Indie rock is a genre of alternative rock that originated in the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1980s. Originally used to describe independent record labels, the term became associated with the music they produced and was initially used interchangeably with "alternative rock". As grunge and punk revival bands in the US, and then Britpop bands in the UK, broke into the mainstream in the 1990s, it came to be used to identify those acts that retained an outsider and underground perspective. In the 2000s, as a result of changes in the music industry and the growing importance of the Internet, some indie rock acts began to enjoy commercial success, leading to questions about its meaningfulness as a term.
Sometimes used interchangeably with "guitar pop rock", in the mid-1980s, the term "indie" (or "indie pop") began to be used to describe the music produced on punk and post-punk labels. Some prominent indie rock record labels were founded during the 1980s. During the 1990s, Grunge bands broke into the mainstream, and the term "alternative" lost its original counter-cultural meaning. The term "indie rock" became associated with the bands and genres that remained dedicated to their independent status. By the end of the 1990s indie rock developed subgenres and related styles including lo-fi, noise pop, emo, slowcore, post-rock and math rock. In the 2000s, changes in the music industry and in music technology enabled a new wave of indie rock bands to achieve mainstream success.
In the early 2000s, a new group of bands that played a stripped-down and back-to-basics version of guitar rock emerged into the mainstream. The commercial breakthrough from these scenes was led by four bands: The Strokes, The White Stripes, The Hives and The Vines. Emo also broke into mainstream culture in the early 2000s. By the end of the 2000s the proliferation of indie bands was being referred to as "indie landfill".
The term indie rock, which comes from "independent," describes the small and relatively low-budget labels on which it is released and the do-it-yourself attitude of the bands and artists involved. Although distribution deals are often struck with major corporate companies, these labels and the bands they host have attempted to retain their autonomy, leaving them free to explore sounds, emotions and subjects of limited appeal to large, mainstream audiences. The influences and styles of the artists have been extremely diverse, including punk, psychedelia, post-punk and country. The terms "alternative rock" and "indie rock" were used interchangeably in the 1980s, but after many alternative bands followed Nirvana into the mainstream in the early 1990s, "indie rock" began to be used to describe those bands, working in a variety of styles, that did not pursue or achieve commercial success. Aesthetically speaking, indie rock is characterized as having a careful balance of pop accessibility with noise, experimentation with pop music formulae, sensitive lyrics masked by ironic posturing, a concern with "authenticity," and the depiction of a simple guy or girl.
Allmusic identifies indie rock as including a number of "varying musical approaches [not] compatible with mainstream tastes". Linked by an ethos more than a musical approach, the indie rock movement encompassed a wide range of styles, from hard-edged, grunge-influenced bands, through do-it-yourself experimental bands like Pavement, to punk-folk singers such as Ani DiFranco. In fact, there is an everlasting list of genres and subgenres of indie rock. Many countries have developed an extensive local indie scene, flourishing with bands with enough popularity to survive inside the respective country, but virtually unknown elsewhere. However, there are still indie bands that start off locally, but eventually attract an international audience.
Indie rock is noted for having a relatively high proportion of female artists compared with preceding rock genres, a tendency exemplified by the development of the feminist-informed Riot Grrrl music of acts like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, 7 Year Bitch, Team Dresch and Huggy Bear. However, Cortney Harding pointed out that this sense of equality is not reflected in the number of women running indie labels.
Origins: Late 1970s and 1980s
Post-punk and indie pop
The BBC documentary Music for Misfits: The Story of Indie pinpoints the birth of indie as the 1977 self-publication of the Spiral Scratch EP by Manchester band Buzzcocks. Although Buzzcocks are often classified as a punk band, it has been argued by the BBC and others  that the publication of Spiral Scratch independently of a major label led to the coining of the name "indie" ("indie" being the shortened form of "independent").
"Indie pop" and "indie" were originally synonymous. In the mid-1980s, "indie" began to be used to describe the music produced on post-punk labels rather than the labels themselves. The indie rock scene in the US was prefigured by the college rock that dominated college radio playlists, which included key bands like R.E.M. from the US and The Smiths from the UK. These two bands rejected the dominant synthpop of the early 1980s, and helped inspire guitar-based jangle pop; other important bands in the genre included 10,000 Maniacs and the dB's from the US, and The Housemartins and The La's from the UK. In the United States, the term was particularly associated with the abrasive, distortion-heavy sounds of the Pixies, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen, Meat Puppets, Dinosaur Jr., and The Replacements.
In the United Kingdom the C86 cassette, a 1986 NME compilation featuring Primal Scream, The Pastels, The Wedding Present and other bands, was a document of the UK indie scene at the start of 1986. It gave its name to the indie pop scene that followed, which was a major influence on the development of the British indie scene as a whole. Major precursors of indie pop included Postcard bands Josef K and Orange Juice, and significant labels included Creation, Subway and Glass. The Jesus and Mary Chain's sound combined the Velvet Underground's "melancholy noise" with Beach Boys pop melodies and Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" production, while New Order emerged from the demise of post-punk band Joy Division and experimented with techno and house music.
Noise rock and shoegazing
The most abrasive and discordant outgrowth of punk was noise rock, which emphasised loud distorted electric guitars and powerful drums, and was pioneered by bands including Sonic Youth, Swans, Big Black and Butthole Surfers. A number of prominent indie rock record labels were founded during the 1980s. These include Washington, DC's Dischord Records in 1980, Seattle's Sub Pop Records in 1986 and New York City's Matador Records and Durham, North Carolina's Merge Records in 1989. Chicago's Touch and Go Records was founded as a fanzine in 1979 and began to release records during the 1980s.
The Jesus and Mary Chain, along with Dinosaur Jr, indie pop and the dream pop of Cocteau Twins, were the formative influences for the shoegazing movement of the late 1980s. Named for the band members' tendency to stare at their feet and guitar effects pedals onstage rather than interact with the audience, acts like My Bloody Valentine, and later Slowdive and Ride created a loud "wash of sound" that obscured vocals and melodies with long, droning riffs, distortion, and feedback. The other major movement at the end of the 1980s was the drug-fuelled Madchester scene. Based around The Haçienda, a nightclub in Manchester owned by New Order and Factory Records, Madchester bands such as Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses mixed acid house dance rhythms, Northern soul and funk with melodic guitar pop.
Alternative enters the mainstream
The 1990s brought major changes to the alternative rock scene. Grunge bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Hole, and Alice in Chains broke into the mainstream, achieving commercial chart success and widespread exposure. Punk revival bands like Green Day and The Offspring also became popular and were grouped under the "alternative" umbrella. Similarly, in the United Kingdom Britpop saw bands like Blur and Oasis emerge into the mainstream, abandoning the regional, small-scale and political elements of the 1980s indie scene. Bands like Hüsker Dü and Violent Femmes were just as prominent during this time period, yet they have remained iconoclastic, and are not the bands that are frequently cited as inspirations to the current generation of indie rockers.
As a result of alternative rock bands moving into the mainstream, the term "alternative" lost its original counter-cultural meaning and began to refer to the new, commercially lighter form of music that was now achieving mainstream success. It has been argued that even the term "sellout" lost its meaning as grunge made it possible for a niche movement, no matter how radical, to be co-opted by the mainstream, cementing the formation of an individualist, fragmented culture. This theory hypothesizes staying independent became a career choice for bands privy to industry functions rather than an ideal, as the principle of resistance to the market evaporated in favor of a more synergistic culture.
The term "indie rock" became associated with the bands and genres that remained dedicated to their independent status. Even grunge bands, following their break with success, began to create more independent sounding music, further blurring the lines. Ryan Moore has argued that in the wake of the appropriation of alternative rock by the corporate music industry that what became known as indie rock increasingly turned to the past to produce forms of "retro" rock that drew on garage rock, rockabilly, blues, country and swing.
Indie electronic covers rock-based artists who share an affinity for electronic music, using samplers, synthesizers, drum machines, and computer programs. Less a style and more a categorization, it describes an early 1990s trend of acts who followed in the traditions of early electronic music (composers of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop), krautrock and synth-pop. Progenitors of the genre were English bands Disco Inferno and Stereolab. Most musicians in the genre can be found on independent labels like Warp, Morr Music, Sub Pop or Ghostly International.
By the end of the 1990s indie rock developed a number of subgenres and related styles. Following indie pop these included lo-fi, noise pop, sadcore, post-rock, space rock and math rock. Lo-fi eschewed polished recording techniques for a D.I.Y. ethos and was spearheaded by Beck, Sebadoh and Pavement, who were joined by eclectic folk and rock acts of the Elephant 6 collective, including Neutral Milk Hotel, Elf Power and of Montreal. The work of Talk Talk and Slint helped inspire post-rock (an experimental style influenced by jazz and electronic music, pioneered by Bark Psychosis and taken up by acts such as Tortoise, Stereolab, and Laika), as well as leading to more dense and complex, guitar-based math rock, developed by acts like Polvo and Chavez.
Space rock looked back to progressive roots, with drone-heavy and minimalist acts like Spacemen 3 in the 1980s, Spectrum and Spiritualized, and later groups including Flying Saucer Attack, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Quickspace. In contrast, sadcore emphasized pain and suffering through melodic use of acoustic and electronic instrumentation in the music of bands like American Music Club and Red House Painters, while the revival of Baroque pop reacted against lo-fi and experimental music by placing an emphasis on melody and classical instrumentation, with artists like Arcade Fire, Belle and Sebastian and Rufus Wainwright. Weezer's Pinkerton (1996) introduced the Emo genre to a wider and more mainstream audience.
Signs of commercial interest
In the 2000s, the changing music industry, the decline in record sales, the growth of new digital technology and increased use of the Internet as a tool for music promotion, allowed a new wave of indie rock bands to achieve mainstream success. Existing indie bands that were now able to enter the mainstream included more musically and emotionally complex bands including Modest Mouse (whose 2004 album Good News for People Who Love Bad News reached the US top 40 and was nominated for a Grammy Award), Bright Eyes (who in 2004 had two singles at the top of the Billboard magazine Hot 100 Single Sales) and Death Cab for Cutie (whose 2005 album Plans debuted at number four in the US, remaining on the Billboard charts for nearly one year and achieving platinum status and a Grammy nomination). This new commercial breakthrough and the widespread use of the term indie to other forms of popular culture, led a number of commentators to suggest that indie rock had ceased to be a meaningful term.
In the early 2000s, a new group of bands that played a stripped-down and back-to-basics version of guitar rock emerged into the mainstream. They were variously characterised as part of a garage rock, new wave or post-punk revival. Because the bands came from across the globe, cited diverse influences (from traditional blues, through new wave to grunge), and adopted differing styles of dress, their unity as a genre has been disputed. There had been attempts to revive garage rock and elements of punk in the 1980s and 1990s and by 2000 scenes had grown up in several countries. The Detroit rock scene included The Von Bondies, Electric Six, The Dirtbombs and The Detroit Cobras and that of New York Radio 4, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Electric Frankenstein, and The Rapture. Elsewhere, the Oblivians from Memphis, Billy Childish and The Buff Medways from Britain, The (International) Noise Conspiracy from Sweden, and The 184.108.40.206's from Japan, enjoyed underground, regional or national success.
The commercial breakthrough from these scenes was led by four bands: The Strokes, who emerged from the New York club scene with their début album Is This It (2001); The White Stripes, from Detroit, with their third album White Blood Cells (2001); The Hives from Sweden, after their compilation album Your New Favourite Band (2001); and The Vines from Australia with Highly Evolved (2002). They were christened the "The" bands by the media, and dubbed "The saviours of rock 'n' roll", leading to accusations of hype. A second wave of bands that managed to gain international recognition as a result of the movement included The Black Keys, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Modest Mouse, The Killers, Interpol and Kings of Leon from the US.
From the UK were The Libertines, Franz Ferdinand, Bloc Party, Editors, The Fratellis, Placebo, Razorlight, Kaiser Chiefs and The Kooks. British band Arctic Monkeys were the most prominent act to owe their initial commercial success to the use of Internet social networking, topping the charts with their debut single "I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor". Also successful were Jet from Australia, and The Datsuns and The D4 from New Zealand. Many of the British bands listed above, with the exception of Arctic Monkeys, experienced a sharp decline in commercial fortunes owing to what The Guardian has called the "slow and painful death" of indie rock.
Emo also broke into mainstream culture in the early 2000s, with the platinum-selling success of Jimmy Eat World's Bleed American (2001) and Dashboard Confessional's The Places You Have Come to Fear the Most (2001). The new emo had a more refined sound than in the 1990s and a far greater appeal amongst adolescents than its earlier incarnations. At the same time, use of the term "emo" expanded beyond the musical genre, becoming associated with fashion, a hairstyle and any music that expressed emotion. The term "emo" has been applied by critics and journalists to a variety of artists, including multi-platinum acts such as Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Paramore, and Panic! at the Disco.
By the end of the 2000s the proliferation of indie bands was being referred to as "indie landfill", a description coined by Andrew Harrison of The Word magazine, and the dominance of pop and other forms of music over guitar-based indie was leading to predictions of the end of indie rock. However, there continued to be commercial successes like Kasabian's West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum (2009), which reached number one in the UK. In 2010, Canadian band Arcade Fire's album The Suburbs reached number one on the Billboard charts in the United States and the official chart in the United Kingdom, winning a Grammy for Album of The Year.
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