In the past year, Arcade Fire — that most indie of indie rock bands — topped the Billboard charts, stormed the SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE stage and played to packed crowds at MADISON SQUARE GARDEN.

And the new year offers the Montreal rockers what could be their biggest mainstream moment: the chance to compete for ALBUM OF THE YEAR at the GRAMMYS, up against four of the most popular artists in the world at an awards show that largely caters to the masses.

All of this success begs the question: at what point does it seem absurd to refer to such a successful band as indie?

Whether the term is intended as mere shorthand for musicians releasing albums on independent labels or it’s meant to refer to a specific strain of daring, idiosyncratic music, some in the industry are wondering whether the term indie has become as well worn as an ironic thrift store T shirt.

“Indie doesn’t really mean anything,” said Taylor Smith of the Calgary raised, Montreal based band Braids.

“It’s a huge blanket term for things that are not mainstream and anything, really, that has some kind of alternative following is dubbed indie. I mean, whatever. If everybody wants to call things indie, that’s fine. But I know that when someone says, ‘Oh, there’s this cool indie band,’ it really doesn’t tell me what kind of music they play.”

The origins of indie rock can be traced back to the American underground of the 80s, when decidedly noncommercial bands including Sonic Youth, Husker Du and The Pixies flourished in a surging underground populated by dedicated music fans, upstart record labels and small zines.

The term took hold in the 90s, when it became necessary to differentiate between the suddenly mainstream army of grunge bands invading MTV (NIRVANA, PEARL JAM, SOUNDGARDEN and the like) and the music that remained on the outskirts of that movement – bands that typically seemed too noisy, too cerebral or too strange for widespread success.

Since the very nature of so called indie music tended toward eclecticism and experimentation, countless subgenres soon spilled out — space rock, noise, indie pop, lo fi, slowcore etc.

With the advent of Napster and the well documented splintering of the record industry, indie music began gaining a foothold on the mainstream in the early part of the last decade. Groups that began on indie labels and took their cues from the underground or explored edgier corners of rock became bona fide rock stars.

With bands including THE STROKES, FRANZ FERDINAND, THE SHINS and MODEST MOUSE achieving various degrees of chart success, appearing on magazine covers and landing in TV spots, indie increasingly seemed a misnomer.

And yet…a decade later, the term is still kicking around, even as it seems to make less sense than alternative did in the late 90s.

At this point, it seems tough to comprehend the specific meaning of indie, whether it’s a term of esthetics or economics and whether it helps or hinders the bands that fall under its label.

The term is used as a categorical catch all for music as diverse as Crystal Castles’ punishing electronic noise, the New Pornographers’ glossy power pop, Arcade Fire’s majestically emotional rock, Cadence Weapon’s cerebral rap experimentalism and Caribou’s melancholic house.

And for some fledgling acts, that can be a problem.

Braids, for instance, plans to release their debut LP NATIVE SPEAKER in January. It’s an album of dense, swirling psychedelia that suffuses well loved Brooklyn art rockers Animal Collective with more immediate melodies.

Of course, it could also just be described as indie rock. But that doesn’t do much for a band still trying to introduce itself to audiences.

“We’ve spent a long time trying to figure out what kind of genre we would put ourselves in, what name we’d use for it,” said Taylor Smith, whose band is on the Calgary based imprint Flemish Eye.

What did they settle on? “Textural, groove based aggressive pop,” he responded.

Toronto band Dinosaur Bones, also set to release their debut in the new year, feel similarly underserved by the blanket term indie.

“It doesn’t offend me at all. But my only problem with it is it just doesn’t paint a picture when you tell someone they’re an indie rock band or an indie pop band,” said frontperson Ben Fox in a telephone interview.

“It’s hollow. It doesn’t mean anything. But I don’t find it offensive…I’m sure most of the bands, if not all of them, that I listen to would probably be categorized as indie bands – whether they’re on Sony or Warner or on their own upstart independent label.”

Ben Fox’s band — known for brooding, melodic rock and intense live shows — is on Dine Alone Records, also home to Alexisonfire and Arkells.

“The only thing that makes Arts & Crafts or Dine Alone an independent label (is) the fact that there isn’t someone directly above them telling them what to do. There’s a definite distinction between an organization that has Sony offices in L.A. breathing down their necks or not.”

The distinction between major labels and independents does seem to have blurred.

Most so called Canadian indies have secured major label distribution, with EMI — as one example — partnering with Arts & Crafts, Secret City Records, Upper Class Recordings and Justin Time Records, among others.

In the U.S., Alternative Distribution Alliance — originally a joint venture between WARNER and SUB POP RECORDS, with the former holding a much bigger stake — handles distribution for almost every prominent independent imprint stateside, including celebrated labels MATADOR, MERGE and TOUCH & GO.

In Canada, those labels are aided by more than $14 million in support from the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings, more commonly known as FACTOR.

The private nonprofit organization’s stated goal is to provide “assistance toward the growth and development of the Canadian independent recording industry.”

But, along with seemingly everyone else, the organization has its own interpretation of independent.

“It’s any Canadian owned entity,” said Brian Hetherman, FACTOR’s vice president of industry relations.

“As long as an American company is not a major shareholder — probably more than 20 per cent — then, that’s indie.”

FACTOR doesn’t consider whether an independent label has major label distribution and the organization also considers any artist — big or small, indie or otherwise — who owns his or her copyrights or masters eligible for loans.

“It’s about helping all musicians in Canada. But there aren’t very many artists who aren’t independent any more. I think now indie is the norm. And really, all it means is that you are operating on your own for the most part, or you are an entity by which you are responsible for your own destiny.”

Toronto based indie imprint PAPER BAG RECORDS, distributed by UNIVERSAL subsidiary FONTANA, is home to several buzz worthy acts, including P.S. I Love You and You Say Party.

But PAPER BAG president/CEO Trevor Larocque notes that being slapped with the indie label can also have its drawbacks.

“Maybe when you’re taking stuff to radio. I think the tag probably holds us back a bit. But then at the same time, it’s a Catch 22. If you didn’t have that, you might not get onto those indie rock websites that exist out there that are only reviewing those types of records.”

That same conundrum once frustrated Jonathan Simkin, the entertainment lawyer and music manager who cofounded 604 Records with Nickelback singer Chad Kroeger. Jonathan Simkin’s label had achieved chart success with several artists, including radio ready hard rockers Theory Of A Deadman, Marianas Trench and Thornley. But he found that when he approached bands with a more offbeat esthetic, that same reputation for middle of the road hit making worked against him.

“(We had) a difficulty in signing those sorts of bands and when we were able to sign those bands, we found that putting the 604 logo on those records was kind of a kiss of death. The 604 logo and name really has a lot of goodwill in the mainstream rock and pop world. But in the alternative world, people associate 604 with Nickelback and Theory Of A Deadman, and for college kids, that’s kind of not what they want to be associated with.”

Jonathan Simkin’s solution was to start a new label, called Light Organ Records. Free of the 604 stigma, the new imprint has signed a cluster of youthful west coast acts including ADALINE, THE ZOLAS and SUN WIZARD.

Both the new imprint — whose first release, a holiday compilation entitled OUR FIRST CHRISTMAS, came out recently — and 604 Records have major label distribution, but Jonathan Simkin considers the labels “100 per cent” independent.

“Universal distributes us, but it’s not like they’re funding everything that we’re doing. To be honest with you, there have been plenty of times in the last 10 years where the money situation’s been scary for us, where we’re not selling a bunch of records, where we’re not sure how we’re going to get by the next month. A lot of times, that’s a real struggle. And I don’t feel like we’re even out of that situation yet.”

But he still possesses a certain ambivalence concerning the idea that, though 604 is an independent label, its bands are, for the most part, not considered indie.

“I’m not even sure what (indie) means. I think it’s one of those phrases that people throw around when it’s convenient. I mean, we’re an indie label…So does that mean that Theory Of A Deadman is indie rock? I don’t think so.”

Still, not everybody feels it’s time to toss the word the term into the industry’s collective wastebasket.

Leslie Feist, for instance, is still often labelled indie even after selling out arenas, receiving four GRAMMY nominations, starring in a ubiquitous iPod ad and racking up platinum sales of her last record THE REMINDER.

It doesn’t faze her at all.

“I was for 12 years independent, but now I’m definitely on a label — so I can’t really call myself independent any more, even though I kind of identify as that because I was for so many years,” she commented in a phone interview from Toronto.

But she has a solution. Instead of becoming hung up on the traditional definition of indie, she thinks it’s time we generally acknowledge that the word’s meaning has permanently shifted.

“It is a word that morphed into being something completely different than it was initially intended to be. When I see indie, I often think that’s inaccurate. But I know what it’s actually trying to say isn’t what the word means any more. What it’s sort of saying, I think, is it’s music that wasn’t made by science or made by a boardroom or by Disney.”

“I think what it’s trying to say is music made by people with their sleeves rolled up — and maybe that’s the part of it that I still can relate to.”

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