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Indie Music: A Definition

Here at 23 Indie Street, as you might expect, we love indie music - we are, after all, an indie music radio station.


But what is ‘indie music’? It’s a question we often get asked. Even more often we get told that such-and-such band isn’t indie. Eg:

“Since when have Coldplay been indie?”

Lots of people seem pretty clear on what isn’t indie but establishing what is indie is not a straightforward thing. What do you think of when you hear the word ‘indie’? What images does the word conjure? It always makes us think of John Squires’ lemon or perhaps Ian Brown’s hair in the early days.


There’s no universally accepted definition of ‘indie music’ - but there are three definitions that, over time, have been applied to the genre of indie.


  1. Indie is a music publishing model

  2. Indie is a state of mind or attitude

  3. Indie is a style of music and a certain sound


These three things, in varying combinations, go towards creating a genre of music that we call ‘indie’.

Let’s look at each definition in a bit more detail.

Indie as a Music Publishing Model


‘Indie’ was originally simply the shortened form of ‘independent’ and was used to describe bands who were independent of any major record label. These were bands who were signed to small start-up labels or who for one reason or another chose to publish their own music without using a label at all.


It is thought that the first example of a band publishing their own record was the 1977 Spiral Scratch EP by Buzzcocks


Whilst they are often described as a punk band, Buzzcocks certainly possessed an indie ethos (see below) and they were at the vanguard of the trend to find a way to get your records into the hands of the kids by circumventing the major labels. Spiral Scratch gives us a useful chronological backstop - for a band to be considered ‘indie’ they need to have emerged no earlier than the late 70s or early 80s.


Why did bands want to self-publish? There were several reasons - not least among these was the fact that getting signed to a major is by no means easy.


The second important reason was artistic control - when you were signed to a corporate it was because you were expected to make some money for the label. This profit imperative gave the labels a mandate (in those days at least) to interfere in the artistic process and push output towards the commercial end of the market. A highly polished, radio friendly product is definitely not ‘indie’.  


In the 1980’s small labels sprang-up across the country to release vinyl on behalf of a wave of post-punk bands. These were DIY outfits - they would print their own record sleeves and centre-labels and would assemble the finished product by hand before loading a box of the records into the boots of cars and driving them to sympathetic record shops such as Rough Trade in London (Rough Trade also had it’s own indie record label).


In the 1990s indie music made the transition from ‘alternative’ to mainstream. In the UK this change was, in part, a backlash against the massive success of American grunge acts in the early 90s - chief among these being Nirvana. The UK media (with the help of some of the major labels) created ‘Britpop’ -primarily as a marketing device. Nirvana had shown the majors that people were willing to buy ‘alternative’ music by the truckload and the majors wanted a piece of that action.


It is here, in the early 1990s that the idea of indie as a publishing model comes to grief. The major labels were signing alternative bands left-right-and-centre or, failing that, the majors just cut out the middleman and bought the independent labels wholesale - see, for example, the sale of Oasis’ label - Creation Records - to Sony. Inevitably, it wasn’t long before ‘indie’ ceased to mean ‘independent from a major’.


But who cares?


When The Strokes released ‘Is This It?’ they were signed to a big label (Sony’s RCA) but this doesn’t stop them being indie - The Strokes are as indie as they come.

Indie as a State of Mind


So if ‘indie’ is not just about publishing models, what else makes an indie band an indie band?


This one’s a bit harder to pin-down - but in order to be properly indie it helps to look like an indie band and think like an indie band. ‘Indie’ means being angry, ironic and amused. It means not doing as you’re told and not fitting in. Indie means eschewing ‘cool’ whilst knowing that being an outsider is the coolest thing of all.


This is music for misfits, by misfits and it’s about misfits. To quote Pulp (one of the indiest indie bands ever) it’s about “Mistakes, mis-shapes and misfits”


Indie is bands-as-gangs. Four or five people against the world and you want to be in their gang. They look fantastic whilst never looking like they’ve tried too hard. They are artfully dishevelled and their clothes, like their music and (sometimes) their record labels is do-it-yourself.  

Indie as a Sound



But what does indie music sound like? Well, quite, that’s the really important bit isn’t it?


Indie music is usually guitar driven. We’re not talking about ‘metal’ or ‘rock’ here - indie music is underpinned by swirling, melodic, rhythmic electric guitar and power-pop verse-chorus-verse structures. To quote someone wise (OK, it was us) “If there ain’t no guitars, there ain't no point”.


Indie music is DIY, it’s not over-produced and never too polished. Indie bands often sound like they can’t play their instruments -sometimes this is because they just can’t - but in many cases it’s because the bands revel in sounding dishevelled. Examples of this include indie stalwarts The Cribs and Pavement - both of whom sound like they’ve detuned their guitars for a laugh.


This is not always the case, of course. New Order are an indie band, yet many of their songs are entirely synthesizer created without a guitar in sight. Take their towering ‘Blue Monday’ for example - wall to wall drum machines and synth - but it’s still an indie song and a classic of the genre to boot. There are, as always, exceptions that prove the rule.


No conversation about the ‘sound of indie’ can ever be complete without speaking (in hushed tones) about C86 - this was a cassette tape issued by the NME in 1986. C86 was a compilation of 22 tracks from 22 up and coming indie bands - some of these are still around (The Wedding Present and Primal Scream) whilst others are barely even a memory (The Shrubs). C86 cemented indie as a genre and defined it with a jangly, shambling and sometimes fey sound.


Indie had been around before C86 and many people think that the tape’s influence has been overstated - but there’s no doubt that the pulling together of these bands in one place crystalised the idea of a new kind of post-punk guitar music.


After that, it just got better and better. The Stone Roses, Pulp, Blur, Radiohead, The Libertines, The Pixies, The Cribs, The Strokes, The Smiths, The Manic Street Preachers, Spector, Wolf Alice, Joy Division, The Wonderstuff, The Arctic Monkeys, Belle and Sebastian, The Cure, The Stereophonics, The Wedding Present, Oasis, New Order, The National, The Flaming Lips, Arcade Fire, Suede, Oasis, The Killers, REM, The Vaccines - oh my, so much beautiful noise.


And Coldplay? Yeah, why not - they can be in our gang.


Richard Copley

23 Indie Street

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