When you hear the term “indie music”, any number of bands might come to mind. Modest Mouse, Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, The Smiths, Belle and Sebastian, The National, Mac DeMarco – these artists represent the indie music scene, and yet they are all different.
Indie can be a bit of a confusing term, because by itself it isn’t a genre. Indie pop, indie rock, and indie folk are all genres, and they are all related, but musically they are different.
In this guide, we’ll give you a working definition of indie music and a brief history with examples, to explain how indie developed and exploded over recent years.
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Definition: What Is Indie Music?
The most obvious interpretation of the word indie is music made by independent artists, without the support of a record label. Indie music is often characterized as having more grit and less of an eye towards commercial success.
Some would argue that artists with no ties to large, commercial labels allow indie artists to create more interesting work.
Over time, indie has come to describe an esthetic, an attitude, and a sound. Indie music carries a DIY attitude. Without the capital of a major label, independent artists are left to design their own art, create and direct their own music videos, and promote themselves however they can.
Many indie artists are passionate about creating a supportive DIY scene that cooperates and works together. This DIY ethos also lends itself to an indie sound – more lof-fi, often recorded at home or on the cheap, and generally quirkier.
But things start to get complicated when indie artists become successful. The fact is, many indie artists who define the sound no longer work independently. Many are signed to major labels or to smaller labels that get bought up by the major labels.
In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with this. It's a natural progression. Some artists like Chance The Rapper stay committed to the independent vision and release their own music, make their own art, and promote their own records. It takes a lot of work, but this sort of trailblazing independence is what makes indie so popular and influential.
As indie music becomes more successful, it becomes more influential. Other artists and musicians listen to the popular indie bands of the day, become inspired, and create music that pays tribute to the indie music tradition.
But the term indie is contentious. If an indie artist is no longer independent, can it still be said that they make indie music? If it has the indie sound, is that a good enough reason to call it indie music?
The truth is, a lot of indie rock could also be considered alternative rock, and as indie rock becomes popular, it becomes a part of the alternative genre. Indie music is interesting because it's always evolving and always influencing mainstream music.
A Brief History Of Indie Music With Examples
It's hard to discern exactly where the history of indie music begins. Generally, people talk about indie music originating in the United States and the UK in the 1970s. That's when the term was associated with independent artists/labels and started to be used interchangeably to describe a genre.
But I’m going to start with a brief overview of the bands and artists who made music before indie music was popularized, and whose effect on the genre can still be felt today.
Pre-Indie Artists Who Influence Indie Music Today
There is a long list of artists from the 60s and earlier who've had a lasting impact on indie music. These artists directly inspired the artists in the 1970s at the forefront of the indie scene, and their influence can still be felt.
The Beatles inspired indie music not just in sound, but in attitude as well. The Beatles were one of the first popular bands to take full control of their sound and make album orientated music. They were socially and politically conscious and were pioneers of new recording methods.
The Beach Boys had a similar effect on indie music. Their legendary album Pet Sounds had intricate production that inspired artists like Grizzly Bear today. Post-Pet Sounds The Beach Boys started using lo-fi production methods that made a permanent stamp on today’s lo-fi esthetic.
Bob Dylan and Nick Drake are both hugely influential to the indie-folk “guy with a guitar” brand of music. Dylan’s prose and unique voice paved the way for bands like The Mountain Goats. Nick Drake was less commercially successful, but still influential. The beautiful dreariness in Drake’s recordings can be heard in influential indie-folk music like Elliot Smith and in modern indie music like Bon Iver today.
The Clash were an English rock band formed in 1976 that led directly to post-punk – one of the first truly indie genres. They fused genres like reggae, dub, funk, ska, and rockabilly and inspired a generation of musicians to come.
These pre-indie legends allowed later musicians to push their genres to the limits. Channeling independence and a disregard for invention brought music to where it is today.
Indie In The Late 70s & Early 80s
According to the BBC Documentary Music for Misfits: The Story of Indie, 1977 was the year indie music was born. The Buzzcocks, a band from Manchester, released an EP independently of a major label and coined the term indie.
By the mid-80s, the term indie was being used to describe the sound of bands on post-punk labels. A couple of key bands to define the sound of indie music in the 1980s were The Smiths and R.E.M.
The Smiths were signed to the hugely influential independent label, Rough Trade Records in the UK. Even though they were independent of a major label, they ended up achieving mainstream success including a number-one album called Meat Is Murder.
The Smiths inspired bands like Oasis, the Libertines, and their influence can almost certainly be traced to any artful young guitar band, especially in the UK. Just take a listen to “This Charming Man” and hear for yourself:
R.E.M. was an American rock band formed in 1980. They are one of the first alternative rock bands. Their lead singer, Michael Stipe, has a unique voice, wrote obscure riffs, and had a captivating stage presence.
Their music is also characterized by arpeggiated guitar riffs, melodic bass lines, and minimalist drumming. Their influence brought us bands like Nirvana, Pavement, and Sonic Youth. Check out “Man On The Moon”, by R.E.M.
The charts in the early 80s were dominated by synthpop. Indie music rejected the popular song, and popularized jangly guitar rock.
Post-punk and indie-pop were the dominating genres, with bands like 10,000 Maniacs, the Pixies, and Hüsker Dü at the forefront of the scene.
Indie Music In The Late 80s
Throughout the 80s, indie music became more popular. This is due in large part to the mainstream success of the indie bands that came up in the late 70s and early 80s. It's also due to the greater proliferation of recording equipment and advancements in consumer priced recording gear.
The mid-80s ushered in a golden era of independent record labels releasing avant-garde independent music. Matador Records and Sub Pop Records were founded in 1986 and remain hugely influential today. Other labels like Dischord, Merge, and Touch and Go were founded throughout the decade.
Noise rock and shoegaze were popularized in the mid-80s by indie bands such as Sonic Youth, Big Black, and Butthole Surfers. This genre was an abrasive and dissonant sounding outgrowth of punk and post-punk music and the DIY indie esthetic.
Sonic Youth emerged from the experimental no wave art and music scene in New York. They are credited as having redefined what rock guitar can do – using weird tuning and preparing their guitars with objects like screwdrivers to achieve unique sounds.
The band brought heavily influenced major modern artists like Beck, Sigur Rós, My Bloody Valentine, and Cat Power – all of which feature heavy indie influence in their sound. Check out “Bull In The Heather”. You’ll hear the influence on Beck and CAKE.
Shoegazing was a movement popularized in the late 80s, which went on to inform the indie pop and dream pop sounds you hear on some of today’s most popular indie records.
The genre is so named after the artist’s tendencies to stare at their feet and use complicated guitar effects rather than engage with the audience.
The Cocteau Twins were pioneers of the dream pop sound that led to/was a part of the shoegaze movement. The band has an unmistakable sound that resonates through today’s indie scene – their sound is ethereal, the guitars are washy and chorused out, the vocals are high pitched, the melodies drifting like a lazy afternoon dream.
Check out their song “Heaven Or Las Vegas” and hear their influence on artists like Mac DeMarco.
The combination of noise rock and shoegaze led to the 90s indie music explosion.
Indie Music In The 90s
Indie music had a renaissance in the 90s. Indie-inspired grunge bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden experienced huge mainstream success, and this brought indie to the forefront.
The 90s were also when home recording became affordable. You could record albums on four- and eight-track cassette recording machines, and later in the 90s onto early digital recording systems. The democratization of recording gear has driven indie music and indie artists ever since.
It has also been said that the indie music ran into an existential crisis in the 90s, because the term “alternative” lost its counter-cultural sheen and began to refer to the new, commercially lighter form of music that was growing in popularity.
When grunge became co-opted by the mainstream, it proved that any niche movement could lose its status as radical and indie.
Elliot Smith was a massively influential product of indie music in the 90s. He became popular in Portland, Oregon (which has since birthed many successful indie bands) and wrote dreary folk-rock music that touched on themes of drugs and mental illness, and was inspired by Nick Drake and Bob Dylan.
Smith’s sound was influential, but so was his method. Two of his most popular albums, Elliot Smith and Either/Or were recorded by Smith himself, and he played most of the instruments as well.
This created an unique lo-fi sound that is sought after by indie artists today. Self-producing all his music also inspired hundreds of indie artists to self-produce in a similar style. Check out “Miss Misery” or anything off his album, Either/Or.
As the nineties progressed, indie music diversified. Many genres were merged under the indie title, because they had many of the same characteristics – released independently or by independent labels, lo-fi sounds, and influence from the punk, post-punk, and indie artists of the 80s.
Indie electronic acts like Stereolab and Disco Inferno emerged using samplers, synthesizers, drums machines and computer programs. Most of this music was released on independent labels like Sub Pop, Warp, and Ghostly International.
Lo-fi recording eschewed polished recording techniques in favor of a more raw, experimental sound. Beck, Sebadoh, and Pavement ushered in a new era of indie rock. Listen to Beck’s song “Loser” to hear influence from Sonic Youth and The Beatles. Listen for the talk singing for the Sonic Youth influence, and for the sitar and nonsense lyrics for The Beatles influence.
Neutral Milk Hotel is a great example of the indie-folk and indie-rock sound popular in the 90s. Listen to “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” to hear the influence of Dylan, Elliot Smith, and the lo-fi sound distinctive of the period.
Finally, the late 1990s brought Emo music to the underground and eventually the mainstream. Emo became hugely influential in the late-90s and throughout the 2000s.
Bands like Weezer and American Football refined the sound of punk and the depressed sounds of grunge and created a pop-punk blend that became hugely popular. Check out “Never Meant” by American Football.
Indie Music In The 2000s
The 2000s brought many changes to the music industry. The growth of digital technology and declining record sales increased the use of the Internet for music promotion, and this once again democratized the music scene for indie bands around the world. Suddenly, anyone could be discovered.
Indie music was now firmly in the mainstream, with bands like Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, and Death Cab for Cutie winning Grammys and entering the US Top 40 Billboard charts. These bands are classified as indie-rock despite their obvious commercial success and even their ties to major labels.
As a term, indie became less about the band’s standing in the industry and more about their sound. Who are they inspired by? If the bands have enough indie influence, they will likely be classified as indie.
Emo became an important genre in the 2000s, with bands like Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional releasing platinum-selling albums.
During the mid to late late 2000s, bands like Fall Out Boy, Panic! At The Disco, and My Chemical Romance released angsty guitar rock that dominated the MP3 players of high-school students. Check out the My Chemical Romance classic “Welcome To The Black Parade”.
The internet brought about a whole new class of indie artists who were recording their own music and releasing it completely independently on the internet, sometimes with great success.
New independent and often hyper-local labels became more popular, as the ability to release music on the internet ultimately became accessible to the public, thus lowering the cost of entry.
By the end of the 2000s, indie bands were everywhere, and people were predicting the demise of indie-rock. Pop and other forms of music seemed to be taking over, but indie persisted.
Of course, you would be remiss to talk about indie music in the late 2000s without mentioning Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, who were at the mainstream edges of hipster culture as we moved into the 2010s.
Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs reached massive mainstream success and even won a Grammy.
Where Is Indie Music Now?
Indie music today has changed substantially even from the indie music of the 2000s and 2010s.
For one thing, the cycle of an indie band has changed considerably. Whereas bands used to release an album, tour for a couple years, and repeat, bands now release and record at a much faster rate.
Streaming services have flooded the market with music, making the attention span of a fan or a listener shorter. Indie artists are feeling the pressures to produce more content at a faster rate.
The mass adoption of home recording has made this even easier, and many bands now record and produce their own music. Even Billie Eilish, the mainstream success of 2020, recorded much of her breakthrough album from home.
Indie music is wildly diverse. From indie-folk, to indie electronica, synth-pop, dream pop, indie rap, indie R&B, indie pop, and more. As music becomes easier to make and release, the indie music scene grows and diversifies.
Is Indie Music More Popular Than Ever?
Fans are listening to music more than ever. The average consumer has access to an unprecedented amount of music through their streaming services. You'll hear music in every mall, car garage, elevator, and car.
Armed with a laptop, anyone can make music. Invest a little more in a home recording setup, and you can record full bands at home. This has resulted in an indie music renaissance. Homemade music is becoming the norm.
It's hard to say whether indie music is more popular than ever. Indie rock is not as popular as it once was, but independent music remains popular.
In fact, 2019 brought us Lil Nas X's “Old Town Road”, which was released and recorded independently, and ended up staying at number one on the Billboard charts for a record 19 consecutive weeks.
Social media has become a powerful tool for boosting independent artists, which can sometimes create wildly unlikely scenarios like a country-inflected rap song becoming the best charting song of all time.
To me, this is an exciting time for independent artists. It has never been easier to make the music you want to make and release it to a potentially large audience.