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Defining 'Indie' As A Genre: What Is It Anyway?

1The term 'indie' is often tossed around when describing a certain genre of music, but what does it actually mean? Back in the day, it referred to an artist who was unsigned, but with major labels acts still retaining the 'indie' moniker, what does the term actually suggest? Here, Chris Robley delves into the term's contemporary meaning.

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By Chris Robley of CD Baby from the DIY Musician blog

When I first started working at CD Baby in 2005, we prided ourselves on having more than 600 genres of music from all over the world in our online store.

We had Polka, Progressive House, Batucada, Soft Rock, Chiptune, Torch Songs, Terror, … EVERYTHING.

Everything, that is, except INDIE.

No Indie Rock.

No Indie Pop.

No Indie Hip-Hop.

No Indie Folk.

People would ask us all the time to add those sub-genres, and we resisted.

Does “indie” mean independent?

Indie musicians, in theory, are independent of the major label system, right?

That’s the obvious interpretation of “indie.” And maybe once upon a time it was a useful designation.

But then Death Cab for Cutie, MGMT, and a thousand other “indie” acts signed big contracts while retaining their indie-rock or indie-pop status.

So indie can’t REALLY mean independent of labels.

Does “indie” describe a particular sound or production style?

The next argument for INDIE as a descriptor is that, well, “you know it when you hear it.”

But DO you?

3How could The Strokes and Pavement be the same genre: “Indie Rock?”

Does “Indie Pop” really encompass everything from the guitar-driven songs of Nada Surf to the arty retro-futurism of Kimbra?

I think you get the point. INDIE doesn’t say what something sounds like.

And yet…

Maybe indie is an attitude?

“You know it when you hear it” probably isn’t true if you’re talking about a particular production style, melodic choices, vocal approaches, or lyrical content.

But INDIE actually MIGHT be something you can hear as an attitude. Something that seems unique, off-kilter, left-of-center; music that sets its target outside the mainstream.

Of course at some point in history Torch Songs and Chiptune started that way too. Then they got defined as genres. No one called them “Indie Torch Songs” (before or after).

When a genre achieves enough critical mass, it can’t pretend to be the underdog anymore. It’s the same old situation: The anti becomes the establishment; the revolution goes mainstream.

Once “indie” became a trend, what did the word even mean anymore?

At CD Baby, we’ve been asking that question for at least as long as I’ve worked here.

Can we agree that INDIE is a meaningless word? And yet, I kinda sorta know what you mean. 😉

What do you think “indie” means?

I’d love to hear your perspective in the comments.

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