Have you ever looked up the dictionary definition of the word “independent”? I have (because I am a nerd and love stuff like this) and it’s extensive.
I started a conversation this past week with some folks on twitter about the definition of “independence” in regards to “independent wrestling”, and ended up with dozens of different definitions and a lot to think about. I’ve been sitting on this blog post ever since, as I ruminate what might actually be “independent” about wrestling, if anything at all.
All of the answers to the question of why we call anything that does not fall directly and totally under the umbrella of WWE “independent wrestling” are valid: a past promotion’s relationship to the NWA, the ability of the performers to work as independent contractors for different promoters, or simply being backed by financiers who are not affiliated with the WWE as a business. But no one definition paints a clear picture of every promotion that has been called, or is currently being called, independent. Some of these promotions, like Wrestle Circus in Austin, Texas and Progress in London, England are selling out upwards of five hundred seats per show. Some promotions are lucky if they even get one hundred members of their local community out, and still put on an incredible show for each person who shows up to support them. How do promotions with high production quality, who stream online live or are available via an on-demand service, end up lumped in with promotions whose shows might only exist for posterity on DVD, if at all?
The one thing all of the promotions that we regularly hear referred to as “independent wrestling” seem to have in common is this: they are still dependent on the loyalty of their fanbase to sustain them. In fact, the thing that qualifies them as “indy” is, ostensibly, their level of interdependence between the performers, the promotions, and the fans. Much like theater, wrestling requires a constant transfer of money and energy from the audience to the company or space and then to the performer and back again. When a company grows to the point of being kept afloat by financial backers who operate independent of the audience’s desires, or when the company moves into other ventures that provide enough income that the funding provided by the fans become secondary, we become irrelevant in terms of the business model.
Even more than the stasis of the fan/promoter/wrestler relationship, independent wrestling also creates a sense of belonging for all parties. It becomes a sense of “we” instead of “them” and “us”. While wrestling as a genre of performance has always had its dividing lines between performer and audience, independent wrestling (particularly today) has bred a movement in which promotions adopt wrestlers and fans alike and build a sense of family. This feeling – this atmosphere – is not unlike the sense of a “scene” in the music industry. You start to see the same faces over again as you regularly attend shows, in the ring, behind merch tables and tickets stands, and in the seats. This is what independent wrestling becomes about: wrestlers who sell their own merch, the fans who bring the streamers and know all the chants, the promoters who treat their performers and audiences with respect and provide them a safe environment to both do and enjoy this thing called wrestling.
All over the world, independent wrestling is growing in new and interesting ways. You would have to be asleep not to know that the UK wrestling scene is on the rise in a massive way, but what is happening there is not the same as the renaissance southern wrestling is having in the US, which is drastically different than what’s going on right now on the west coast. There are subgenres inside of this giant thing we call “the indies” where promoters, performers, and fans are putting their own unique spins on things. But even as these pockets develop, there is crossover – wrestlers and fans traveling the world, people with subscriptions to on demand services from thousands of miles away, cross-promotion shows that mix styles and storylines. This is how you create a healthy scene; you try new things, mix different ways of doing things together. Championships become universally recognized. The scene grows. But always it is about the interdependence – the inter-promotional relationships of everyone involved.
I thought about calling this blog post “screw indy wrestling” which would have been a horribly click-bait thing to do. I think we should defend indy wrestling, because it’s really what’s keeping this art form alive. I will never knock WWE as a way for a LOT of people to access pro wrestling, and for many its the ONLY way to access wrestling. But the greatest thing for the indy wrestling scene is for everyone involved – anyone who wrestles, puts up a ring, designs a shirt, owns a promotion, buys a ticket, runs a podcast, or writes a blog – to remember that the machine doesn’t run without ALL OF US. We as fans have to not only go to shows or watch them online, but we have to talk about them and share them with one another. We have to encourage our local promoters to bring in new faces from far away and let them try something new. Promoters should be trying not only to hone their unique vision for wrestling, but be open that the thing that will set you apart – that will make a name for you – is something you haven’t seen or considered yet. Listen to your audience when they tell you what they will be willing to pay you to bring them. It might change the whole game for you. And wrestlers, keep going to new places and learning new things. Take them back home with you and blow your favorite crowds away. Rinse, repeat.
Independent wrestling needs you to remember you ARE it, all of you – together. That’s how you can defend it, no matter how you define it.