What the hell is indie music?

10 min readApr 24, 2022


Indie Rock, indie folk, indie pop, indietronica, indie music … How many ‘indies’ are there, right? Are we able to define them? Before we go for those (especially indie rock), we have a look at something and explore the 90s. We have to explore grunge which was so popular in the 90s and regarded as the golden age for indie music. It’s the subgenre of alternative rock. And also a synonym of the Seattle sound. Speaking of alternative rock, these days, alternative means ‘not mainstream.’ The term also refers to the simple and independent musical style and DIY ethos of punk rock. Actually indie music began with Motown Records in the first place. Later, the punk rock band Buzzcocks released an album independently for the first time. It was April 1977. Then 80s ‘independent’ musicians became an ‘alternative’ to those days’ hair metal bands. And their rock music has started to be defined as ‘alternative rock.’ In the early 90s alternative rock reached its own peak point with grunge. This is when the transformation has happened. Where alternative rock has started to transform into indie rock, there stands grunge and its mainstream success.

It all started with Sub Pop Records. “Up to that time, everyone played it really safe…Then kings of the scene (Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt, Co-founders of Sub Pop Records) came and said “…We don’t want our bands to work day jobs. We want them out there on the road. We want them in the magazines. We want their records everywhere. It’s punk rock but we don’t care. We want to make it bigger than punk rock.”” said Sub Pop photographer Charles Peterson. Actually these sentences tell us about how grunge really started to rise.

Jonathan and Bruce worked to ensure that their label projected a ”Seattle Sound”, reinforced by a similar style of production and album packaging. With pictures, concerts boosted and turned into major events. And with some promotion moves, it gained more popularity. With four huge alternative bands (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Alice in Chains) from the same region, the music media wanted a label to describe this new Seattle sound. No matter how the music sounded significantly different from each other, (for example Alice in Chains started off as a hair metal band.) the “big four” Seattle bands were all labeled as grunge.

Any other bands from Seattle at the time, were lumped into the category as well. Ben London of Alcohol Funnycar described it like this: “If you lived in Seattle and were under 30 at that point, you were grunge,” no matter what your band sounded like.

Grunge started to gain commercial success in the early ’90s. Pearl Jam released ‘Ten,’ Soundgarden released ‘Badmotorfinger’,’ Alice in Chains’, ‘Dirt’ came and Stone Temple Pilots’ ‘Core.’ In September 1991, Nirvana released its major label debut, Nevermind, which broke grunge into the mainstream. In January 1992, Nevermind knocked Michael Jackson’s ‘Dangerous’ off the top of the Billboard 200. Michael Azerrad asserted that Nevermind symbolized “a sea-change in rock music.” Rolling Stone put the band on its cover in April and called Seattle “the New Liverpool.”

The change has happened. It was like the commercial embodiment of punk’s inclusive DIY ethos. Nirvana made the musicians see what they’re capable of. Simple music that was reachable for everyone; you didn’t need to spend countless hours practicing scales to play ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ It’s 4 chords at most. Kurt Cobain shouted to a million frustrated musicians, “You can do this!”

“We have a pretty big role in spreading something from the underground to the heartland,” said Jon Canelli, the senior vice president of music and talent at MTV. MTV’s selling strategy of grunge embodied a paradox. When an alternative movement goes mainstream, it’s not alternative anymore.

Grunge was not an alternative anymore and spreaded to the world in every way. It’s not an exception right? We know it’s so normal that if a musical genre gains that much popularity, its other ingredients spread rapidly too. Its dressing style, hairstyle, view of life, drugs etc. Unavoidably through the mass media, it’ll be much faster and will become a well marketed package of objects.

It continued to flourish from everywhere. ‘Singles’ showed the influence of grunge on filmmaking in 1992. The soundtrack of the movie included bands like Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and Mudhoney and Seattle love it.

The television series ‘My So-Called Life’ aired in 1994. It was about the lives of teenagers at a fictional high school. ‘My So-Called Life’ contained motifs inspired by grunge music including apathy, drug use, confusion and cynicism. (And there is Jared Leto in the series.)

Graphic design and typography or the way humans make written language legible had a grunge iteration. Its creation is largely credited to ‘David Carson’ who created the grunge magazine titled ‘Ray Gun.’

Grunge typography was characterized by disorder and eligibility such as the ‘font morai,’ the arbitrary blended two fonts (We can see the example of this typography on the cover of the video game named ‘Silent Hill’ which was released in 1999. This was a reaction to clean and concise aesthetics which had been popular in the 1980s.), concert posters, alternative music cd’s, video games and various zines… All products of this generation, appropriated the unfinished and chaotic aesthetics of the generation.

On April 5th, 1994 Cobain was found dead in his house due to a gunshot wound to the head. The other three bands continued to release more albums but it all seemed to end with Nirvana just as it had started with them.

That same year Pearl Jam canceled its summer tour. In 1996, Alice in Chains gave their final performances. Soundgarden and Screaming Trees released their final studio albums. In 1997, Soundgarden broke up. And it is described as the end of grunge.

After all, with grunge, many different subjects were included in our lives. Mental illness, the downside of drug abuse as opposed to glorification of it, social issues and genuity. And that’s why grunge was important. A flow that tried to stand against what the mainstream wanted. However they became the mainstream. Maybe confused and disillusioned by this issue. Maybe the fame wasn’t for it and didn’t know what to do with it just like Kurt. And maybe this is why this era lasted for a short time.

Then the landscape of popular music changed; instead of Nirvana, Alice in Chains, Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, we had Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys etc. And of course post grunge. Creed, Three Days Grace, 3 Doors Down, Puddle of Mudd, Staind and Nickelback were popular in the late 1990s and during the first decade of the 2000s.

Like we said before when grunge broke into the mainstream, something has happened. Something big has happened. It was a change. The change of the music, the change of the point of views, the change of the turns and the change of an era. The term ‘alternative’ has changed. Lost its original counter-cultural meaning. And this is where the term ‘indie rock’ started to become associated with the bands and genres that remained dedicated to their independent status.

Now let’s go back in time, based on Michael Jackson, the owner of the album on the top of Billboard, which was overwhelmed by Nirvana’s Nevermind. For those of you who don’t know, let us point out that Michael Jackson was a member of a group at the time. A group of family members. A group of brothers. The Jackson 5.

There was also an independent record label at the very beginning of the time until Michael Jackson became King of Pop. The Jackson 5’s record label. Name is Motown.

Motown is one of the greatest proofs of what can be achieved independently in the music world and how far it can be grown.

Motown Records was founded in 1959 in Detroit under the name Tamla Records by Berry Gordy. The company name is abbreviated from Motor Town. In those years, major record labels were buying if they could not beat indie labels. In 1960, 500 of 3000 record labels were under the corporate umbrella of only one of the majors. They were managing the game through national distribution. After independent labels entered the market and succeeded, they were under the wing of major labels.

Motown was not one of them. Rather, it made its mark in the 60s. It created stars in a row. ‘The Miracles’ first came. Berry Gordy himself was also a musician. He was a songwriter. Thanks to this feature, everything started with the song ‘Come To Me’ with Tamla Records and Marv Johnson. And again, thanks to this feature of Gordy, Smokey Robinson began to appear and the first songs of The Miracles became hits.

In 10 years, 110 of the songs released by Motown Records were hits. The Marvelettes’ ‘Please Mr Postman’ was the first of them. Then Mary Wells came. Motown had names such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, and The Four Tops. Hit songs were coming one after another and Motown Sound was created with it. The sound of being modern and urban. Of course, there is more than that, but even this much gives us enough information about the process of the indie concept at that time.

At the end of 1976, Buzzcocks was on the scene. The band joined the Sex Pistols on their Anarchy Tour. In April 1977 they released ‘The Spiral Scratch’ EP from their own label, New Hormones. This makes them the first band to establish their own independent record label. And the record was the first D.I.Y., independently released record of the punk era.

They were the first representative of the independent production and distribution of music in history. Initially, the band’s goal was to sell 1000 copies.So they could pay the loans they got. And ‘The Spiral Scratch’ Ep sold 16,000 copies. After all, they did more than pay their loans. This punk rock band from Manchester wrote its name on the history of indie with its own means.

It’s time for the 80s. From 1983, indie rose interestingly. The Smiths, the band with Morrissey founded in Manchester in 1982, was one of the leading roles. They created a sound against the pop music of the period. They were not using the synthesizer. They mostly focused on guitars, bass and drums. They signed with the independent record label Rough Trade Records. All of their studio albums reached the top five of the UK Album Charts. And they achieved mainstream success in Europe with The Queen is Dead in 1986.

On the other hand, in the US, R.E.M. released Murmur in 1983. Murmur was a very mysterious debut album. It had an unusual sound. It had melodic bass, mysterious lyrics, and undistorted, treble-heavy electric guitar.

Sonic Youth was also one of the most popular names in the underground. The alternate tunings, dissonance, feedback they use and their combination with hardcore punk have brought their sound to a different place. The Daydream album should be mentioned here. And Pixies’ Doolittle and Dinosaur Jr’s Bug albums are the albums of the time. It should also be noted that the rock press of that period introduced the albums of self-financing labels as indie music.

The last important event of the 80s happened in 1986. NME (New Musical Express), a British music magazine, released a cassette called C86 featuring new bands licensed from independent British record labels of the time. This cassette has revealed a new genre.

In the 90s, there was a Grunge explosion that we talked about for a long time. Britpop, which was also of great importance in the pop music scene, was also active in the UK. Just like Grunge, Britpop had the big four. Blur, Oasis, Suede and Pulp. And of course Beck and Liz Phair were important names in the Lo-fi and DIY approach.

On the other hand, there are other indie genres such as indie pop and indie folk. Indie pop and indie folk genres have the same historical background as indie rock. They occurred under the influence of alternative rock and grunge. It is a fact that Indie Pop is structurally different from indie rock. It has a less noisy, softer and more harmony based structure. But when we look at it today, it is also possible not to distinguish some indie pop bands from indie rock bands. Sounds can be very close to each other. At the same time, the fact that chamber pop, the subgenre of indie pop, first appeared as the subgenre of indie rock, is another proof of this closeness.

And the origin of indie folk dates back to the early 90s, names like Ani DiFranco and Dan Bern. In the 2000s, Sub Pop was on the scene again. This time with Saddle Creek, Barsuk, Ramseur. With the support of these labels, we met with the changing folk music in the 21st century and today names like The Decemberists, Fleet Foxes, Sufjan Stevens and Bon Iver are in our lives.

In the 2000s, many things continued to change and develop due to the changing industry and developing technology. Making music at home has become much easier. Many DAW programs and music equipment for the home have been developed. The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs came as many musicians continued to improve themselves in their home. And of course, in 2006, with ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not’, Arctic Monkeys were on the scene.

Some say big labels have started snapping up every 17-year-old guitarist they found after the release of Arctic Monkeys. Maybe they are right, maybe they are not. But it is a fact that the number of indie musicians formed after this year has increased considerably. Maybe it really has a huge impact on the creation of indie landfill.

Andrew Collins says “‘Indie’ has become a meaningless term. It just covers guitar bands. But it was never meant to be about a type of music, it was a spirit and an attitude. When I glance around the bands that are supposedly ‘indie’ today, I don’t see any attitude. I don’t see any content in their records, any political interest in the band members. They’re a terrible generation, unfortunately, but they’re becoming famous overnight and selling a lot of records. I’ve heard them called ‘mortgage indie’. It’s a career path — a way of making a lot of money very quickly…”

The discussions are still going on today. Is Indie rock a genre? 80’s, 90’s or even 60’s okay, but does indie mean only ‘independent’ today? Putting the bands with so many different sounds under the indie rock genre just shows that their attitudes are similar? When we hear a song, can we call it Indie Rock? Just as alternative rock emerged as an alternative to the popular music of the period and indie rock appeared when alternative rock became mainstream thanks to grunge, the effect of indie rock may decrease or end one day. Maybe indie rock is supposed to be mainstream. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s already dead or has started to change.

Perhaps genres such as indie rock, indie folk, indietronica are the point reached by changing the existing one or the traditional one, adding new elements to it, revising it as required by the period. So it’s not the result, it’s the process itself. And so the idea of ​​being independent influenced all music genres. And we should know that the meaning of independence can differ from past to present. In other words, we can never know how the independent music of the future will come to our ears.




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