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The History of Indie Rock

by TSZ


“With the lights out, it's less dangerous, Here we are now, entertain us,” screamed Kurt Cobain, lead singer of Nirvana, in Paris, in February of 1994. If someone had told this troubled, rebellious teenager ten years earlier that he would be touring the world, he would have laughed in his or her face. Nevertheless, Nirvana’s mainstream success would forever change the dynamics of its genre. In the last forty years, indie rock’s many scenes have transformed it from an obscure term into a musical revolution. Just like pop music, indie or alternative music has been around since the invention of music. However, it’s harder to track this type of music as it has been mostly underground and thus overlooked by the public. But by the mid-seventies, it was not only clear that indie rock was its own genre, but that the music industry would be forever changed by it.

What is Indie Rock?

Indie/alternative rock is difficult to define. “Indie” is short for “independent”, and the term is rather ambiguous. In the 80’s and early 90’s, it usually referred to the bands signed to independent labels or who operated completely independently. However, some of these bands, like Nirvana, later signed with larger labels, and are still considered indie. “Indie” can also be used to describe the artists’ attitudes; most indie artists subscribe to the “do-it-yourself” ethic that has always played a huge role in the formation of alternative music. Many of these indie artists chose to remain on smaller labels in order to retain their artistic freedom. Most choose to define it as simply an alternative to pop music. Because the definition is so general, indie/alternative rock is an umbrella genre: it is distinct from other big genres, like classical or jazz, but it does include a multitude of sub-genres. Some examples are lo-fi, math rock, punk, and emo. However, much of music that is classified as indie tends to be generalized into the category of punk. Indie rock became popular because the DIY beliefs surrounding it appeal largely to teenagers. The idea behind the genre is to bring the artists and the listeners closer than ever before. Instead of producer and consumer, everyone could be a part of the community. In addition, the indie sound was more “real” than pop. Pop artists had access to the top of the line equipment, which often gave the music a crisp, clear sound. In contrast, indie artists, particularly grunge and hardcore musicians, sometimes played with high distortion on the electric guitar and/or recorded the whole track in one take, purposefully, to avoid any embellishments on the song that they wouldn’t have been able to accomplish in a live show. The whole “open-mic” mindset appealed to everyone, transforming indie rock from an obscure, overlooked genre into a musical reformation. (Skancke, 8-14)

The Indie Ethic
One thing that sets indie music apart from the mainstream is its trademark do-it-yourself ethic. The idea is that anyone who wants to make music can, with or without the help of a major label. In the 50s, with the Rock n’ Roll movement, early indie labels popped up all over England and America. However, by the late sixties, most of them had been bought out by larger corporations. By the mid-seventies, most pop music came from about six labels, all aiming for a similar sound. An untested band that didn’t fit the mold had microscopic chances of becoming a pop sensation. However, as more and more youth began to detest the corporate hold on the music industry, becoming a pop sensation wasn’t really the goal of aspiring artists. People began to reject the mainstream the way they felt the mainstream had rejected them. The Desperate Bicycles was a British band that got together just to release a single independently. A few of the members actually met for the first time in the studio when they recorded their first single, “Smokescreen.” This attitude of sticking it to the mainstream caught on and by 1981 about nine hundred independently produced singles were released. (Skancke, 27-38)
Style and Sound

As indie rock is an umbrella term, as a genre and as a whole it has no single, definable sound. That is, in a sense, the whole point. The term “indie rock” refers more to the mentality behind the music than the sound itself. The do-it-yourself ethic, mentioned earlier, was at the core of the punk movement, and remains at the core of Indie Rock. Indie artists are focused on production and preference rather than profit. For this reason, the genre includes as many musical styles as there are flavors of ice cream. Overall, the bands usually feature some sort of guitarist and the songs are usually lyrical. Many sub-genres are quite focused on the beat of songs, like math rock, a genre that experiments with different tempos and time signatures. As an “underground” genre, its general sound evolves depending on the circumstances and also the movement of the mainstream. The types of indie rock that have gotten the most attention are punk, grunge, and heavy metal styles. These kinds of music are usually made less for the musicality of it than for the artists to have a chance to speak their minds. The songs are often rhythm focused, with amplified and distorted guitars. Distortion adds a fuzzy sound over the notes, like a layer of white noise. The lyrics are often political and cynical. However, on the other side of the spectrum there is a vein of indie rock that is much closer to folk. This other extreme usually features acoustic guitars, and percussion utensils like tambourines, rather than drum sets. The lyrics are usually calmer musings, religious, or loving. The main thing that separates this indie folk style from folk itself is its more vigorous tempo. Because indie rock is so loosely defined, its sound can be hardcore to folk and everything in between. (

Distribution and Advertising

Without the tools of airtime and the advertising that bands under big labels could afford, indie musicians have relied on touring, word of mouth, posters, and fan clubs to get attention. Also, there were many independently published fanzines, magazines made by and for fans of indie music and used to track the indie music scene. One such fanzine called Sniffin’ Glue was first published by Mark Perry in 1976. Its first edition sold fifty copies; however, its last sold nearly fifteen thousand. Perry stopped writing it after little more than a year out of fear that it would attract mainstream attention. Indie record labels appeared more frequently as the demand increased. The benefits of signing to an indie label were usually a higher percentage of the profits and more artistic freedom for the band. Often the big labels applied a sort of cookie cutter to the bands they signed to make them fit the pop scene at the time. An example of a successful indie label is Rough Trade, which was considered rather extremist in its shunning of the mainstream routine. Instead of creating relationships with radio stations like big labels, it relied on fanzines, independent record stores, and the musicians themselves to promote bands. It often signed bands for one record at a time instead of many because the outside push to produce often made artists stressed and, in the long run, less satisfied with their work. Rough Trade also split all profits equally with the band, and didn’t interfere in their music, in contrast to the “cookie cutter” attitude of larger labels. In addition to helping bands record, Rough Trade also functioned as a distributor by helping bands get connected to networks of indie record stores. Touch & Go was an indie label based in Chicago. It began as a fanzine, but grew into a label when the writer, Tesco Vee, decided to move along by signing a bunch of hardcore bands. Dischord Records limited its CD and concert ticket prices to keep all its music accessible. Indie labels worked for the artists and for the fans, not for the money. (Skancke, 32-35)

Another method of promotion was touring. Bands couldn’t gain a large following without publicity that spread outside of their area, so they often toured and performed live shows to get their music heard farther out. For independent musicians, forging a touring path took lots of work and communication. Indie labels would contact popular record stores, and bands would share their most successful venues. Some people in the business even called customers to ask if people in their area would be interested in seeing a certain band. This network helped bands to find the venues where they would be well received and spread their music outside of their hometowns. Also, indie bands worked together to organize festivals to showcase their music. In San Francisco, Noise Pop is a festival that occurs annually and lasts for days on end. Lollapalooza was a festival put together by Perry Farrell, the vocalist for an alternative band. He combined bands from a variety of alternative sub-genres on the same roster. Lollapalooza was quite successful, and was held every summer from 1991 until 1998, when Farrell grew tired of hunting down new talent for his diverse rosters. (Skancke, 37-38, 66-68)

A third way for indie bands to get their music heard was the radio. The mainstream radio stations were obviously out of reach since they didn’t have major labels backing them, but in the mid-80s, college radio’s popularity rose dramatically. College radio was an alternative to mainstream radio, and it played mostly alternatives to mainstream music. This provided a way for indie musicians to get airtime and gain larger followings. College radio playlists were quite diverse as well. They featured music from all points on the indie spectrum and thus exposed the students within range to music from all over the country. (Skancke, 39-41)

The Punk Scene

The first major indie scene took place in the 1970s and was later dubbed punk rock. In America, unemployment and interest rates were soaring and many big cities were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. In England, the atmosphere was slightly worse, with workers striking everywhere. Anger at their circumstances and concern for their futures spread like wildfire through both nations’ youth, replacing the sixties’ psychedelia, love, and peace. This fueled a new scene of music known as punk rock. The lyrics were blunt and honest, often critiquing the government or discussing loudly subjects like homosexuality or drug addiction. The bands that made up this scene often developed cultish followings. Some, like the Sex Pistols, a British band known for its outrageous behavior, were even banned from public radio for insulting the queen with their lyrics: “God save the queen/she ain’t no human being/There is no future/In England’s dreaming”. Larger record labels were nervous about signing bands that would so directly cause controversy, so many smaller labels took the opportunity to distribute and profit from this new outburst of music. At the heart of the punk movement, however, was not just anger. It was independence, and standing up against something they couldn’t control, for example, the music industry. This inspired many young people to make their own music, even though they didn’t expect to be signed. The rise of punk rock showed people that one didn’t need a big label to make a splash. (Kallen, 87-100)

There were several bands and artists that spurred indie rock’s recent growth. One such band was called the Sex Pistols, formed in 1975 near London. They are widely acknowledged as one of the most influential bands in rock n’ roll history. John Lydon, a. k. a. Johnny Rotten, was the vocalist and front man of the Pistols, and the very essence of punk. He wore ripped and baggy clothing and dyed his hair loud colors like neon green or orange. The band was known for its members’ provocative behavior in public and appalling indiscretion in their lyrics. Once they even appeared drunk on a live talk show. As their guitarist Steve Jones said, "Actually we're not into music. We're into chaos." (Sex Pistols Official Website) The Sex Pistols were obnoxious to make a point: they didn’t need or want restrictions. To further emphasize this idea, their song “Anarchy in the U. K.” states: “Anarchy for the U. K. / It’s coming sometime and maybe”. They only ever released two albums, and their appearances were notoriously violent rather than musical. Their big achievement was building the dedicated, almost cultish fan base that became a fixture in the world of punk rock and is still instituted today. Also, they encouraged honesty in lyrics and a total disregard for laws and limitations. Although they were largely infamous, their bluntness and pride inspired many indie punk bands like the Buzzcocks, Joy Division, and The Smiths. They are remembered as a milestone in the growth of punk rock for strengthening and confirming the rebellious attitude that defines the genre and providing for those who wanted more relevant meanings and political commentaries from lyrics. (Sex Pistols Official Website)

Another important punk band is the Buzzcocks. The Buzzcocks are an English band formed in 1976 led by front man and lead singer Pete Shelley. The Buzzcocks released the first independent punk record ever. They rented a local studio for about one hundred pounds and recorded the four tracks that made up Spiral Scratch. They pressed them onto vinyl and released the album in February of 1977. The Buzzcocks also started the indie tradition of printing a sort of receipt that calculated all expenses on the sleeve of the album. This gesture was meant to demystify the music industry and encourage others to follow their lead, and it worked. In the next four years, about nine hundred DIY singles were released. (Skancke, 29-30)

Hardcore and Post-punk

In the late 1970s and early 80s, another scene started up. Hardcore, sometimes referred to as hardcore punk, was based on punk rock, but stripped the musicality down even further to its bare essence. The guitars were almost always electric and distorted, and the drums and rhythm were the focus of the songs. Hardcore was sort of the Jackson Pollock of the music scene at the time. It was radical, loud, angry punk in its purest form. While punk in America was based off of the British style, hardcore was focused in big cities across the U.S., like L.A., San Francisco, Washington D.C., and New York. As an underground scene, however, Hardcore is still considered indie rock because most bands signed and produced their albums on indie labels. (, Hardcore Punk)

Post-punk was less its own scene and more the aftermath of the punk explosion. It took place in the 70’s after the initial excitement about punk died down. Post-punk kept the DIY ethic and commentating lyrics but its sound was more experimental and didn’t quite fit the template that bands like the Sex Pistols had set. Its sound was more complex than the wall of white noise that the Ramones had created, and it became a cornerstone for what is known today as alternative rock because it encouraged creativity over attracting attention. It took over the indie scene for the early 80s and then faded into the background once again. (, Post-Punk)

Grunge Music

In the mid-eighties, indie rock became visible in the public eye. It wasn’t yet popular, or by any means mainstream, but it began to develop as its own genre and receive more attention. In 1986, MTV started airing the show 120 Minutes, a two hour program reserved for videos by alternative artists. In the same year, Nirvana formed, and headed the indie break into the mainstream. Nirvana was headed by Kurt Cobain, an ever-rebellious young man and was formed in Aberdeen, a suburb of Seattle. Aberdeen suffered from high unemployment rates and bad weather, so lots of recent high school graduates were stuck inside all day. These young people played music garage band style and used high distortion on the guitar and rough, loud vocals calling out lyrics about the absolute dreariness of life. For example, the chorus to a single on Nevermind, “Stay Away” proclaims: “Monkey see, monkey do/I don't know why I'd - rather be dead than cool/I don't know why - every line ends in rhyme/I don't know why - less is more, love is blind/I don't know why...” They often recorded many of their songs in single takes to avoid any sound tricks they wouldn’t be able to accomplish in a live show. They dressed in dirty flannels and wore their hair long. Seattle bands upheld the DIY ethic because the music industry had little influence there, so all work for a show or record had to be done by the artists. This style of unedited, uncensored punkish music was christened grunge, and for the next five years it was tapped and milked dry by larger labels. The marketing of grunge music began with the fanzine-turned-label Sub Pop. Sub Pop signed Nirvana around 1990. Before Nirvana’s breakthrough album, Nevermind, was released, indie music could only be found on college radio stations. Nirvana’s single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, however, burned through the airwaves like wildfire. This new wave of attitude from youths was exciting and almost completely replaced the heavy metal that had become popular in the late eighties. Other bands from Nirvana’s hometown, Seattle, were getting recognition as well and imitating the purposely non-rock star look. After Nirvana was bought out (Sub Pop was going bankrupt) by Geffen Records, the band’s fame skyrocketed. They received more airtime and topped the charts. For the next five years, grunge music in general took over the radio and MTV. Headed by Nirvana, grunge became a part of that era of pop music, and indie rock’s new phases would continue to refill the slot that it created. When Nirvana and grunge went mainstream, the underground scene in general was infiltrated and the meaning of independent music came into question. Could Nirvana still be considered independent after they signed to a larger label? Many indie radicals considered bands like this one sellouts for embracing the mainstream. (Skancke, 49-54)

Women in Independent Rock

As portrayed in the paragraphs above, the underground music scene was practically dominated by men. The boy-band format had proven so successful and popular that it took up most of the airtime, even on many college radio stations. Often, only one female artist would be featured on a tour, for an opening before the male-composed bands. Radio DJ’s made a point not to play two female artists consecutively. It seemed that because of the success of many male artists, distribution companies and record labels were unwilling to give female rockers a chance. Sarah McLachlan was a poet and aspiring songwriter whose music resembled folk rock. Her first album, Touch, was released in 1988. Her music was somewhat popular, but she felt held back because it was rarely featured on the radio, even on college rock stations known and sometimes created for playing alternative music. Many other female artists were experiencing this problem as well because of the more popular, macho sounds of boy-bands. In 1997, McLachlan started the Lilith Fair, a festival with an all-female lineup. This first fair alone grossed almost sixteen million dollars. Its success was met with simultaneous shock and delight. Lilith Fair publicized many previously ignored female talents like Tracy Chapman and Sheryl Crow and pushed women into the mainstream once again. (Kallen, 106-108)

Indie Rock Today

When grunge became popular, the term indie rock was invented and applied to artists who were signed to indie labels or completely independent. From that time until today, indie rock’s popularity has only grown larger. In 2005, the top ten records were all classified as indie rock. Indie rock’s recent success is also affecting larger labels. Many have reorganized themselves to resemble the indie business format that has been so popular with the artists. Some big labels have bought indie labels and allowed them to continue operating as they did before. Because of this melding of both worlds, indie rock is no longer a war against corporate music. Instead, it’s become harder to identify the difference. By becoming more like indie labels, the large labels are more appealing to aspiring artists. Some people don’t consider these bought out labels indie anymore; others argue that it’s the indie spirit that defines them. Regardless, indie music has become one of the most popular styles of music. Advances in technology have made it easier than ever to be an independent musician, and the music industry is still adapting. (Skancke, 62-64)
Internet’s Impact

With the progression of technology and the rise of the internet, the entire music industry has been recently redefined. One no longer needs to go to a store to buy music, or buy a whole album instead of one song. It’s fairly easy to get music for free, in fact, with file sharing websites. The internet has proven itself an invaluable resource to indie musicians looking to remain independent. Artists no longer need a large label to be recognized internationally. They can use profiles on sites like Tumblr, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to promote themselves, showcase their music and spread the word about tour dates. For example, Alex Day, also known as “nerimon” on YouTube, made number four in the 2011 Christmas charts with his song “Forever Yours”, as part of a project to raise money for World Vision, an organization that addresses child poverty. Half of the 100,000 sales were from outside the UK, where he lives, thanks to his popularity as a video blogger on YouTube. The song’s music video, homemade with his housemate, Charlie McDonnell, received nearly four million hits. Day’s band, Chameleon Circuit, recorded their entire second album in his and Charlie’s living room. Indie musicians can also be featured on the internet versions of fanzines (webzines) which get more attention and have the potential to be viewed by millions. Independently run radio shows are another tool for indie-rockers who want their music heard; they are the new generation of college rock. New wave distribution channels like iTunes give consumers the opportunity to try new types of music in a low-risk form by allowing them to buy a song for a dollar instead of an album for $16. In addition, other types of technology, like microphones, cameras and editing software have become more widely available. This makes it easier than ever before for aspiring musicians to make and release music independently. (Skancke, 76-87)


In conclusion, indie rock is a style of music that has both overturned and rescued the new music industry. The flexibility and versatility that define it help it to evolve with the times and appeal to many different audiences. It has a strong foundation despite its relative youth, and a tough, stubborn ethic that will continue to back it for years to come. The idea that anyone could make music, regardless of their background or approach is widely entrancing, and will probably not go out of style for some time. Indie rock demystified and equalized the grounds of the music industry by encouraging new talents to produce something, regardless of whether it fit the big labels’ standards. There are many artists that have influenced and changed this genre, and they are remembered for their sound, their look, or their ideals. Its sound is diverse and fragmented, and thus encourages diversity and is popular with many types of listeners. Even without the tools of the corporate music industry, indie artists have managed to make, release, and promote their music quite successfully. Because of advances in technology, this process has become easier than ever. Throughout its history, indie rock has evolved through many different scenes, but it has retained its core values that make it what it is. Independent Rock has altered the way music is made and redefined what makes a musician.

Works Cited 

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