What is Indie Music? The Term Unpacked

Indie music has exploded in the collective consciousness. Online and digital forums have made it easier for artists to reach listeners, especially within the indie music genre.

From songs everyone knows to the lesser-known, indie offers a lot for music creators and listeners. But what is indie music? 

What Exactly is Indie Music?

Indie music is often confused as a genre, but it’s not a style of music. Indie is short for independent, meaning it’s not financially associated with any major music labels.

The big three music labels, Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group, make up about 80% of the music market. Although it was once the big four, that changed when Universal Music acquired EMI. Other well-known labels are subsidiaries of the big three, such as Columbia Records, an offshoot of Sony.

what is indie music

When an artist or band or truly indie, they have zero connection to the big three. That is exceedingly rare as the big three are everywhere. But, on the other hand, it’s also exceedingly more accessible for indie artists to earn success without signing with a major label.

Confusingly, there’s also a secondary meaning of indie, which refers to genre influences. Indie has become associated with folk, experimental, or alternative, such as alternative rock.

Much of this second definition has to do with the influential artists that inspired many of today’s indie artists.

So, what exactly is indie music? Unfortunately, the answer depends on context. Suppose you’re searching for a specific musical artist. In that case, their genre label might include indie even if they have produced music with non-independent labels.

Identifying Indie Music

If the answer depends on context, then how do you identify indie music? Well, it depends on what you’re seeking. 

For music enthusiasts wanting to break free of the big three, you’ll have to do some research. To start, read up on the labels an artist records with or uses for distribution.

Many independent music artists eventually sign up with major industry contributors to be heard. In some cases, it’s a choice, but in other cases, it’s a necessity. 

 It’s the worst kept secret that you need money to earn money, or in this case, you need to pay to get air time. For much of recent music history, it was challenging to deal with stations unless you signed with a significant label.

An investigation in 2004 by New York attorney general, Eliot Spitzer, dealt a severe blow to the pay-for-play practice, but it hasn’t gone away.

indie musician playing guitar

While traditional radio stations might not be the go-to anymore, this same practice has applied to Spotify and Apple Music playlist curators. In short, it’s challenging for independent music artists to reach listeners.

The best chance of listening to genuine indie music is non-mainstream music sources. Whether you’re listening to local live bands, indie music festivals, indie music playlists, or scrolling to the bottom of the charts, you can find indie artists out of the spotlight. 

You can also rely on music publications and websites like Pitchfork, which cover both a mix of mainstream artists and lesser-known and up-and-coming indie bands.

If you want the sound or style of indie music, there are a few common threads. 

Folk artists and introspective themes are significant influences for indie music. If you prefer clear melodies and instrumentation, this is your type of indie. Look for singer/songwriters.

Sometimes some of the composers and writers behind big hits are indie artists who can’t yet pay the bills with their independent sound.

Another category of music that overlaps with indie is alternative. For example, a band might be considered alternative rock and indie rock.

Like indie, alternative allows the influences of multiple musical styles and values creativity or conventionality. Listen to alternative music stations and playlists for this version of indie.

Examples of Indie Music

We’ve explored the lenient definition of indie music and what it generally sounds like, but identifying indie music might be easier with examples. 

Indie rock is probably the most prominent type of indie music, partially because its merge with alternative rock allows for more mainstream playtime. Pixies, Arctic Monkeys, The Decemberists, Vampire Weekend, and The Smiths are indie rock bands.

Indie rock songs can range from obscure to famous. Greats like Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?,” Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” spawned countless covers. If you’re avoiding overplayed, check out The Decemberists’ “The Rake’s Song” or The Vampire Weekend’s “Ladies of Cambridge.”

Florence + the Machine is an indie artist that skirts between genres but is generally considered soul-inspired indie rock. If you haven’t listened to “Never Let Me Go” or “Breath of Life,” it’s a must for any indie list.

Indie pop is likely the next most popular indie music genre. What is indie pop? It’s a mix of independent music artists and alternative pop artists. 

The genre is full of breakout artists and songs. Consider Mac DeMarco’s “Chamber of Reflection,” Belle and Sebastian’s “The State I Am In,” Tegan and Sara’s “Where Does the Good Go?,” and Billie Eilish’s “Ocean Eyes.” The memorable indie pop hit with a number in the title, “1234” by Feist, skyrocketed the Canadian indie artist into the spotlight.

Although we’ve mentioned the above genres are the most popular, there’s no genre limit where indie artists are concerned. 

The Kings of Convenience combine electronic dance music, rock, folk, and pop. Alt-J tends to evoke psychedelic and poetic qualities. Fleet Foxes chamber folk sound created the seasonal hit “White Winter Hymnal.” Tame Impala uses synthpop, disco, psychedelic, and other genres.

Arcade Fire combines indie rock with chamber pop influences to create a much more opulent sound, with strings, pianos, and more.

Final Thoughts on What is Indie Music?

There’s an indie artist out there to inspire every music fan. As indie artists have more freedom to explore style and sound choices, there’s a greater chance you’ll find an indie artist that’s tuned perfectly for your ear.

So if you’re still discovering your sound, take cues from independent music artists and learn from their trends in success.


Born and raised in Austin, David is a dedicated writer and avid fragrance lover. When he's not trying out perfumes, he enjoys traveling and exploring new restaurants.

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