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Indie rock

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Indie rock

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Indie rock
Stylistic origins: Punk rock, Hardcore punk, Post-punk, Garage rock, No Wave
Cultural origins: 1980s United Kingdom and United States
Typical instruments: Guitar - Bass - Drums
Mainstream popularity: Largely underground, but some bands have had mainstream success.
Regional scenes
Largely global, England - Scotland - Wales - Ireland USA
Other topics
Timeline of alternative rock

Indie rock is a genre of alternative rock that primarily exists in the independent underground music scene. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with indie music as a whole, though more specifically implies that the music meets the criteria of being rock, as opposed to indie pop or other possible matchups. These criteria vary from an emphasis on rock instrumentation (electric guitars, bass guitar, live drums, and vocals) to more abstract (and debatable) rockist constructions of authenticity.

"Indie rock" is shorthand for "independent rock", which stems from the fact that most of its artists are signed to independent record labels, rather than major record labels. It is not strictly a genre of music (although the term is often used to reference the sound of specific bands such as Pavement and the bands they have influenced), but is often used as an umbrella term covering a wide range of artists and styles, connected by some degree of allegiance to the values of underground culture, and (usually) describable as rock music. Genres or subgenres often associated with indie rock include lo-fi, post-rock, garage punk, emo, slowcore, C86, twee pop, and math rock, to list but a few; other related (and sometimes overlapping) categories include shoegazing and indie pop.

Typically, indie artists place a premium on maintaining complete control of their music and careers, often releasing albums on their own independent record labels and relying on touring, word-of-mouth, and airplay on independent or college radio stations for promotion. Some of its more popular artists, however, may end up signing to major labels, though often on favourable terms won by their prior independent success.



In the United Kingdom, indie music charts have been compiled since the early 1980s. Initially, the charts featured bands that emerged from punk, post-punk, and other forms of music; these bands were categorized solely by having their records released by small labels, independently of the major record companies. However, the term "indie" became primarily associated with a form of guitar-based alternative rock that dominated the indie charts, particularly indie pop artists such as Aztec Camera and Orange Juice, the C86 jangle-pop movement and the twee pop of Sarah Records artists. Probably the definitive British indie rock bands of the 80s were The Smiths and The Jesus and Mary Chain, whose music directly influenced 1990s alternative movements such as shoegazing and Britpop. In fact, it is quite common in Britain for all alternative music to be referred to as "indie" instead of "alternative".

In the United States, the music commonly regarded as indie rock is descended from an alternative rock scene largely influenced by the punk rock and hardcore punk movements of the 1970s and early 1980s and their DIY ethos. In the 80's the term "indie rock" was particularly associated with the abrasive, distortion-heavy sounds of Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr (who coincidently are often mentioned as an influence on the shoegazing movement), Sonic Youth, Big Black, and others that populated American indie labels, separating them from jangly college rock bands like R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs, who by the end of the decade were signed to major labels. During the first half of the 1990s, alternative music, led by grunge bands such as Nirvana and Pearl Jam, broke into the mainstream, achieving commercial chart success and widespread exposure. Shortly thereafter the alternative genre became commercialized as mainstream success attracted major-label investment and commercially-oriented or manufactured acts with a formulaic, conservative approach. With this, the meaning of the label "alternative" changed away from its original, more countercultural meaning to refer to alternative music that achieved mainstream success and the term "indie rock" was used to refer to the bands and genres that remained underground. One of the defining movements of 90s American indie rock was the lo-fi movement spearheaded by Pavement, Sebadoh, Liz Phair, and others, which placed a premium on rough recording techniques, ironic detachment, and disinterest in "selling out" to the mainstream alternative rock scene.

Current trends

More recently, the term "indie rock" has become a catch-all phrase and so incredibly broad that almost anything from post-punk to alt-country to synth-pop to psychedelic folk and hundreds of other genres can fall under its umbrella.

In fact, there are likely to be several popular, and wildly varying, strains of indie rock going at any given time. For example, some of the more popular recent strains include:

  • New folk, an updated take on the folk music of the 1960s, typically designated by quiet vocals and more ornate, orchestral instrumentation and arrangements.
  • Freak-folk, a more experimental take on New Folk that generally revolves around quirky, psych-inflected folk songs and ballads.
  • New Weird America, the most heavily psych-damaged strain of New Folk, frequently consisting of avant-garde noise, drones, or dissonance, and often employing natural field recordings for added atmosphere.
  • Nu-gaze, an updated version of shoegazer that tends to lean more heavily on synths than its more guitar-focused predecessor.
  • Indietronic, a descendent of electropop that finds a more conventional approach to indie rock or indie pop backed almost exclusively by highly digitized electronic instrumentation.

Also among the most popular strains of indie rock at present is the Post-punk revival movement. Popularized by bands such as Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party and The Futureheads, it is influenced primarily by the New Wave and post-punk movements of the 1980s. The core of this movement has mostly been the resurgence of spiky 70's punk and '80s post-punk rhythms and riffs akin to those played by Gang of Four, Television and Wire. Often this style has been blended with other genres such as garage rock (Death From Above 1979) and synth rock (The Killers). Some would also classify the Scissor Sisters and many others within this genre, which are very popular in the UK, forming the backbone of the Zane Lowe show, a popular evening radio show on Radio 1.

Whether this particular movement embodies the indie ethos is debatable. Many of these bands are signed to independent labels, and express a disdain of the major-label marketing apparatus. (In the 8th January 2005 issue of NME, Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand authored an article championing the genre, saying independent labels 'have character', how they are 'run by people who are passionate about music' and stressing 'why independent record labels are so important' as the saviour of good music.) Critics point out that, while many of the bands are signed to labels technically independent of the Big Four, the movement is highly commercial, image-oriented and market-driven, with millions of dollars spent on marketing and the investment of corporate promoters such as MTV, Clear Channel and Carling; a far cry from the traditional indie world of labels run out of bedrooms by friends of the bands and unconcerned with commercial success. Furthermore, much of this movement has been said to be rigidly formulaic with sounds that imitate a small number of 1970s/1980s post-punk and New Wave bands, and are thus not particularly independent in spirit. While some artists in this movement may embody the DIY aesthetic and unconcerned attitude of indie more than others, it cannot be said to infuse the entire movement.

Further muddying the waters of the technical definition of "indie" is the fact that independence from major labels and independence from market-driven commercialism are not always correlated. For a time in the late 1990s, three of the most successful artists in the UK indie charts were *NSYNC, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. All three were signed to Zomba, which was technically an independent label at the time. (Zomba has since become part of major label Sony BMG). In contrast, there have been a small number of notable artists (such as Radiohead, Pulp, Morphine Built To Spill and The Flaming Lips) who have maintained considerable creative independence and won critical acclaim whilst signed to major labels.

Given all of this, many think that the term indie rock will soon go the way of the term alternative rock. However, as has been mentioned, in the early 1990s the term alternative rock became a marketable commodity due to the success of grunge and 80s alternative groups such as U2 and R.E.M., essentially and paradoxically making alternative rock no longer alternative but mainstream. The beginnings of a similar trend have happened to indie rock in the past few years. A number of the more popular indie acts have found commercial success, leading record executives to show an interest in marketing the term. Therefore, the term indie rock oftentimes no longer refers to rock made by groups recorded by independent labels, but rather a style that can be marketed just like any other style. This is paradoxical, as the term indie was intended to refer to music produced by independent labels, not a definite style. To quote music journalist Ryan Gillespie, "But if they are indie, then what are the truly independent to be called? If indie-oriented labels are continually being sucked up into the mainstream, who will be the avant-garde? Who will push the boundaries of pop music and how will it ever be discovered amid the clamor of major and major-owned minors with deep pockets? Will you and I be able to cut through the label hype to find truly independent music to support?" [1]

See also

External links


  • Mathieson, Craig (2000), The Sell-In: How the Music Business Seduced Alternative Rock, Sydney, Allen and Unwin
Alternative rock
Alternative metal - Britpop - C86 - College rock - Dream pop - Gothic rock - Grebo - Grunge - Indie pop/Indie rock - Industrial rock - Lo-fi - Madchester - Math rock - Noise pop - Paisley Underground - Post-punk revival - Post-rock - Riot Grrrl - Sadcore - Shoegazing - Space rock - Twee pop
Other topics
History - Indie (music)

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