What Is ‘Indie’ Music?

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It’s a difficult thing pinpointing exactly what we mean when we say ‘indie’ music. Are we talking about the style, the genre or the actual production behind the track? Since the era when indie music was defined by its lack of production help from major record labels and subsidiaries, indie has become one of the most popular terms in the charts and on streaming sites – so can music really be indie anymore?

Most critics date indie music back to the 1970s, noting the rise in popularity of small labels such as Rough Trade Records and Factory, alongside the influence of now-famous bands like the punk-rockers Buzzcocks who changed the future of music. Rough Trade found themselves signing Morrisey-led The Smiths in the 80s, bringing a quirky and melancholic sound to the ever-present love of guitar-led bands. Until this point, indie guitar bands weren’t really popular on the airwaves, with big rock and roll bands often stealing the limelight from smaller acts. Surprisingly though, The Smiths became one of the most notable British bands on the indie scene, almost leaving their independent ways behind for success overseas; their fame popularised the phenomenon of large record bands snatching up small-town bands in the hopes of finding the next big seller.

Indie music’s subgenres are what confuse it even further. Technically indie is purely based on the lack of big-budget production costs, yet there’s something indie-feeling about the alternative and art-pop sounds of many modern bands. New York City rocker’s Vampire Weekend always get branded as indie, but actually, they’re an art-pop band signed to one of the biggest record labels – Columbia. You’ll find it hard to search up an indie playlist on Spotify and not find ‘A Punk’ on there somewhere, but is it actually an indie tune, or does it maybe just fit the feeling of an upbeat song that verges from the stereotypes of pop music by offering something more? Ezra Koenig’s vocals are far from the ‘norm’, but that doesn’t define the band as indie.

In more recent years, indie has become a categorisation for music that verges from the ‘over produced’ tracks of mainstream radio. Bands like Two Door Cinema Club and Arcade Fire fit the bill, alongside artists such as the notable Mac DeMarco whose popularity is vast but who are over and over again defined as indie by listeners. If you want to find a truly indie act anymore, I’d say the best way is to pop down to your local pub and find an open mic night. It’s becoming ever more difficult to define what indie means, especially as platforms such as TikTok and YouTube pick up small acts, turning them from independent to mainstream overnight. Indie music encompasses so much, so is the term really necessary anymore?

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third-year film student & records/live exec 20/21

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