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MusicUnderFire | February 13, 2016

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What Does Indie Mean?

What Does Indie Mean?
The indie band Beirut (shown above) released The Rip Tide off of lead singer Zach Condon’s Pompeii Records.

What does indie mean? What is indie music?

The definition of the term itself, ‘indie’, carries many meanings depending how you look at it. Is there a clear answer? As the co-founder of an indie music website, I often get asked “What is indie music?” The definitive path of it is as clear as mud, but I will say this: indie music is a label (and so much more). Let’s look into this further.

Unlike other genres, indie music doesn’t describe itself by calling itself indie. Indie music is an all-in-one lifestyle, a rejection of conformity, a voice unto itself, originality without calling itself original, the always-changing minority, experimentation at any scale and most importantly, independence.

Pop to popular isn’t what indie is to independent.

Pop references a set of parameters that when brought together always come across as pop, mainstream or low-hanging fruit. Indie music, unlike pop music, comes in various formats with a large footprint. Indie can be a lo-fi rock band, an electronic ambient DJ in a bedroom, or an acoustic singer/songwriter on a small stage, just to name a few examples. You can’t get an indie version of a song. Indie is not a flavor you can simply pick from a parlor. It is embedded in the composition of many aspects that come together as one.

Which genres fall into the indie category? Indie can be as wide or as narrow as you want it to be. Let’s take punk for example. Punk has been around since the 1970s and while there are harder and softer aspects to this genre, it specifically focuses on rock. Many of the qualities of indie also fall within punk, but then again, many genres cross-pollinate. Country can become blues, electronic can become techno, folk can become folktronica and so on. What remains constant is that indie always needs other genres to explain it.

Looking for specifics?

A question you might be asking yourself, is Death Cab for Cutie indie? The simple answer: Yes. Death Cab has long been revered as an indie band despite their popularity for various reasons. The long answer: Death Cab, much like Nirvana, helped turned Seattle into a music hub of the US. SubPop Records (now part of Warner Brothers) was the heart of independent labels there and assisted Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard with his previous project The Postal Service and Nirvana a decade before. Although Death Cab eventually went to the parent company, this could be seen as leaving indie music. But it really wasn’t. The group maintains the style they started with, their flare for individual propulsion (Ben Gibbard and Chris Walla have toured separated as solo artists), and the fact that they don’t feature pop artists in their songs maintains their independent stature. With that example in mind, you can now take any band you see and try to define them one way or another. But the determining factor of what indie music actually is can change, just as bands do. Just as indie is a perception, so too is it a way a band goes about their music, their tours and with whom they decide to associate themselves.

What Indie Music Is…

Indie music is all about the artists. The musicians create the amorphous allure that becomes synonymous with indie music. Fans, critics, small labels and everyone else listening acts as support for that ideal of independence. The lifeblood of indie artists shuns conformity. An invisible guideline exists. For indie music to exist, it means the artists continue to produce original music, not to follow a formula, to aspire to meet their fans from various angles, not to reproduce a similar track, and above all to remain an entity unto themselves.

The indie label means new music you haven’t heard before from artists that aren’t playing every hour on the radio. It means buying an album off of Bandcamp instead of iTunes. It means going to the early act because you liked their demo. It means one-on-one emails with an artist who just completed a new track. It means Liking only a few groups that really speaks to you. It means creating a playlist based on what you like and not a ‘smart’ program’s interpretation. It means a lifestyle choice that you don’t become a part of, rather it becomes a part of you. That is indie to me.


Great article - Indie to me is thinking outside of the box, not taking the easiest approach if it means a better product or result.  It's all about giving credit where it's truly due, not just going the easy path to appeal to the masses.  It means going back to the basics, doing things right even if it isn't the popular choice and sometimes it means doing it on your own.


There's lots of vague definitions out there, but I think you captured its essence quite well here.


  1. [...] that carry the indie spirit.  If you are still wondering where we are coming from, read our “What Does Indie Mean?” post.  The groups below epitomize what we love about this type of music, the culture and [...]