When I go to live concerts with my friends, we tend to play a game: guess the genre. In my opinion, band descriptions can be so funny. Here are some examples of musical genres I’ve encountered in the last couple of months: shoegaze, stoner, slacker, new wave, postpunk, lo-fi, DIY, soft-punk, new prog, new weird. Say what?! Last Sunday provided another excellent example. Before going to the Franz Ferdinand concert we decided to read a bit about the history of the band (it’s interesting) on their Wikipedia page. The band is described here as being one of the most well-known “post-punk revival bands”. What does that even mean??
Anyways, I thought, why not look into this a bit more? It would be cool to be able to speak this secret language! So let me take you on this educational journey which will probably be a series of posts. Each one digging into and trying to understand a different genre. Today, kicking off this ‘Say What?’ series, the biggest confusion of all: INDIE!
Actually, when people ask me what kind of music I like, I tend to answer with: ‘indie’. Guilty. Yet, I never did any proper research on what it means and what kind of music it entails. To me, indie music and the hipster culture are inseparable. I would say it’s melodic guitar music with a certain vibe. But, yeah, I admit this is more of a feeling than a proper description of a genre. Also, I have the feeling it can entail so much! I would personally classify both the Arctic Monkeys and The XX as indie music. But they’re totally different types of bands! How can this be? Let’s find out once and for all.
Wow, the first search with Google gives me the Wikipedia page for ‘Independent music’. Never knew that indie was short for something… Here’s Wikipedia’s definition:
“Independent music (often referred to as indie music or indie) is music produced independently from commercial record labels or their subsidiaries, a process that may include an autonomous, do-it-yourself approach to recording and publishing. The term indie is sometimes used to describe a genre (such as indie rock and indie pop), and as a genre term, “indie” may include music that is not independently produced, and many independent music artists do not fall into a single, defined musical style or genre, and create self-published music that can be categorized into diverse genres.”
Hmm sounds a bit confusing, right? What I understand from this page and some others (here, here and here) is that the term ‘indie music’ emerged somewhere in the 1970’s. It was meant to describe bands that broke away from major record labels and produced their music independently. Often this happened with independent record labels that had the bands interests at heart and produced music they were into. Early indie bands that are often mentioned are Sonic Youth, The Smiths and Pavement.
Clear story so far, but when listening to the Indie Party Spotify playlist it gives me bands such as Arctic Monkeys, Tame Impala, The Strokes and Vampire Weekend. I’m not so sure how independent they are… This is where the confusion starts. Originally, the term indie was used to make a distinction between independent and pop music. However, as the New World Encyclopedia definition explains: “‘Indie’ as a musical term grew from the confusion that emerged as certain sounds became associated with the term. The musical stylings of the bands overshadowed Indie’s original connotation.”
Confusion grew even further when original ‘indie’ bands started contracts with major record labels as they became more popular. Yet they’re music was still classified as ‘indie’ as the word was now used to depict their sound with this term. Further research led me to this post by Vigilante Detective. He makes a distinction between independent and indie rock. His definition of ‘indie rock’:
““Indie rock” on the other hand, is a genre of music. It is a term I’ve had a hard time describing over the years, because “indie rock” really does cover a wide range of styles of music. Yet when you see an “indie rock” band, chances are you can immediately identify them as such by their musical style, aesthetic, and overall vibe. It’s hard to explain, but I guess there’s a certain amount of whimsy and aloofness that comes with the territory of being truly indie.”
This sounds more like the picture I had in my head of indie music! And it actually does seem to be mostly about a feeling. As the New World Encyclopedia explains the term indie is currently often used for artists that have certain values, such as a Do-It-Yourself vibe (even though they may still be working with major record labels), creative freedom and the separation from the commercial music scene.
So, from all this reading I learned, indie is a difficult genre to explain or define. And then there appears to be a difference between American and British indie but let’s not even try to understand this. My personal favorite of all the definitions I encountered is the following in the Urban Dictionary (definately a hobby of mine). This one probably fits my prior understanding of the genre best:
“indie music isnt a difinite style of music, but most indie bands are influenced by each other causing a similar sound. the sound is melodic, the instruments are simple but well textured. usually includes a simple but origanal guitar riff, another guitar riff layered to complement it, bass doing the same, simple drum beat (but fitting the song well) either a keyboard or violin or something to bring out the underlying melody, and soft vocals, usually well harmonized. the lyrics are powerfully emotional (but not whiney). they spark emotion but they dont talk about how there lives suck (very tastefull)
as a scene: people who love indie love it for its music alone. they try to keep it small because they dont want it to be a huge scene, they want to keep it about improving the sound, thats why they know a million bands you’ve never heard it, they just want to find new things to improve the music, but with anything good, dumb high school kids will ruin it.”
Let’s conclude this confusing story and let’s actually listen to some indie (whether independent or not)! Let me know what you thought of this post! Did it fit your prior understanding of indie music? And are there other genres you’re not so sure about? Don’t be afraid to leave a comment! I appreciate it a lot!
Just to be sure: I am an absolute amateur and this post is just my interpretation of what I’ve found on the internet. I tried to provide sources as much as possible. If I made some wrong conclusions/interpretations, let me know!