Just what is Indie Music? Is it a style, a sound, or simply a gimmick? As it turns out, the answer is not all that simple. See, the word “indie” is just short for independent. So, any artist playing any style of music can be classified as “indie.”
At the same time, different sounds have grown up around a variety of indie scenes, from indie rock to indie hip-hop to indietronica. So, for some people, the label “indie” means that the music fits in with the general sound of a certain genre. In other words, like my relationship status, it’s complicated.
The Origins of the Name “Indie Music”
As I said, indie is short for independent. Ah, well there, that clears everything up, right? Wait, what does it mean to be an independent musician or artist?
Does that mean you can’t have a record contract or have any association with a label? Does it mean you have to produce all of your music in your basement, put up your own posters, and distribute your tunes by hand?
In truth, “indie” has meant all of this and more to some people. But, the general definition of indie music that most people will accept is this – Indie artists are independent of the Big 3 record labels.
In case you were wondering…
Yes, record labels are still a thing. Despite a huge shift in how music is published and distributed (think Apple Music and Spotify), labels still support artists by giving them contracts for stability, artistic direction, marketing, recording services, and much more.
Doing all of this without the help of a label is difficult at best.
Enter the Big 3…
Ever since Universal and Warner split up and bought out EMI in 2013, there have been only three massive record labels that control the production of up to 80% of popular music. These include Universal Music Group (UMG), Warner Music Group, and Sony Music Group.
Notice something similar there?
All of these massive labels call themselves “music groups.” This means that they have absorbed many smaller labels and continue to do so, growing bigger and taking over more and more of the music market.
Universal managed to take over EMI, which was a huge label in its own right. Sony owns Columbia, Epic, RCA, and Artista. Warner owns Elektra and parts of the old EMI.
And Universal, the biggest music company in the world, owns the rest of EMI, Interscope, Geffen, Def Jam, Island Records, Decca, and a whole heck of a lot more.
As you can see…
These Big 3 music companies are so huge and all-encompassing, that it’s hard for anyone NOT to be associated with them. Artists that aren’t can be called independent, whether or not they are connected to other, smaller labels or simply going it alone.
Indie – Going It Alone?
To succeed and make a career out of music, an act has to do a lot more than play music. It has to organize and play concerts, record, publish, market, and sell its music. This involves all sorts of skills that individual artists or people in a band may not have.
Just because you can play music, doesn’t mean you can sell it…
There are many acts out there who do everything themselves, from recording to album art to booking their own tours. However, most acts need help. They may turn to smaller, so-called “independent” record labels that can offer them support.
Of course, all this support is at the cost of royalties. However, indie record labels usually pay a lot more in royalties to their acts than major labels do.
So why do we still call these bands independent?
For most music lovers, the name “indie” can still apply to acts who sign to indie labels. The main reasoning here is that indie labels usually give far greater artistic control to their acts than major labels do.
Huge commercial labels literally control popular music. And, they mold their artists to produce the looks and sounds that they believe will be hits. Indie labels, on the other hand, usually let artists be artists.
Indie vs. Major Label: What’s Better?
As I mentioned earlier, even though major labels pay lower royalty rates to their artists, they offer bigger advances and shell out more for recording, marketing, and distribution of music.
Indie labels don’t have the same kind of money to invest in artists. However, they can often turn better profits and pay out royalties to artists faster because they don’t invest nearly as much in the first place.
Major labels exert considerable control over the music their artists produce…
This can include musical direction, songwriting and lyrical content, and appearance as much as the sound. Indie labels also want to make money but aren’t trying to contend with the huge pop hits that the majors put out.
Instead, they try to find and sign artists who they think will be popular or successful in their own niche genres. Furthermore, they don’t force them to conform to a more watered-down, widely popular ‘commercial’ sound.
Sometimes, indie artists break through with hits that are popular with the general audience. In these cases, indie labels are often under-equipped to deal with the increased demand for the music and sign contracts with major labels or distributors. So, in the end, major labels are incredibly hard to avoid.
Indie, Lo-Fi, and DIY
Sometimes, these names are used interchangeably. But, as we discussed already, what indie music means, more than anything, is no contractual ties to major labels. It doesn’t mean that indie artists can’t sign up with indie labels, however.
DIY or “do it yourself” is a different idea of independence altogether. DIYers do most everything themselves, from recording to publishing to marketing. It takes a huge amount of creativity and resourcefulness to be able to succeed as a DIY music artist. But, it can be done.
More than anything, it is a production style. Because of the lack of access to high-quality, high-fidelity recording and mixing equipment many indie and DIY acts have, a lot of this music can be considered Lo-Fi.
However, some major acts have used Lo-Fi production techniques intentionally to create a specific sound or ambiance in their music. Things like tape hiss, background noise, mistakes, and other imperfections can be left in or even intentionally included in the music.
This was done to some degree by the Beach Boys on their Pet Sounds album and also used extensively by Beck for the earlier recordings such as Loser. Real Lo-Fiers who have always stuck to Lo-Fi techniques include Sebadoh, Pavement, and Bill Callaghan (aka Smog).
Different Types of Indie Music
So, what is indie music? Well, indie music can develop into signature styles or even genres. When a group of indie artists starts to gain popularity, they can influence a sound that becomes fixed and recognizable as “indie.”
As a result, they can form local “scenes,” like No Wave (New York City), Madchester (Manchester UK), and Grunge (Seattle). Let’s look at some of the major styles of indie music.
Indie rock developed from the late 1970s into the 80s and 90s in the US and UK. This was partly influenced by the punk rock rejection of major labels and a new DIY attitude. It also became easier and cheaper to record and distribute music at this time, thanks to changes in technology.
Indie rock has influences from punk rock and post-punk, psychedelic rock, and even country. For a while, in the 90s, it was called “alternative rock” by major labels who made a serious attempt to co-opt the guitar-driven sound of indie rock.
Some indie rock bands have been hugely successful, or at least widely influential. These include the Buzzcocks, Pixies, The Housemartins, Pavement, New Order, The Strokes, The White Stripes, and many more.
“Pop” is a tricky word that means different things to different people. If we think of pop music as “nice” sounding, mostly major key, inoffensive, mostly undistorted, and not noisy music, then we can certainly think of indie pop as a style.
The difference between indie pop and mainstream pop is more one of style. Indie pop doesn’t go as sickly sweet and may be less predictable in its song structure. Indie pop bands may also reveal wider influences from rock to dance and hip-hop to country and folk music.
Some indie bands have had pop hits, like Death Cab for Cutie, Bjork, Joy Division, Grimes, Florence and The Machine, and more.
Indie folk artists mix traditional instruments and song styles with modern instruments to create a new sound.
Artists like Ani DiFranco, Elliot Smith, and Mumford & Sons have done this to much acclaim. Fleet Foxes, with their unique orchestral folk, have also woven different styles to create a whole new sound.
Hip-hop started as a street-level, independent genre. But, it has since exploded into one of the most popular styles of music out there today. Indie or “underground” hip-hop is something of a reaction against this popularity.
While indie hip-hop artists don’t necessarily share a similar style or sound, there is more of a similarity in lyrical content here. Artists focus more on “conscious” and even anti-commercial lyrics.
Some famous Indie hip-hop artists include Immortal Technique, Jugganauts, Del the Funky Homosapien, Jurassic 5, MF Doom, and many others who are still keeping it real.
Indie Electronica and Dance
Indie artists contribute new and different sounds to the electronic and dance genres. Electronic artists like Disco Inferno, Stereolab, MGMT, LCD Soundsystem, and Animal Collective stay indie to allow them to push the boundaries of their electronic sound-based music.
Indie dance artists sprang from the dancier side of electronic music. German pioneers, Kraftwerk, may have kicked things off, but the torch was carried by Madchester artists like Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, 808 State, and others.
In turn, this led to sounds and acts like Fatboy Slim, The Prodigy, and Chemical Brothers.
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What is Indie Music? – Conclusion
In the end, “indie” is a label that can be applied to a huge array of artists and bands across a huge range of styles. It normally means that these artists have either chosen to stay independent and free from major label influence on their music for artistic reasons.
But, for other acts, their sounds or images may simply be too different or extreme to allow them to break into the mainstream.
In so many cases, localized indie successes have also led to scenes and whole new genres defined by musical styles. And some would argue that without indie artists pushing the boundaries, all music would creep towards a generic, inoffensive, bland middle ground. So thanks for staying independent.
Until next time, let the music play.