What Is Indie Rock

Slanted and Enchanted
Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture

"What is indie rock?" might be a question on your mind if you follow the music industry. The term gets thrown around a lot, but the definition is a little hard to come by. Some people disagree on what exactly counts as indie rock and what doesn't. Even where you live can have a huge impact on understanding what is indie rock.

Indie Rock - Understanding The Basics

One thing everyone agrees on is that "indie rock" is short for independent rock. "Indie" is a word frequently used in the entertainment industry to describe everything from bands and labels to movies and books. It simply refers to something created and distributed outside of the infrastructure of the major companies in a segment of the entertainment industry.

In the case of music, indie typically refers to music that is not released and funded by the so-called Big Four major labels - Sony BMG, Warner Music Group, EMI and Universal. Between them, the Big Four have hundreds of subsidiary labels. Releases not associated with any of those labels are considered indie.

Indie music doesn't have to be rock music, though indie rock is arguably the most successful genre of indie music. Every music genre has an indie scene and network of labels, artists and venues that operate outside of the major label infrastructure.

Is This Really Indie?

Sometimes it is easy to spot an indie rock release, and sometimes, well, not so much.

There are a few gray areas when it comes to defining indie rock, and you'd be hard pressed to get music fans, let alone those in the music industry, to give a consensus opinion on these issues. Some of the debatable points include:

Major Label Distribution

When a record label is a major label subsidiary, they are not an indie label. That is fairly cut and dry. But what about a record label that receives major label distribution? Some labels function independently in that they are independently owned and operated, but they distribute their music through Big Four channels rather than an indie distributor. Are those releases indie?

DIY versus Indie

DIY (do-it-yourself) releases - music that is released by the musicians themselves - share a lot with indie music in terms of ethos, but are they really the same thing? The punk DIY movement of the 1970s was extremely influential on many indie rock labels, who are devoted to preserving an artist's friendly environment not ruled by commercialism. However, some people believe that DIY is separate from indie, and that "indie" refers specifically to music released by indie labels rather than by the artists themselves.

UK versus US Indie Rock

In the US, although indie rock was once synonymous with alternative rock, "indie rock" is now used more to describe the release structure than the actual music. In the UK, the term "indie" is frequently used to describe a particular style of music, even when that music is released by a Big Four-associated label. In the UK, indie may refer to the label, or it may be used to describe music that might be described as "college radio" in the US.

What Is Indie Rock?

As a movement, indie rock is relatively new. Though influence for indie rock bands can be traced back as far as the 60s - particularly to artists like the Velvet Underground and the landmark Beach Boys album Pet Sounds - and to the punk movement of the 1970s, indie rock was really born in the 1980s.

In the UK in the 1980s, indie rock was associated with acts like Josef K, Orange Juice and The Smiths. In the US, indie rock had a hard edge and was associated with bands like Dinosaur Jr, Meat Puppets and Minutemen.

Indie rock really came into its own in the 1990s. Labels such as Subpop, Touch and Go, Dischord, Rough Trade, Merge, Matador and many others carved out successful niches in the music industry completely outside of the mainstream label structure.

Since the 90s, much indie rock has gone online, and the lines between DIY and indie have blurred. Smaller size allowed many indie rock labels and acts to weather the major decline in music sales in the 2000s more easily that the larger labels.

Your Indie Favorites

Who are your indie rock heroes? Let us know your suggestions by leaving a comment.

What Is Indie Rock