What is "indie"? Tracing the enigmatic history of music most elusive term

January 26, 2012
This article was published more than 2 years ago.
Est. Reading Time: 3 minutes

Josh Parsons

Music Editor

The term “indie” pops up more often these days than a tweet tirade from Kayne West. Yet many people are still baffled by the illusory nature of the concept. Is it a simplification of the word “independent”, a style of music or something much more enigmatic?

The development of the term stretches further back that many imagine, to a time before many of us were likely even born. The term was first used by journalists as a tag to mark a growing scene of independent musicians in the early ‘80s, but it has since become synonymous with a style and sound.

A growing discontent with the over-produced, glitter-glam scene that was flooding the mainstream during the late 70’s sparked a grass-roots revolution to take the music industry back. The clearest example of this was the punk movement, but creative independent music was not limited to this genre.

It was pied-pipers such as the Ramones who carved tour circuits across America, making a string of connections wherever they went. For the first time, people could enter dive bar and see freaks playing original music. A mantra swept the nation, “if that drunk fool can do it, what’s stoppin’ me?”

Soon, hardcore punk exploded across America in response to the conservative backlash, and a national web of independent music connections grew with it. But the idealism of hardcore proved constricting for maturing artists and their creativity was spilled over the tight confines of the genre.

It was bands such as Husker Du and R.E.M. who first really came to define the term “indie.” Both with roots in the punk scene, these bands proved that these aggressive genres could be balanced with a pop sensibility. It was thus that the age of college rock was born.

College radio was fundamental to the success of the wave first independent bands across North America. While the mainstream press and media virtually ignored these bands, college stations and campus papers ensured that these cunning artists not go unrecognised.

By the late ‘80s, the mainstream had begun to notice the underground buzz. R.E.M popped their major label with their 1988 release Green. The mainstream and underground we’re no longer two distinct streams, and with the changed the way in which the term “indie” was used.

When Nirvana broke in the earlier ‘90s, the mainstream realized the undeniable appeal of independent artists. Local scenes we’re pillaged as the major labels sought to rampantly capitalize on the trend.

A few years later, the trend had been completely exhausted and the industry reverted once again to superficiality and plasticity. It was during this period that the term indie was melted down and reshaped.

When, in the early ‘2000s, the garage rock revival began to pick up steam, the term “indie” re-entered the vernacular of journalists. But this time, the referent was no longer a movement of musicians but a style and sound. It described a sound, ultimately based in guitar rock, but willing to flirt with experimental, pop and folk sensibilities.

Hopefully, some of your confusion regarding the use of the term has been alleviated. But even I’ll admit that this is just a brief, liner sketch of an evolving and elusive concept. Despite how much is written about the term, it can never be totally pinned-down.


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