With the growing popularity of Indie music there has been a lot of discussion on how one is supposed to define 'Indie' music. When the topic comes up, a common response is that Indie music is not an actual genre but just a catchall phrase for any independent artists of any style of music. "Independent would obviously be implying anything that hasn't been done with the help of a major label. But the fact is, Indie music is an actual genre of music that encompasses a broad range of styles that all derived from the Punk and Post-Punk scenes. In this article I'm going to go over what Indie music is and why it's called Indie to begin with. I'm going to focus on both the American Indie scenes and the UK Indie scenes, as both are vital to how Indie has developed as a whole. As a disclaimer, I know I'm going to be leaving out a lot of great artists so I apologize in advance.
Let's take a trip back to the mid to late 70s where the origins of Indie music lie. Punk music had exploded. You know the deal. It was underground. It was DIY. It was rebellious. It had originated in New York City. It was inspired by bands like the The Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls. At it's prime, New York was giving us the Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, The Dictators, Richard Hell & the Voidoids etc. while over across the pond, the UK was giving us the Sex Pistols, The Clash, X-Ray Spex, The Damned, Buzzcocks, etc.
Following very closely to the initial Punk Rock explosion came New Wave. It had originated in the UK in the mid-80s. It was a bit more experimental and polished than Punk was. Instead of the very simplistic lyrics that Punk music often had, New Wave was a bit more clever and complex. Notable artists from the earlier years of the scene include Elvis Costello and Tom Robinson. In America, New Wave was used to describe artists that were associated with the Punk scene but didn't have fast and raw Punk sound. These artists include Blondie and The Talking Heads. It would quickly hit the mainstream in both countries. In the 80s, the term New Wave would become generalized and became attached to all synthpop groups.
In the late 70s and early 80s, Post-Punk appeared in the UK for very similar reasons New Wave did. It was artists experimenting with the Punk sound to create something new. It broadened Punk's sound quite a bit incorporating dub, disco, and electronic elements to the music. Post-Punk was less pop-oriented than New Wave and was a bit darker as well. Some bands from the scene would be The Cure, Joy Division, Siouxsie & the Banshees, The Raincoats, and Gang Of Four.
Another style of music that was also branching off from Punk in the UK was Goth. Now, if Marilyn Manson is the first thing to pop into your head when you read "Goth", erase that image immediately. The original Goth scene consisted of artists like Baushaus, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Sisters Of Mercy, The Cure (sometimes), etc. It was an even darker form of Post-Punk music. It would often times incorporate electronic-based instruments like synthesizers and drum machines into it's sound. It was dark in both mood and lyrics content. The vocals would often be low and droning.
Back in the states you also had the experimental scene, No Wave. It wasn't just a music scene but also spanned into film, performance art, and visual art. This particular scene didn't last long but it was very influential. The music was often times noisy and focused on texture rather than melody. Some notable artists from the scene were Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth, and DNA. No Wave would later inspire the Noise Rock scene of the 80s. Noise Rock relied on loud, abrasive, and distorted guitars and would be a big influence on many different styles of Indie music, from Hardcore to Shoegaze. Notable Noise Rock artists would include Mission Of Burma, Big Black, Swans, and Royal Trux.
In the early 80s, you all of a sudden saw these kids starting bands who weren't anything special on the guitar or didn't have these big voices like Robert Plant or Freddy Mercury but felt they could still make good music regardless. With all these new bands popping up, it also inspired many independent labels to appear. In the States you had SST, New Alliance, Touch and Go, Homestead, K Records, Dischord Records, etc. Over in the UK you had, Rough Trade, Creation, Factory, etc. Now, it's important to note that in America, the underground scene was being referred to as College Rock or Alternative. While in the UK, they were calling it Indie. The Americans didn't really start referring to it as Indie until the 90s to differentiate between the mainstream Alternative acts and the underground. But we'll get to that later.
The early part of the decade was also when the Hardcore scene really started to develop in America. Hardcore was a much more aggressive, faster, and heavier form of Punk. Important bands to the early Hardcore scene were Black Flag, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains. There were also a few bands that started out in the Hardcore scene but would develop into a more conventional Alternative Rock sound, those bands were the Replacements, Husker Du, and The Minutemen. These bands would be hugely influential on the Alternative Rock of the 90s.
While Hardcore was developing in America the Post-Punk, Goth, and New Wave scenes were becoming prominent in the UK. The difference between England and America is that in England it was a lot easier for Indie acts to get national attention, so a lot of artists from theses scenes like Siouxsie & the Banshees and The Cure would quickly become chart topping acts in their country and sometimes beyond. Now, a big moment in the Indie scene came in the mid-80s when Indie-Pop first appeared. The style was noted for it's jangly guitars and 60s pop inspired melodies. Notable artists from this genre would Primal Scream, The Smiths, and Half Man Half Biscuit.
While the UK had Indie-Pop, America had Twee. It was raw, stripped-down, simple, and poppy. The center of the scene was K Records (Kurt Cobain had their logo tattooed to his arm), based in Olympia, Washington. The label was founded by Calvin Johnson who was a member of Beat Happening, a very important band to the Twee scene, as well as other bands like The Go Team and The Halo Benders.
By the late 80s, Madchester hits England. A Manchester based music scene, which fused indie, psychedelic-rock, and dance music. Obviously inspired by the Indie rock scene and the big rave scene that were both occurring there at the time...and, y'know, lots of drugs. Bands associated with the scene were The Happy Mondays, The Stones Roses, and the Inspiral Carpets (fun fact: Before Oasis formed, Noel Gallagher was a roadie for the Carpets). Now during the same time you were also seeing the beginnings of Shoegaze, which musically you could describe as Dream-Pop mixed with distorted, noisy, and reverby guitars that created a Wall of Sound effect. It often times had a very atmospheric sound. Big influences on the genre would be the Cocteau Twins and The Jesus and Mary Chain. The biggest and really the first Shoegaze band would be My Bloody Valentine. These bands inspired many Shoegaze bands to form. But this scene would not come into fruition until the early 90s.
Now, the music industry was not ignorant of what was happening in the underground. The Replacements got signed to a major label in the mid-80s as did Husker Du and the Butthole Surfers (an experimental alternative-rock outfit). The biggest American underground success story of the 80s would have to be R.E.M who by the late 80s would become one of the biggest bands in America. Once we hit the late 80s in the states, the general population seemed to grow bored with the overproduced cheesy digital sounds of the 80s. Changes were happening in the mainstream. Hard-Rock band Guns n' Roses hit the charts and became a huge success. They had a noticeably ore stripped down sound and look than other mainstream Hard Rock bands of era. As noted before, you had R.E.M also topping the charts. Folkies like Tracy Chapmen, Edie Brikell & New Bohemians, Indigo Girls, etc. were also having hits (or as far as the New Bohemians are concerned, A hit). It looked like the overproduced cheese of the 80s was on it's way out and not just for the US, but for the UK as well.