Better Know a Genre: Indie
I thought that since I’m mostly going to be writing about music that is considered “indie” here, that it might be a good first step to examine what exactly what “indie music” means.
The short answer is that the “indie” in “indie music” is short for independent. The actual definition of indie music means music produced by an independent record label. This essentially excludes any musicians signed to a major label such as Warner, Sony, Universal, or their subsidiaries. While this criteria might seem enough for a genre purist, it raises all sorts of questions in practice. Why does most indie music seem to be rock, folk, or electronic-based? If a rapper or a metal band is not on a major label, why are the majority of musicians in these genres not considered “indie?” Furthermore, if a band on an independent label is considered “indie” and then signs with a major label, can it longer be called an “indie band?” The Decemberists, Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse, and TV On The Radio all began releasing albums on major labels at some point in their career, yet I doubt many fans refused to consider them “indie” after this.
With this in mind, it becomes apparent that record labels are not the sole criteria for every musician or band considered “indie” and there is something more to the identifier. Some have suggested it is due to a certain indie sound or style, or “you know it when you hear it.” It is certainly true that some indie artists have similar sounds, especially when comparing within sub-genres such as indie folk, but what brings these sub-genres together under the umbrella of indie? How is a band like Beirut, influenced by Balkan Folk, in the same category as the electronic-based LCD Soundsystem? Do The Smiths really have anything musically in common with Animal Collective? If there is an “indie sound,” what is it?
These questions are why many, myself included, reject the idea that indie is in any way a descriptor of the music you will hear, and that “indie” alone does not tell you much about an artist’s sound the way “rock” or “classical” would. Ruling out what is not indie based on sound is equally difficult. As mentioned before, certain genres such as metal, hip-hop, R&B, country, jazz, and orchestral-based music rarely have acts considered indie, while it is much easier for rock, folk, and electronic music to obtain this label. However, the increasing amount of sub-genres within indie make excluding any genre outright more and more difficult, as you find yourself listening to a fifteen minute-long Godspeed You! Black Emperor orchestral track and ask “this is indie?” Singers and pop musicians complicate things further, as the plethora of indie singer-songwriters and the existence of the seemingly oxymoronic “indie pop” subgenre stop anyone from writing them off entirely.
To some, the dividing line revolves around what is and is not conventional within a certain genre. Essentially, nothing in indie can be considered too straightforward or what you would normally expect from the genre. For example, hearing “electronic music” brings DJs, nightclubs, and raves to mind, not a band that utilizes synthesizers alongside guitar and drums. You would expect guitar, bass, and drums from a rock band, but what if they also tried to bring back a 60s sound or brought in an accordion player? This of course raises the question of what is “conventional,” since a glut of bands or musicians trying to be “unconventional” can quickly become the new normal. Mumford & Sons’ brand of folk and notable use of banjo might have made it an outlier and considered indie at first, but many indie fans eventually rejected their inclusion in the genre as they were heard everywhere and attracted fans from all walks of life.
This leads into the idea that what is considered indie is somehow based on popularity, image, or appeal. To use a loaded term here, this notion infers that indie music is not “mainstream.” Bands or musicians that repeatedly appear on top 40 radio stations or are enjoyed by those that do not delve beyond what is regularly heard in public cannot be considered indie. This is a somewhat elitist view and plays into the stereotype that indie fans relish obscurity and abandon bands that receive widespread attention. There is some truth in this view, and indie fans regularly debate inclusion based on this criteria. Even if a band considers itself indie or is called as such by its fans, many others may dispute this label depending on its image.
To examine this point further, I figured I would look at which artists fans consider “indie” and map out their apparent popularity on a graph. Granted, each artist on this graph would be considered “indie” by some people, but the more contentious artists would stick out due to their strong popularity. After all, if a band becomes exceptionally popular, can it still be considered “indie?”
To start, I went to last.fm and looked at the top indie artists page to get a large sample size of what site users most frequently tag as indie. This list included some personal favorites (of Montreal, The National, Belle & Sebastian), along with some artists I have not listened to (HAIM, alt-J, Lana Del Rey).
For the x-axis, I used the number of listeners an artist has on last.fm. The pros of last.fm are that users actually have to listen to an artist to be counted as a listener and the site keeps user data for a relatively long time (I have had a profile for a decade). The drawback of the site is that it requires users download a plugin to use it and is occasionally prone to technical errors that require user intervention if they want to continue to have their music listening tracked. This causes the site to skew towards a more devoted user base that takes listening more seriously.
For the y-axis, I used the number of “likes” an artist has on Facebook. The pro of Facebook is that it includes a broader array of users and simply requires users click “like” on an artist page. The drawback of Facebook is that the musician pages are relatively new and long-time Facebook users may not have “liked” the verified accounts of all of their favorite artists. Therefore, Facebook artist pages tend to be skewed towards more casual music fans and users that have joined the site in recent years (particularly teenagers/college students and older people).
When designing the graph, I could not fit all of the artists listed on the last.fm top indie artists page simply due to too many data points being too close together. Therefore, please don’t be offended if you don’t see a favorite band on the graph, as it just means it was too close to another point and its name would be jumbled on top of another artist.
Here is the graph:
The first takeaway I had from the graph is how close together many of the artists were, especially those that I regularly list as indie standards. All of these had between 1-2 million last.fm listeners, but only 500,000 – 1 million Facebook likes. As stated above, I attribute this mostly to the user base on each site. These can all be found towards the bottom-middle here.
I was also surprised to see where some artists ended up, as I expected all of the more popular artists to be towards the top-right of the chart and all of the more obscure artists to be in the bottom-left corner. I was expecting it would be fairly easy to be draw a line between the artists readily accepted as indie and those where the label was more contentious. Instead, it seems like the more contentious artists all occupy the top-left of the graph with the more accepted artists along the bottom. Again, I attribute this to the user base of each site. My personal line between what I consider indie artists and those I am less willing to assign the title to looks like this:
As I was drawing this line, I realized how arbitrary it was, and some artists were not so neatly placed. Radiohead for example has both a large last.fm listener base and a large amount of Facebook likes, placing it in the the top-right corner of the chart. I enjoy Radiohead quite a bit, and apparently millions of others do too, so does this make them “mainstream?” Many that consider themselves to be indie music fans love Radiohead, so does mean Radiohead is indie and is defined by its fanbase? I personally have always considered Radiohead to be “alternative,” not necessarily indie, but defining “alternative” would open an entirely separate can of worms.
The arbitrary nature of drawing that line also made me realize that other indie fans may draw the line completely differently, depending on their own musical tastes or opinions. However, I do strongly suspect that the majority of fans would place all of the bands towards the bottom-center in the “indie” category, if not solely from being told over and over that these bands are definitely indie. This brings us into the idea that “indie” is whatever its fans consider it to be. There are some bands on this chart that I personally do not consider indie, but clearly a number of people do or they would not have labeled them as such on last.fm.
In conclusion, “indie music” seems to mean the following:
- It is a subjective term with loosely defined boundaries as to what falls into the category. What is and is not “indie” is really defined by fans.
- There are no real musical boundaries for what falls into “indie,” as the term does not really describe the music itself. This is why you are likely to see “indie rock” or “indie folk,” as “indie” alone musically means little.
- While the periphery of what artists are considered “indie” is usually up for some debate, there are certain musicians that seem to always have the label affixed to them.
- The strict definition of indie music means an artist on an independent label, but many artists regularly called “indie” release albums on major labels.
- Most indie music is rooted in rock, folk, or electronica, but you can find essentially all major genres under the umbrella of indie.