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What is Indie Rock Music?

By Kathy Hawkins
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term "indie rock" is short for independent rock, and refers to a category of music in which many artists are on small independent labels or are unsigned, as opposed to being signed to major labels. Some artists, such as Death Cab For Cutie, have signed to major labels, yet are still considered to be indie artists. It is a fairly ambiguous term, and can be used to define a wide variety of different bands and musicians. In general, however, indie rock musicians have a very strong do-it-yourself ethic, and do not change their sound to fit popular trends.

Indie rock artists are often played in heavy rotation on college radio stations, so this type of music is sometimes referred to as "college rock." Some of the earliest indie bands who met popular acclaim on campus stations were REM and 10,000 Maniacs. Many early artists hailed from Great Britain, including the Smiths, the Cure, and the Stone Roses. These artists rarely, if ever, made an appearance on the popular music charts. College stations often compiled their own lists of the most popular songs, however, and they often featured these artists. Though musicians played on college rock stations did not necessarily make huge amounts of money, they often had strong fan bases among a younger crowd that are loyal to this day.

Today, there are many different styles of indie rock music. The low-fi style, epitomized by bands like Sonic Youth and Pavement, features an unpolished sound and frequent distortion. Artists like Devandra Bernhardt and Joanna Newsom, who perform experimental folk music, are labeled as "freak folk." Artists like Belle and Sebastian, who play bouncy, mostly acoustic music, are sometimes called "twee pop." New sub-branches of the scene are always developing.

There is a particular lifestyle often associated with people who listen to this type of music. Many of these people, who often dress in unique vintage clothes, are referred to as hipsters. Many cities have large indie rock scenes, particularly New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In such cities, the local independent rock bands often have very strong followings, which helps them to expand into other areas.

Though some bands that were once considered to be independent are now quite successful, such as the Shins and Death Cab For Cutie, most are still under the radar and have to struggle to earn a living with their music. People who like a particular band's music can support them by legally purchasing their music, attending their shows, and recommending them to friends whenever possible.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon992698 — On Sep 24, 2015

They should name it trendy rock, since, like hipsters, they will be gone in a few years. Tired!

By anon347504 — On Sep 07, 2013

I would say the two most famous examples of lo-fi bands are Beat Happening and GBV. How could anyone think Sonic Youth is lo-fi?

I could've done a much more informative article on the history and definition of indie rock off the top of my head.

By anon189887 — On Jun 24, 2011

Very informative. Thank you!

By anon130825 — On Nov 30, 2010

a few corrections: Lo-fi is a term used to describe music recorded by artists, usually at home, on 4 tracks and other "low fidelity" equipment, as opposed to being recorded in modern recording studios. the early works of sebadoh, portastatic and the mountain goats are an example.

while pavement and sonic youth both had roots in a "noise rock" sound, only the early recordings of pavement could be described as "lo-fi".

the term "twee" is often used to describe a musical phenomenon that occurred mostly in the 80's and early 90's that was most exemplified in the output of record labels like sarah, slumberland and k, although it can also be used more loosely to describe music that is overtly sweet, melodic and cutesy; some might also call it a synonym for "milquetoast".

this style of music can be played with any sort of instrument and electric guitars are just as common as acoustic, if not more so.

By anon110898 — On Sep 13, 2010

WKNC 88.1fm in Raleigh is the best supplier of indie rock on the airwaves.

By musicshaman — On Sep 11, 2010

I'd love to put together an indie rock playlist for my college station -- they seem to be stuck on the whole Billboard Top 40 concept.

What would you guys say are your top favorite indie rock and roll songs? What would your ideal indie rock radio playlist sound like?

By galen84basc — On Sep 11, 2010

I tend to think that many indie rock reviews are kind of like the reviews for modern art. Somebody finds a pretty cool theme, other people pick it up and play it to death, and then the critics talk about its originality.

I've got nothing against indie rock, in fact I really like a lot of 80s indie rock, but I think that the critics of the genre can sometimes be too "cool" or "in the know" for anybody's good, much less their own. Then they end up just sounding pretentious and elitist almost like...mainstream critics. Who would have thought?

By pleats — On Sep 11, 2010

I really do like indie rock and alternative music, but I think that, like everything else, it tends to get commercialized and overplayed.

I guess that's just the price of success -- once you sign to a big label, whether it's one of the indie rock labels or not, you're at a risk for becoming overplayed and repackaged.

I think that's what's happening to a lot of the emo indie rock bands nowadays. It used to be really cool and alternative as a genre, but now you've got people shelling out so called emo songs a dime a dozen cashing in on the popularity of what used to be a very underground genre.

By anon64282 — On Feb 06, 2010

At 50-plus years old I'm now just learning about the Indie Rock concept.

From my college days in the 70s-80s I now realize that I would be defined as an Indie Rock fan (except for the vintage dress habit). This year I'd like to get a much-loved band from the 1980s in Richmond, VA known as Ten Ten to return to Richmond for a reunion show.

Are there any out there who would know how to go about organizing reunion shows of Indie Rock bands?

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