Term 'Indie Rock' Has Lost Its Meaning, Music Journalist Claims

"There was a point when 'indie rock' had a clear definition," the article reads.

Ultimate Guitar

Journalist Stephen Thompson of NPR recently posted an interesting piece regarding the meaning of "indie rock," essentially claiming it had lost its meaning some time ago.

"There was a point when 'indie rock' had a clear definition: It meant music, produced outside the major-label system, that was rooted in the flexibility and freedom to take chances. The term implied heightened creativity, whether or not the product always reflected that," the article kicks off.

Continuing his assessment, the journalist further delved into the indie domain, adding, "Now, 'indie rock,' like 'alternative rock,' can rarely be construed 100 percent literally: Many so-called indie labels are subsidiaries of corporate monoliths, and those that aren't frequently have deals with gigantic distribution networks, big-budget streaming services, and other godzillion-dollar mega-entities.

"At the same time, as you suggest, many of the prevailing values and aesthetics of indie-rock music have intersected with (and been absorbed by) the mainstream in ways big and small.

"When Arcade Fire and Bon Iver are going gold and winning Grammy Awards - the former for Album of the Year - it's hard to view them as scrappy underdogs, no matter which labels release their records, and no matter how their members might view their relationship to the music industry."

On more of a personal note, Thompson continued, "As a writer and editor, my frustration with the descriptor 'indie' isn't so much about purity, or even accuracy; it's about its failure to describe much of anything. Technology has made it easier than ever to replicate studio slickness on a small budget, to the point where low fidelity often sounds like an artistic decision rather than a matter of necessity.

"Which, in turn, means that independence - real or imagined - needn't translate into anything that can be heard in a recording. Indie rock certainly qualifies as a genre, and we generally know indie-rock music when we hear it, but it's hard to pin down one prevailing sound based on means of distribution and marketing.

"For as long as I've been paying attention to such things, I've heard - and rolled my eyes at - proclamations that a given cultural entity is 'dead.' Is indie rock dead? Is punk dead? Is rock itself dead? Is criticism dead? Most of the time, 'dead' is code for 'irrelevant,' and relevance tends to reside squarely in the eye of the beholder.

"If you're bored with something, or if it benefits you in some way to proclaim something irrelevant, then you're infinitely likelier to proclaim its death than you'd be if you were coming in fresh. You and I aren't in a position to proclaim indie rock dead, but we can acknowledge that it's splintered to a point where the term has lost much of its meaning or value.

In conclusion, the journalist noted, "Finally, I'd encourage anyone and everyone to push back against blanket dismissals of 'bland Top 40 drivel.' Just as indie rock now includes music that's found mainstream success, music with major distribution, and music that doesn't rock, the Top 40 includes music that's often inventively recorded, beautifully produced, emotionally stirring, and hard to resist. We're bound to stumble across genius where we expect to find drivel, and vice versa."

Stephen wrote the piece as an answer to a Facebook comment saying: "The term 'indie' has been subsumed by major labels, whose acts often try to mimic indie-rock sensibilities - which changes what it means to play music that is not bland Top 40 drivel. Do you think 'indie rock' as a genre is dead?"

What are your thoughts on the matter - is indie rock really "dead" and has the term fully lost its meaning?

46 comments sorted by best / new / date

    That's just the music industry for you. Indie rock got "popular" (which is an oxymoron in itself in some ways) so of course, the industry jumped on it. Dee Snider put it best "If one's good, a hundred's better! F*CKING IDIOTS!"
    same with every rock band from about 1991 to 2005 (when the internet got obnoxious with subgenres) being labeled "Alternative Rock"
    Just like hair metal was. There were a select few in the beginning that were good, then the labels started churning out shitty duplicates.
    Indie was the term used to replace "alternative" when that eventually lost its meaning, something else will replace it soon enough.
    He's spot on when he says the term has been bastardised by the major labels, but there's still a whole bunch of good Indie Rock out there, but like just about everything else, you have to dig to find the good stuff. Bands like Nai Harvest, Alex G, Best Friends, Empire! Empire! (i was a lonely estate) and Joanna Gruesome, along with countless other bands in tiny scenes across the world, are all providing proof that, in my opinion, Indie Rock is not dead just yet.
    Yeah, I'd say it lost all meaning when Arcade Fire and Imagine Dragons started being labelled "indie".
    what about calling U2 and REM alternative. They were two of the most popular mainstream bands in the 80's
    They were mainstream, but at the time they were providing a genuine alternative to most of the stuff that was being played, which would likely have consisted of Synthpop and Hair Metal. That's why people differentiate between what Indie means and what Alternative means, that's why bands like REM, Pixies and Nirvana are still considered Alternative despite becoming immensely popular.
    Back then there weren't many copycats and both bands were unique, and I'm sure if it wasn't for REM's and U2's mainstream success, the so-called "Alternative bands" would never get the recognition they deserved.
    Back in the day, the term "indie" was used for bands that stuck with the DIY manifesto. These first waves of indie bands was awesome. At some point in the late 90's and early 2000's, the term indie was used for alternative rock and then the media over used it, everyone was labeled as "indie" during the 2000's. Of course the term is meaningless now!
    *These first waves of indie bands were awesome. (Apparently I cannot edit my previous post)
    Replace "Indie Rock" with "Grunge" and you have the same article just from 1996. This is just how music goes.
    "post-indie rock", given the current naming trend of genres, but indie rock is technically "post-alternative rock" so it could be "post-post-alternative rock".
    you don't even know my music I'm special so my mother says every other music than post-post-hipsterfeggetry is sold out commercial
    you may have gotten downvoted but man did i chuckle at this...I imagine more than a few hipsters are on this site
    Nothing more Hipster than claiming to be a Hipster??
    Being hipster is a mainstream thing now...So, paradox. The space time continuum will blow up now..
    So indie is only "real indie" if it's a crappy recording and doesn't receive mainstream attention? Same thing with punk, it's only punk when you're rebelling against the man? Genre labels are stupid!
    Labels like those 2 examples are, for sure. Similarly to how black metal is suddenly no longer black metal once the band gets more than 10 fans
    Yeah, that part is bogus. A lot of Lo-Fi stuff back in the 80's and 90's was recorded that way out of necessity, it's only in recent years that it's become an aesthetic choice. Some people like it, some people don't, it mostly depends on the music being made. Likewise, most Indie bands didn't receive any mainstream attention, but sometimes they did, and that's pretty cool to see a band you enjoy reach an even wider audience than before.
    music salvation
    A lot of the contemporary mainstream indie bands have reached a point where they have become so derivatively monotonous. The label stopped describing the DIY ethos and independence that was characteristic of early alternative music and began to describe a trendy sound.
    people who think indie rock sucks have definitely not listened to Modest Mouse or Built to Spill
    Does said "music journalist" go by the name Captain Obvious from the Land of 2007?
    I absolutely agree with the author of this article. To me indie is some BS way of fans and musicians to label themselves to be somehow cooler, kind of like a 12 year old getting a funky haircut. I mean is it really alternative or indie if its being played and/or sold at every Starbucks and elite university in the country. You want to play something alternative, try playing Sabbath or Mastodon at Starbucks, mainstream and top forty listeners alike would be freaked out. I say you want the label alternative, earn it.
    That depends on what you define and Indie/Alternative. I don't think bands like Modest Mouse, American Football or Pavement get played in Starbucks or Universities that often. That said, I wouldn't mind some Black Sabbath or Mastodon in there either, that would be ****ing awesome.
    There are some good Indie Rock but a lot of it sounds like Hipster pop. Mark my words Punk will be making a comeback in the next few years and its going to kill Indie Rock
    chris flatley
    even though I play guitar, I am more and more starting to find guitarcentric bands very boring. think I discover a genuinely interesting new favourite artist about once every few years, and I can't remember the last time it much involved guitars. Doubt these days if I'd notice if the whole genre of rock died.
    I've never understood how "indie" became a genre. Like the article says, it was doing stuff independantly. Not this specific "trendy" monotonous sound that makes most of the bands sound exactly the same that we have now. You can have an indie metal band, an indie rap artist, and indie electro, but the indie bit shouldn't and wouldn't have an effect on the actual musical sound, aside from the sound quality. It's not a genre, it's a description of /how/ they make and distribute their music.
    Mud Martian
    Categorizing music into genres serves the dual purpose of giving listeners of particular musical styles a means of finding more like it, and giving artists a direction in which to sell their music. Yet in some part, the very definition of genre has changed over the years. It has less to do with the style or intention the title represents, and everything to do with relevancy. What's in a name? In the case of genres, everything or nothing. When Grunge was the hot word, everything on the radio between 1990 and 1994 was Grunge, even if it wasn't. When Grunge didn't sell anymore, those bands became Alternative / Hard Rock bands, and the name Grunge meant nothing except for stay the hell away. Unless you're post-grunge, in which case you're safe and still selling. It always boils down to the money. There are thousands of artists and musicians creating music in the United States, and yet most people will only be able to name a few dozen. Being successful in music will always be a matter of luck, and good business sense. Make Indie a hot word, and Indie just found a way to make a couple hundred people relevant and rich. If you really want to hear indie music, look up bands signed under independent labels. Don't look up indie music. On a somewhat related note, to my knowledge, Pop is the only genre that's been steadily relevant and successful, without ever receiving a slew of sub-genres or ever losing it's meaning. That says something to me about simplicity.
    Being on a indie label does work though! Wire, Joy Division, The Damned (stiff records), The White Stripes, The Smiths, The Libertines, Ian Dury, Dead Kennedys, SAVAGES(own label), The Specials, Selector and Madness!
    Indie lost it's meaning years ago (1990?) Anybody could tell you that... Doesn't "Alternative" just mean Indie Style bands on a major label? Many of the biggest "Indie" are just on a branch of Sony... (The Vaccines, Peace and Haim) Most common thing recently is bands claiming to be an Indie band, Wearing "indie" clothes, having indie influences but sounding like an unpopular pop band...
    Well anything indie have lost its meaning. For example video games. It's very popular and trendy now and have been for while.
    no shit it doesn't mean the same thing anymore, most labels and genres have lost their meaning in music nowadays, there's a word or label or genre or discription for everything...its just music
    I think little sub genres are very helpful to explain how some music sounds. But all these sub genres of subgenres and new subgenres for one band are just crazy. In the end everything is just music, but genre labels are good way to find new music.