What Is Indie Rock?

Indie rock is hard to define, but it wasn’t always that way. When the term was first coined, arguably back in 1977, it applied to rock bands that were independent of major record labels. Some indie bands put out their recordings themselves, and some were signed by tiny record labels that shared their DIY values.

Bands like the Replacements, R.E.M. and Sonic Youth were all indie bands by that strict definition, but once they were signed to major labels, the indie-rock label still stuck. The term indie began to define a sound and ethos; it wasn’t necessarily related to the record-label status of a band. That’s evident when you hear someone describe Coldplay as indie, most likely because of the band’s indie-like depressive sound and sensitive lyrics.

The Indie Ethos

In the world of indie music, anyone could start a band, teach themselves to play, lay down a record and head out on tour (which often involved playing makeshift shows in residential basements). Most indie rock bands don’t make much money but have loyal fan bases. Their quirky approaches to music designated them as not compatible with mainstream tastes, although the types of music span several subgenres, like noise pop, lo-fi, emo and slow core.

Indie rock showed up on the coattails of punk in the U.S. and U.K. It shared the same anyone-can-start-a-band philosophy with punk, but, for the most part, it had less focus on anger, destruction and confrontation, venturing away from a pure punk-rock sound toward an eclectic assortment of musical approaches. However, indie rock still explored raw and abrasive musical territory, and post-punk music can still get the indie label.

College Radio Airplay

Major radio stations didn’t play these bands, but their musical offerings filled, and still fill, the playlists of college radio stations — a fact that gave indie rock the alternate label of college rock. The Smiths, 10,000 Maniacs and the Violent Femmes were indie bands that received heavy rotation on campus stations during the 80s, a time considered by some to be the heyday of indie rock, when guitar-based jangle pop was the college-station sound in favor.

The Sell-Out Dilemma

Indie rock bands had a philosophy of DIY and musical experimentation that was outside of the mainstream. At one time, the scourge of every indie band was getting labeled as a sell-out, a negative term meaning the band sacrificed their artistic integrity in the pursuit of fame and fortune, usually by signing to a major label. Selling a song for use in a TV commercial could also threaten to decimate the hard-earned reputation of an indie band who otherwise worked for purely creative motivations.

However, that attitude of disdain toward selling out seems to have changed as its been observed that bands like Sonic Youth, the Shins and Death Cab for Cutie transitioned to major labels while still holding onto their cred. A major turning point happened in 1991, when former indie-rock band Nirvana achieved Billboard-topping success, proving that the counter-culture could get mainstream acceptance while sticking to their ideals. That wide-reaching success was evident with Nirvana’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

man being held up by crowd in concert body surfing

As grunge and punk-inspired bands in the U.S. and indie bands in the U.K. entered the mainstream in the 1990s, the term indie was still used, but it identified bands that had perspectives as outsiders or part of an underground. Alternative was the word that people seemed to use the most often to describe the counter-culture bands with mainstream success.

The Indie Rock Sound

The indie-rock sound typically has more pop accessibility than punk. But, it has an unexpected, experimental element and often features noise that you don’t hear in mainstream pop or rock. The lyrics are wordy and sensitive, and the sounds can be distorted, depressive or all over the place stylistically.

Indie Rock Bands

Since the definition of an indie rock band includes bands on non-major record labels and ones with an indie sound, the list is extremely long and nearly never-ending. Some highly influential indie bands include:

  • The Jesus and Mary Chain
  • Sonic Youth
  • The Violent Femmes
  • Hüsker Dü
  • The Smiths
  • The Fall
  • The Butthole Surfers
  • Swans
  • Dinosaur Jr
  • Beck
  • Stone Roses
  • My Bloody Valentine
  • Ride
  • Pavement
  • Sebadoh

Starting in the 2000s, a new wave of indie bands have emerged, like Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, Arcade Fire, Belle and Sebastian and Death Cab for Cutie.

Indie Rock Labels

Independent record labels aren’t connected to the big three: Universal, Sony and Warner. The internet and digital music have made it easy to create an independent label, so it’s impossible to know just how many there are. Independent labels carefully curate the artists they let onto their roster, and they usually let them retain artistic freedom as well as the rights to their songs.

Some notable indie rock labels are:

  • Rough Trade: They brought us the Smiths
  • Kill Rock Stars: This is a grunge and riot-grrrl-heavy label based out of the Pacific Northwest.
  • Sub Pop: This label was the epicenter of 90s grunge with signed bands like Soundgarden, Mudhoney and Nirvana.
  • Domino: This London-based label had releases by Artic Monkeys, Sebadoh, Pavement and Franz Ferdinand.
  • Alternative Tentacles: Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys founded this San Francisco-based indie label in 1979.

The line between what’s indie and what’s not continues to blur. Some say that indie is a state of mind that connects the people who get it. Indie rock bands and fans form a music community where misfits and rebels are at home.