wired.com, and somebody who helped teach me the ropes when I first started writing about this stuff:

Independent: not funded or substantial rights held by a multinational corporation, major institution, or other deep-pocketed resource. Preferably rising out of the vision of an individual and bootstrapped.

Whitney Broussard, an entertainment lawyer who lives in the greater San Francisco area, and somebody who helped me parse the world of copyright law when I wrote at Wired and Wired.com:

There are lots of definitions and no one is particularly correct but generally I consider an indie artist to be an artist not signed to a major label. Some would alternatively suggest that they can’t be distributed by a major either. Some might go so far as to say they can’t be signed to any label at all (since being dependent on an independent label isn’t really independent).

Matt Wall, one of the writers and producers behind the amazing film Knights of Badassdom. We recently became Twitter friends, occasionally exchanging thoughts on writing. He’s also pretty well versed in the trials and tribulations of the indie world and the corporate media world:

Maybe ‘indie’ is determined by the nature of a work’s financing? Or, on the basis of whether distribution is in place? One has to ask, ‘independent of what?’ Sadly, the word has become a meaningless marketing term.

John Gibson, director of Revelation Trail, and independent feature film financed through a variety of means, including Kickstarter. If his film gets major distribution, it will have been after filming and have had no impact on the process. We taught together at Northern Kentucky University, a regional school in Northern Appalachia, and I had the chance to give feedback on the early versions of his script:

The general impression that I’ve always had is that an indie film is one that doesn’t involve major studio backing or support (like Paramount, WB, etc); it might involve some budgetary aspects as well, as indie productions also generally tend to be lower/micro budget.

When I think about “indie” artists, my first inkling is that is has to do with how a project is funded. As Bruce said, it begins with the idea that it’s not funded by a deep-pocketed corporation that gives funding in exchanged for the artist turning over their copyright. Whitney goes a step further, suggesting it may also lie in distribution partners, and John finishes by saying that it may involve smaller-than-normal budgets.

I think Matt’s discussion gets to the heart of my issue with the term: What is your independent from? Each of the four people who I’ve grouped together have a sense that funding allows a certain amount of freedom during both the creative process and the marketing process. Each of these are at the heart of what it means to be indie.

Indie: It’s About the Process

If it were just a monetary discussion, defining the term would be easy. However, there’s a more complicated definition for the term “indie,” particularly now that distribution methods for most media have been democratized. Maybe “indie” doesn’t refer to projects anymore, but instead focuses on various distribution points.

Glenn Platt, Professor and Director, Interactive Media Studies at Miami University:

Maybe indie breaks down into phases of production: conception, prototyping, production, distribution, promotion? With a book, you hold ‘true’ to the indie spark in the conception and regardless of corporate influence on the distribution, the book is what it is. But with an app or a game, one is expected to continually update and improve it based on feedback — including that from the non-indie players in the distribution or promotion phases. That seems like a distinctly different indie-corporate relationship.

If we consider “indie”-ness at each phase, that makes it more difficult to characterize a project. If you conceptualize and create a project, but it’s marketed in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you’ve ceded your control. The product might have an independent bent to it, but without the proper marketing frame it may lose its audience and appeal.

Is it fair to characterize Braff’s Wish I Was Here as an indie when it raised funds for its shooting outside the movie studios, but took distribution money and partners after production?

For purists who think control is the key to “indie”-ness, probably not. However, Braff leveraged the money he raised to retain creative control over the movie, which is another component to “indie”-ness.

If Platt’s supposition is correct that we must consider each phase of a project, then we may face the kind of problem that is endemic to the video game development world.

Rafael Fajardo is a professor University of Denver in Electronic Media Art & Design, and Digital Media Studies:

In games we have had such a diversity of conditions take on that appellation that there is now a call to stop using it. [Electronic Arts] has called itself independent for not being tethered to a platform. IndieCade defines condition as not having a publishing/distribution relationship with a specific list of corporations.

The Apple App.store has allowed individuals to craft works that have reached a global audience while keeping a day job (viz Tiny Wings on one hand and Flappy Bird on the other). Glass Bottom Games have seen Kickstarter work more as finishing funds, rather than startup funds, due to the need for gameplay videos to attract backers.

It’s here that we start to run into trouble. As Rafael points out, the term “indie” has moved beyond the process as Platt described and it’s hard to tell what “indie” means anymore. It brings up some interesting questions?

  • Is Braff’s “indie” project the same as Gibson’s “indie” Revelation Trail?
  • Is my So Far Appalachia “indie” project the same as a first time writer ?
  • Are there degrees of “indie”-ness?
  • Is there a threshold through which one passes and then can never be referred to as an indie?

When critics create an “indie” litmus test, definitions become unclear.

To some, these questions of “indie”-ness are enough to undermine the idea of patronage. To these folks, Braff is less like Gibson, and more like Electronic Arts. He has lost his ability to call his project “indie” and is therefore expected as bare minimum to accept that is backers are customers and not patrons.

But does that thinking filter down to my project? I was once a commercially successful writer, but those days are long gone. Is my project less “indie” because I’ve professionalized it, hiring editors and designers, than a first-time author who creates his project alone? Am I unethical for turning down two agents who wanted to see my work, just as Braff turned down studios, and crowdfunding my book?

Indie: It’s About Coalitions and Freedom to Make Decisions

One of the people who have most influenced my thinking on this is friend Jenny Toomey, who has dedicated her life to working on these exact issues. What has emerged from our two-decade friendship has been an understanding on my part that “indie”-ness is another way to consider leveling the playing field for artists. It’s not just about financing. It’s not just about control. It’s about the ability to make decisions and engage in coalition building with equals.

Jenny Toomey, who has a long career in the arts as the lead singer of a punk rock band, one of the driving forces behind the Simple Machines music label, and a founding member of the Future of Music Coalition. Today she works for the Ford Foundation on “Advancing Media Rights and Access“:

It means different things to different people and has meant different things to me over time. For example, growing up in DIY punk culture in DC it meant being part of the parallel “do-it-yourself” culture and economy which tried to avoid the “corporate ogre” and “craven capitalism”. You were validated based on creativity, independence and control.

I am older now and (through the FMC work mostly) I’ve learned the importance of coalition work where folks who don’t agree about everything give up some control to work together because they agree about some important thing that can only be solved together. Most of the good in the world comes through this. It’s less ‘separatist’ as a mindset.

I also know through the wisdom that comes from age that my youthful ideology and choices which seemed embody a carved in stone TRUTH, actually came out of privilege.

In the end, this idea of equal footing when deciding with whom you will collaborate and how that collaboration is structured is what the modern patronage movement is meant to foster. It’s meant to help artists of all levels raise enough money that they can take action when they answer the question Wall raised: “independent of what?”

This is the hallmark of “indie”-ness, creating a space for artists and creators to have an equal place at the table with corporate interests that want to help distribute their work. Sometimes that means the artist eschews all outside help, and sometimes that means they dive into the machine.

But “indie” means artists have that choice.