What Is Indie Music, Anyway?


Octiive Support

| Posted:

October 28, 2021

What is indie music? What's the definition of indie music, really? Is it a thing we can actually point to and say, yup! That's it!

Yes. Yes it is. And since we at Octiive have been doing indie music news, supporting indie musicians and providing affordable, global indie music distribution for nearly twenty years, we can tell you exactly what it is. Let's go.

What Is Indie Music, Exactly?

An indie music definition can tell us what indie music sounds like, but only at different times. That’s because all music sounds similar in certain eras. The '50s sound like the '50s, the '70s sound like the '70s, etc. That doesn’t change. So while we’ve technically had indie music since, like, the late ‘70s, it sounds completely different from 1980 than today.

The term first started getting chucked around in the 1970s. I’ll give you my definition first, just as I originally published it on the Quora Q&A forum in 2016:

But we don’t want to simply say “we’re right, and this is the answer” (even though we are and it is). We want to give you a round perspective on the question, so let’s look at the ways other writers have responded. There are both professional and fan points of view represented below.

MusicIndustryHowto’s Liam Duncan says of it:

“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.”

And goes on to say:

“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.”

And stylistically?

“The truth is,” Duncan writes, “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.”

Duncan also says people sometimes don’t allow indie bands to be called indie after they “sell out” and go mainstream, but that it’s an arguable point about which there’s never been any consensus. We agree with all these things.

UK punkers the Buzzcocks, 1977, often called the first indie band.

What is Indie Music According to Vanderbilt?

Indie music’s definition according to Vanderbilt Hustler’s Deniz Orsay also hinges on alternative music, though he agrees with the 1970s thing, too. Note that the Hustler is a college newspaper and Orsay is not a music expert:

“Before delving into what constitutes indie music, its distinction (or absence of distinction) from “alternative” music must be made clear. The two have long been used interchangeably because alternative artists tend to be independent as well. Alternative music, first used as an umbrella term for every record that didn’t fit mainstream formulas, gradually lost its initial definition when it became indirectly part of the mainstream. Some examples of this trend include Nirvana, The Offspring, Oasis and Green Day. So, currently, in layman’s terms, alternative music is everything not at the tip of the commercial music iceberg, which is predominantly pop, but which still garners a large enough following and financial success.”

Orsay also notes NPR’s definition as he quotes them, “not being financially dependent on the four major labels—WMG, UMG, EMI and Sony BMG.”

But ultimately he gives up and says indie is a vague sound not yet solidified:

“It’s important to not see indie as an umbrella term like it used to be. It’s not a storage room where you can stow away artists that don’t fit certain molds. I believe enough time hasn’t passed yet for indie, in the modern sense, to materialize concrete rules and aesthetics. We’re close, though. More and more artists are adopting the sound we currently associate with the genre, and it is seeping into the public consciousness that, by an unknown metric, some music is indie and some just isn’t.”

We at Octiive disagree wholeheartedly with pretty much all of this, as does the Wiki on the subject and the eminent ProMusicianHub. Read on.

Sunny Day Real Estate, one of the first truly indie bands to go truly mainstream.

What’s the Definition of Indie Music According to the Pros?

What’s indie music according to the pros? Wiki calls it “music produced independently from commercial record labels or their subsidiaries, a process that may include an autonomous, do-it-yourself approach to recording and publishing.” Right, then. But it goes on to state that people do use the term to describe a DIY aesthetic which can be akin to a genre, though this is amorphous like Mr. Orsay says.

ProMusicianHub almost directly contradicts that idea:

“In a nutshell, indie is a term that describes music created by independent artists, which means major record labels don’t support them. The artists don’t play the same music, and a single genre doesn’t identify them, so we can’t consider indie a single genre. It’s more of an umbrella that classifies artists according to their approach to recording.”

They go on to describe popular culture’s co-opting of the term, though, because you pretty much have to today as everyone’s kid brother keeps using the term to describe all sorts of things.

“A lot of people describe indie as an attitude. Without the power of a record label, the artists have better chances to express themselves and create their music without any restraints or limitations. They also have the freedom to make music videos and deliver their music how they see fit … Over time, things changed, and indie artists started gaining worldwide fame. The Arctic Monkeys and Tame Impala are perfect examples of that. As a result, many people believe indie is replacing ‘alternative music’ as the blanket musical term that comprises anything non-mainstream.”

So there’s the alternative music problem, again. Note, though, that it’s only a problem if we stop calling music released by major labels independent when it’s clearly not.

Perhaps the best example of indie music is Ian MacKaye's Dischord Records label, who as of writing still has their entire catalog available for absolutely free online.

Indie Music Definition: Yes We can

What is indie music and can we call it a thing? Yes we freaking can. Let’s look at just one more and call it a day.

Hummingbird Mag puts it rather bluntly:

“What the hell does “indie” actually mean? ... Indie artists are those who produce music independently from a commercial record label. Naturally, this classification of indie includes artists of numerous genres and exists separately from the colloquial way in which indie is often used to describe acts such as Tame Impala and Mac Demarco. The latter refers to alternative rock, which has gradually merged with indie rock through extensive overlap (many indie rock artists can also be categorized as alternative rock, and vice versa). This has created a tremendous contradiction: many ‘independent rock’ artists do not work on independent labels.”

So there you have it.

What Is Indie Music? Indie Music Is Independent, Baby

Is the artist signed to a major label? Then they’re not indie. They can’t play indie music. They can sound indie, they can record their material with a lo-fi sensibility, and they can even mix the music themselves if their major-label overlords trust them enough to do so, but they’re not independent of the industry, so they can’t be indie. They’re just alternative.

And that’s fine. We already have more than enough words to pigeonhole different kinds of music, so we don’t need to steal terms from their appropriate categories because the artist will look more cool for it, or something. There’s also the crucial matter of money to consider.

Real, truly independent musicians need the money from their music sales far more than musicians signed to a major label. It isn’t fair to let comfy artists appropriate the indie title so people feel good about paying them just as if it were a dollar in an open guitar case on the sidewalk. That’s disingenuous.

Not to mention, the suggestion that bands trying to sound as if they weren't recorded for lots of money actually are indie bands is very insulting to independent musicians who have to work much, much harder than signed bands. Independent artists must do their own booking, marketing, merchandising, and networking besides the very hard work of writing, recording, mixing, and mastering. The stuff they don't do themselves, they pay for themselves. More work. Then confused fans call bands with label-paid roadies and guitar techs indie? It's awful. Don't be that person.

Be real, be true, and be honest. Indie is the same thing it’s always been.

There are just more mistaken music fans now, is all.