What Is Indie Music?

Indie music (an abbreviation of “independent music”) is defined as music that is produced independently from large commercial record labels. Conversely, the term “indie” is often used to describe the indie rock music genre, which is not necessarily independent.

Indie Music – Key Takeaways

  • The term “indie music” is often misunderstood, encompassing both independent artists and the indie rock genre, causing confusion.
  • Indie music spans diverse genres and styles, offering a wide range of artistic expressions.
  • Independent labels, or “indie labels,” are more flexible and risk-taking than major record labels.
  • The history of indie music includes pivotal moments in rock, punk, and alternative music.
  • The digital age and the internet have democratized music distribution, enabling indie artists to thrive in the 21st century.

Is the Term “Indie” Too Generic or Misunderstood?

The term “indie music” has a very ambiguous meaning nowadays, as it may refer to either independent artists or those within the indie rock genre. Independent artists are increasingly using the term “independent” instead of the abbreviated version in order to reduce confusion.

Popular Indie Artists

In this case, we’re referring to indie rock. Some very popular indie rock bands are listed below. Of course, many bands dip their toes into multiple genres, and indie rock is also a relatively wide genre of different styles.

During the 2000s, there was the emergence of garage rock-led indie, with bands like The White Stripes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Strokes, and Arctic Monkeys.

During the 1990s, we saw Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, and Pavement, as well as many grunge bands that started with independent labels like Nirvana and Soundgarden.

During the 1980s, indie rock music was led by R.E.M., The Pixies, The Smiths, and The Fall.

Of course, this is not a definitive list. A more complete list of popular indie rock artists would be beyond the scope of this article!

Does All Indie Music Sound the Same?

Independent music is incredibly diverse and spans many different genres; therefore, the styles and sounds of music vary greatly. Indie rock music also does not all sound the same. Bands within this genre often use the same instruments, but styles vary greatly across the genre.

Our perception of indie rock music is limited to the bands we were exposed to. Of course, many of the bigger indie rock groups have influenced emerging artists into a certain sound; however, the genre still spans a diverse amount of styles.

Major Labels vs Independent Labels

As you can see, most of the discussion around independent music is related to record labels. Right now, the music industry is categorized in business as an oligopoly. This is a market condition that sees a very small number of companies dominating the industry.

There are 4 major record labels right now (usually referred to as “The Big Four“). They are Warner Music Group, Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, and E.M.I. Theoretically, all the others are considered to be indie record labels, even if they are very strong.

The problem with indie record labels is that they do not have the finances and connections the Big Four have. As a result, music launched by them will be less distributed. However, these record labels are much more flexible and willing to take risks.

They respond really fast to music industry trends and give a lot of freedom to the artists. So, arguably, much of the evolution we see in music comes from the indie labels.

A Brief History of Indie Music

The history of indie music is a complex and multifaceted journey that spans several decades. The genre often emphasizes artistic freedom, non-conformity, and a D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) ethos. 


The roots of indie music can be traced back to the early days of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues. Independent labels like Sun Records played a crucial role in launching the careers of artists such as Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.


The counterculture movement of the 1960s saw the rise of independent folk and psychedelic rock artists. Bands like The Velvet Underground and The Byrds significantly influenced the indie music scene with their innovative sound and refusal to conform to mainstream norms. Also, singer-songwriter culture with a man singing solely with a guitar by names like Bob Dylan and Nick Drake and different-sounding bands like The Beach Boys paved the way for upcoming indie bands.


Punk rock emerged as a rebellious and DIY-driven genre, giving birth to the punk ethos of independence and self-expression. Bands like The Buzzcocks, Television,  and Wire epitomized the spirit of indie music during this era. At the same time, legendary bands like Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones created their own record labels and went independent, producing their own music at some point in their careers. 


The term “indie” became more commonly associated with independent record labels and underground music scenes. The British indie music scene, with bands like The Smiths and The Cure, gained prominence, as did the American indie scene, featuring acts like Pixies and Sonic Youth.


Indie music saw a surge in popularity and diversity during this decade. The grunge movement, spearheaded by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, brought alternative rock to the mainstream. Meanwhile, indie rock bands like Radiohead and Pavement maintained their independent spirit while achieving commercial success.


The digital revolution and the internet changed the indie music landscape significantly. Independent artists and bands found new ways to distribute their music online, bypassing traditional record labels. Platforms like MySpace and, later, Bandcamp, SoundCloud, and YouTube played vital roles in this transformation. The White Stripes, Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens, and Interpol are some of the big indie names that come to mind from the era.


The 2010s saw indie music continue to thrive, with artists like Bon Iver, Mac DeMarco, Grimes, Vampire Weekend, and Tame Impala achieving both critical acclaim and commercial success. Streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music provided new opportunities for indie artists to reach wider audiences.

Throughout its history, indie music has celebrated artistic freedom, individuality, and a D.I.Y. approach to music production and distribution. It has provided a platform for countless talented artists to share their music with the world while maintaining their creative independence. The indie music scene continues to be a vital part of the global music landscape, constantly evolving and reinventing itself.

Why Are Independent Hits More Common Now Than Ever?

In the pop world, it can sometimes be difficult to tell if music has come from a major label or an indie label. This is, in part, because the internet has leveled the playing field a little between indie and major labels, though the latter still has a lot more power.

For instance, the song “Old Town Road” gained mainstream attention through TikTok. Other social networks quickly followed and led to a wide acceptance from listeners in every corner of the world.

In the past, cases in which independent songs and albums topped music charts were less common. Since promotional channels were limited and required huge financial investments, indie records had limited mass exposure. It was very difficult to launch a song and have it become viral.

We should also mention self-production. The barriers to entering into the music industry are now way lower than they used to be. It is very important for aspiring artists to record a and then launch it on the internet. This can potentially lead to a contract with a smaller indie record label, which in turn can lead to mainstream success. However, with more than 70 million tracks already uploaded to Spotify, it’s getting increasingly difficult to stand out.

It’s now way easier for artists to set up their own home recording studios, where you could produce a mainstream hit with as little as an average-powered laptop.


To sum up, independent music is much more than a single genre. It can include practically anything, as long as songs are produced by independent labels or are self-produced. However, the term “indie” is commonly used to refer to the “indie rock” genre, which can make matters more confusing.

Arctic Monkeysimage by: Bill Ebbesen, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

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