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.

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 also is 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.

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 sound 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 EMI. 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.

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 easy for any aspiring artist to record a song 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 Monkeys image by: Bill Ebbesen, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

Brian Clark is a multi-instrumentalist and music producer. He is passionate about practically all areas of music and he particularly enjoys writing about the music industry.

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