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Indie Music: The Undefinable Term

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Sound, genre or a way of life?

Today, it’s not surprising to have a person in their twenties and on down tell you, “Oh. Well, I don’t listen to anything on the radio.” Usually when someone says this, you can assume that this person listens to mostly indie music. “Indie,” the short term for its original term “independent” in reference to record labels, is what you listen to if you’re a cool hipster these days. (If you don’t know what a hipster is, then you will be completely lost on the rest of this article… or maybe you are one and just won’t admit it.)

However, today the term “indie” is often too confusing to be used as a description. Is it because the term is misused? Or is it because the term is merely too broad nowadays? If you ask people with any musical knowledge what exactly “indie” means, I can assure you that you will get different answers from everyone. The answers you receive will frequently fall into these three categories: Sound, genre, and aesthetic/philosophy.

Indie Is This Sound

There are both music fans and artists who argue that indie is the sound produced by artists. So what does that mean? The majority of listeners who are just beginning to tune into hip music will just give you artists such as Broken Social Scene, Arcade Fire, Yo La Tengo, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and The Decemberists. These listeners will tell you that indie is the sound that these types of bands create. The sound is unique, fresh but most of all upcoming with an artful edge. Can we take this to be the true definition of indie?

Some believe that it is the way the artists use their instruments. Guitars aren’t just used for power chords or riffs. Instead they serve the purpose for texture within the musical layers of a song. Some believe it is how the artists choose to use technology. Many indie artists are now associated with the lo-fi technique, in which the production of music sounds somewhat home-made by using cassette tape recorders. Lo-fi production is mostly used because of the artist’s lack of finance.

A large amount of music fans will also inform you that indie music is underground, meaning it is undiscovered. It can be considered cool to listen to indie music because not many others are aware of these bands or artists’ existences yet. These people will tell you that indie music is the newest music you will find. Sometimes these bands will gain a cult following, but they will definitely not gain nor want commercial success.

Indie Is Working With an Independent Label

Since the term, “indie,” derives from “independent,” there are many music lovers who strictly define indie music by what type of label the artist works with. An independent record label is purely a record label that functions without the association to or finance from a major record label. So, can we limit the definition of indie music by its label? Is indie music just a genre because of its label?

Artists who choose to work with independent labels tend to do so because they feel that they get more control, actually, in this case – freedom, over their creativity. Independent labels cannot offer the artists enough money in the first place, so the artists are paying for career aspects such as recording, touring, and publishing out of their own pockets. However, because they are paying for all of this, they are also entitled to make each and every one of these business decisions their own.

Artists who fear of being a sell-out if they do gain commercial success often use independent labels as somewhat of a security blanket for their reputation (although some fans may have other thoughts). Major labels often have more control over the creativity and what is being published, but most of all they also have some control over how the label can profit from the artists’ music. Artists who sign with independent labels feel they have support in the right way, and this is often linked to how indie artists work with integrity.

Indie Is A Way of Life

Indie music listeners will often unite with their artists’ aesthetics or philosophies. To make indie music is to make music that represents what they stand for. The artists are writing music for themselves – not for radio play. This is a main justification for indie artists choosing not to sign with major labels. Not all artists who sign with a major label will be successful with listeners, so why comply with all their rules when artists can do what they want to do in their own terms?

Indie artists tend to join together with the Do It Yourself (DIY) ethic which originates from the punk aesthetic. DIY refers to being self-reliant without the help of others (which you usually get from others by paying for it). Indie music is linked to the DIY ethic because of its importance of individualism and rebellion which stemmed from punk ideology.

Indie music can be also be a way of life because the artists aren’t creating or making profits for “the man.” As previously mentioned, integrity is a huge factor in what some people define as indie. Most people will say indie is anything that is not mainstream. These artists do not care if everyone hates their music. Indie music is the music for the rebels, the radicals, and the revolutionary.

So Indie Is…?

Each category intertwines with each other through many aspects but is also its own world in what justifies what indie music is. Perhaps the older generation may argue that indie is a way of life whereas the younger may argue that it is a sound that has evolved into a genre. Don’t agree or still undecided? Well, it’s hard to take sides. Similar to the chicken-egg situation, it’s a cycle that constantly involves evolution. None of those three categories can clearly define indie music today.

The sound of indie music is not just Arcade Fire or Broken Social Scene. There is also indie hip-hop, indie pop, indie rock, indie folk, indie electronica and much more. So forget about the indie stereotype without rappers or pop stars. The sound of indie is not consistent because any genre can start out as indie. Therefore, indie cannot be a clear nor objective genre because there are too many sub-genres within it.

Also, just because an artist or band is undiscovered and unsigned, that factor does not necessarily make them indie. There are plenty of artists making mainstream music with the help of an independent label. Mainstream labels also support indie artists such as Feist, The Fratellis, and The Pipettes. A label cannot define indie because there are many independent labels that work with the help of major labels today, such as Cherrytree Records and Interscope Records.

Moreover, only some indie artists are loyal to the DIY ethic of music. Some artists who are labeled as indie are only so because they have not yet landed a major record deal. Much of indie music includes artists who have hopes in becoming mainstream. They might be considered sell-outs once they do gain commercial success, but if they are doing what they choose to do; aren’t they still indie?

Some artists are willing to accept the support and help from a major record label. Does this make them mainstream even though they are still producing indie sounding music? Major labels can actually provide the money for tours, which ultimately help their fan base grow. These major labels have done a decent job with principles that work for artists. Furthermore, major label artists can have the same amount of fans as any indie label artist may have and vise versa. It all depends on the fans.

In the end, indie or mainstream, music is a business and unfortunately some indie artists are hindering themselves by rebelling against major record labels. Whether they are indie or major label record deals, there are good and bad deals. In due course, artists – indie or major label – who do well will take advantage of a good record deal according to their own standards.

Wikipedia defines indie as short for independent, references to artistic creations, outside the support of commercial mainstream, or without the support of a major label. Again, the term indie here is very broad. If I were forced to define indie (I wouldn’t choose to because I’m sure my opinion doesn’t matter), I would say indie music is: Music with a new sound in any genre.

The term indie music will always change because what’s new will eventually become old. Hence, you will always be arguing with a fellow music lover what it is until the day you die. That is, if you choose to argue about it. You can be a bigot about it (watch out for those hipsters) or you can just take it for what it is: A broad term to group particular similarities in music.

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About Seraphina Lotkhamnga

  • N

    I have always been lead to believe that índie’music is kind of relaxing music with a tropical vibe to it or something like that i never thought of it being just a label for people that dont have the finances for a large recording company but thanks for clearing that up.

  • I have this discussion so much its ridiculous. And one thing I’ve seem to notice is that once most bands label themselves as what they think they are they stop becoming good or stop becoming what they labeled themselves as. Indie music seems to not follow that. And it is really hard to describe Indie music and I think mostly because music itself is only described as ”Soung that sounds good to the ears.”

  • Thanks for your input, Tim. It really just demonstrates the fact of how many ideas people can have for “indie.” I agree about those who self-finance their own CDs. Many of those artists who do the same in America no longer want themselves labeled as “indie” either.

  • Things might be different in America, but in Britain ‘Indie’ hasn’t really meant anything other than a style of music for at least a decade. If anything , it’s come to mean ‘mainstream’ four-chord guitar music (I believe the same thng has happened to the word ‘alternative’ in the US). A lot of bands playing ‘indie’ music are signed to major labels, and I’ve bought an awful lot of self-financed CDs over the past year from bands that would never describe their music as ‘indie’.

  • Thanks, La Shawn and Jordan!

  • Nice article. It’s interesting to see how these genre discussions can transfer into other mediums, too, especially film.

  • Good post, Seraphina. I was going to weigh in on what I considered indie – bands on independent labels – but I realize it’s sound, label, and way of life. In other words, it’s all of the above. Major cop-out, but I don’t have the answer to “what is indie,” either! Thought-provoking…