Since it’s genesis in the mid 80’s, the term indie rock has been used to describe a diverse assortment of bands and musical styles. Technically a sub-genre, or co-genre, of alternative rock, the label has spawned an array of sub-genres of its own. Everything from grunge to post-punk revival can be categorised under the indie rock umbrella.
Though the meaning of indie rock is really not so straightforward. Initially used to describe bands that existed outside of the mainstream this denomination became difficult to apply when many of those bands found commercial success in the 90s and 2000s.
Due to the eventual success of some indie rock bands, the term is more ambiguous today than when if first emerged. Though some still use it to describe ‘independent’ music, referring to bands that have not signed up with a major label thus commercialising themselves and “selling out”, the term is also commonly used to describe bands that demonstrate certain musical characteristics.
In the musical press the term indie rock is bandied about without much consideration for its true origins. The counter cultural attitudes that gave birth to the notion of ‘indie’ rock have been partially wiped from the mainstream of history. But what were the original ideals and attitudes that gave birth to the indie rock movement?
Origins and Meaning
As mentioned, the term originated in the mid 80’s. An abbreviation of ‘independent’, the word indie referred to a collection of small, independent record labels and the bands they represented. Often these bands were placed in the alternative rock genre, a term used interchangeably with indie rock during this time. Common among them was a do-it-yourself (DIY) attitude and a general feeling of aversion towards mainstream, commercialised music.
Avoiding association with the major labels also allowed the bands involved to be more experimental, since they did not have to worry about the opinion of large mainstream audiences and the profit oriented perspective of the major labels. By staying independent acts secured their autonomy and artistic freedom. Thurston Moore of 80’s indie rock band Sonic Youth once said “I really don’t care about, oh I have to sell these things”.
Inspired by college rock bands like REM and the Smiths, along with distortion junkies like the Pixies and Meat Puppets, the genre has, musically, always been associated with a combination of easy melodies layered over dirty, distorted experimental sounds.
Indie rock bands have always expressed a firm desire to be authentic, a reaction to the perceived shallowness and superficiality of the mainstream music industry. Many have been dedicated non-conformist, anti-authoritarian and, occasionally, highly political.
Often, the indie rock label is considered to be only appropriate for bands that are unpopular and relatively unknown. Talyor Swift was recently quoted saying “I have so many indie bands on my iPod. What I don’t understand is the attitude that if a band is unknown, they’re good, and if they get fans, then you move onto the next band”.
The point that Swift is missing is not that a band should be unpopular, rather that bands should be true to their core values and principles. Apparently a commitment to integrity is, unsurprisingly, a notion that is beyond the comprehension of a corporate country pop singer.
Take American post-hardcore, indie rock band Fugazi. Despite gaining huge popularity around the world the band refused to charge more than 5$ for a ticket to their shows, arguing that fans should not be excluded simply because they cannot afford to pay. Even after disbanding in 2003, the band members remain loyal to their principles; in 2011 Ian MacKaye said they had “been offered insane amounts of money to play reunions, but it’s not going to be money that brings us back together, we would only play music together if we wanted to play music together”. To top it off, Fugazi exemplified the DIY ethic by releasing all their music through their own record label, Discord Records.
Indie in the Mainstream
During the early 90’s however, the self proclaimed integrity and authenticity of the inde rock scene came into question. Suddenly, bands that had epitomized the independent, DIY ideology found themselves placed, willingly or not, into the limelight. The counter-cultural alternative rock scene was about to become the mainstream it loathed.
The seismic shift started in Seattle, when grunge band Nirvana, previously on the independent label Sub-Pop, signed a deal with Hollywood mega-label Geffen Records. The first album the band recorded with Geffen was the now legendary Nevermind. The album made its way to the top spot of the US album charts 4 months after its release. Today, the album has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, likely making it the best selling alternative rock album of all time.
After Nevermind the band was a certified success and the whole world was talking about grunge, alternative rock and indie rock. Nirvana’s success set the trend for many other grunge and alternative rock bands, including Pearl Jam, Mudhoney and Hole to enter the mainstream.
As more bands found success in the mainstream the meaning of the term indie rock became increasingly watered down. It lost its political and social connotations and came to describe the aesthetic quality of a bands sound. Today, it is not uncommon to see the label applied to any new band with a jangly or distorted guitar led sound and some catchy melodies, regardless of the bands ethos or record label affiliations.
Indie in the UK
Indie music in the UK took a slightly different root than in the US, though the indie punk scene, which originated during the early 80’s, largely inspired its origins. Starting from the mid 80s a wave of post-punk bands emerged along with more pop influenced indie acts, of which the Smiths is undoubtedly the most well known.
While in the US bands were experimenting with how much noise their amps could make, their UK equivalents were more interested in melodies. The result was indie pop. These acts, thought not quite heavy enough to be classed as rock bands, were still dedicated to the same values and principles common among indie bands.
Influential in creating the sub-culture was independent record label Rough Trade, which claims to remain independent to this day. However, this claim is somewhat dubious given that the company is now part of the Beggars Group, which owns several record labels and a 50% stake in Rough Trade. How much this impacts the independence and autonomy of the music produced is unclear.
Like with grunge in the US, UK indie music entered the mainstream in the 90’s. Britpop, a hybrid of indie rock and UK indie pop, saw bands abandon small-scale local music scenes for the spotlight, Oasis and Blur being the most notable examples.
Indie Rock and Feminism
After the success of Nirvana a wave of male fronted grunge bands found fame to varying degrees. Apart from Hole’s Courtney Love, there was a decided lack of females present in the genre.
Yet indie rock has strong roots in feminism and can boast many female fronted and exclusively female bands that have been equally innovative as their male counterparts. In fact, an entire sub-genre formed on the basis of feminist values named Riot Grrrl, proving without doubt that woman could do indie rock just as well as men. Comprised by bands like Bikini Kill, 7 Year Bitch, L7, Babes in Toyland and to a lesser extent Hole, the genre was female dominated by definition.
Topics included in the music of Riot Grrrl bands focused on domestic abuse, sexuality and patriarchy among others. Possibly even more politicised than its parent genre, indie rock, members of Riot Grrrl bands typically dedicated a lot of time to local activism and organisation.
The Future of Indie Rock
In the mainstream the term continues to be used to describe an a-political genre of pop music played by dudes with guitars. This erroneous, imprecise perspective was perfectly conveyed in a 2012 article in The Guardian, which declared the “slow and painful death” of indie rock. An outlook the author based entirely on falling record sales for mainstream, so-called indie rock bands, most of whom, like the Kaiser Chiefs and Razorlight, represent a mere shadow of what indie rock is really all about.
Yet even today there are thriving legitimate indie rock scenes all over the world. All the rage as the worlds ethics have finally caught up with theirs. Locally focused, authentic and with a DIY attitude, these are bands you’ll likely never to have heard of unless they’re from your town.
Key Moments in Indie Rock History
1979 – Alan Horne founds Postcard Records in Glasgow, which is later attributed with facilitating the birth of indie rock in the UK.
1980 – Discord Records in founded by Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson, which becomes the permanent home of the internationally known Fugazi.
1981 – Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon form Sonic Youth, a DIY focused, experimental indie rock band that went on to receive international admiration.
1986 – Bruce Pavitt and Jonathan Poneman found Sub Pop Records in Seattle, which goes on to sign Nirvana, Soundgarden, Sleater-Kinney, The Postal Service and many others.
1990 – Kathleen Hanna, Billy Karren, Kathi Wilcox and Tobi Vail form punk rock, Riot Grrrl band Bikini Kill.
1991 – Nirvana’s second album, Nevermind reaches the top spot on the Billboard Hot 200, forever securing their presence in the mainstream.