Featured image of post What is Indie Music? Activ8te's Comprehensive Guide for New Listeners and Musicians

What is Indie Music? Activ8te's Comprehensive Guide for New Listeners and Musicians

Discover the world of indie music, its rich history, and its diverse sub-genres as we explore the evolution and impact of this boundary-pushing genre for new listeners and musicians alike.


In response to my recent inquiry on “What is EDM?”, it seems appropriate to explore the definition of Indie Music as well. Indie music is a complex and multifaceted genre that encompasses a wide range of styles and sounds, rooted in the principles of independence, experimentation, and creative freedom. As an indie EDM artist myself, I find it important to understand the complexity of the genre, its history, and the factors that have contributed to its evolution. In this blog post, we will systematically unravel the intricacies of indie music, examining its origins, development, and key influences that have shaped it into the diverse and often elusive genre it is today.

What is Indie Music?

Originally, indie music referred to music produced by independent artists or labels, often characterized by a DIY ethos and a focus on creative freedom. Over time, the term “indie” has come to encompass a wide range of genres and styles, including indie-folk, indie electronica, synth-pop, dream pop, indie rap, and indie R&B, among others.

Indie music is defined by its spirit of independence, experimentation, and boundary-pushing creativity, rather than by a specific sound or style. As such, it’s common for indie artists to draw inspiration from a wide range of musical influences and incorporate elements from various genres into their work. This creative freedom allows indie musicians to explore new sounds and ideas, often resulting in unique and innovative compositions that defy categorization.

In contrast to major labels, indie labels prioritize the artistic vision of their musicians, offering more nurturing guidance and creative control. Many indie artists choose to remain independent, valuing the freedom and autonomy it provides. Others may eventually sign with major labels, bringing their indie sensibilities to a broader audience. Notable indie musicians, such as Bon Iver and Chance the Rapper, have achieved significant success without signing to a major label.

“Indie” vs. Independent – What’s the Difference?

While the terms “indie” and “independent” are often used interchangeably, they have distinct meanings in the context of the music industry. Independent music refers to music produced by artists or labels without the financial backing and resources of major labels, emphasizing a DIY approach and creative autonomy. On the other hand, “indie” has evolved into a broader term that encompasses a variety of genres and styles, characterized by a spirit of experimentation and boundary-pushing creativity. Although indie music often originates from independent artists, not all independent music falls under the indie umbrella, as some artists may adhere to more traditional or mainstream genres. Thus, while indie music is rooted in the independent ethos, the terms are not synonymous and should be considered distinct aspects of the diverse musical landscape.

A Brief History of Indie Music

Pre-Indie Influences

The roots of indie music can be traced back to the pre-indie artists of the 60s and earlier, such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Nick Drake, and The Clash. These pioneers laid the groundwork for the indie scene by pushing their genres to the limits, embracing independence and experimentation, and inspiring future generations of musicians.

The Emergence of Indie Music (Late 70s & Early 80s)

Indie music began to emerge as a distinct genre in both the United States and the United Kingdom during the late 70s and early 80s. Bands like The Smiths, The Buzzcocks, and R.E.M. were at the forefront of this movement, defining the indie sound of that era with their unique and groundbreaking music.

In the UK, influential bands like The Smiths and The Buzzcocks embraced the DIY ethos and independent spirit that characterized the indie genre. The Smiths, with their jangly guitars and introspective lyrics, were one of the most influential British indie bands. Their albums, such as “Meat is Murder” (1984) and “The Queen is Dead” (1986), are considered quintessential indie records. The Buzzcocks, on the other hand, gained fame with their punk-infused sound, exemplified by their “Spiral Scratch” EP.

Simultaneously, in the United States, bands like R.E.M., The Replacements, and Hüsker Dü were shaping the American indie sound. R.E.M., hailing from Athens, Georgia, released their debut album “Murmur” in 1983, which became a seminal indie record that inspired countless bands in the years to come. The Replacements, a Minneapolis-based band, contributed to the growth of indie music in the US with their raw, punk-infused sound and emotionally charged lyrics, best showcased in their 1984 album “Let It Be.” Hüsker Dü, another Minneapolis-based band, were one of the pioneers of a more aggressive, hardcore punk sound. Their 1984 double album “Zen Arcade” was a testament to their versatility and creativity.

The Evolution of Indie Music (80s & 90s)

During the 1980s and 1990s, indie music saw considerable growth and diversification in both the US and the UK. Bands like R.E.M., Sonic Youth, and The Pixies pushed alternative rock boundaries in the late 1980s, giving rise to subgenres such as noise rock, shoegaze, and jangle pop. As the indie scene expanded, these bands contributed to the development of these subgenres with influential tracks like Sonic Youth’s “Bull In The Heather,” Cocteau Twins’ “Heaven Or Las Vegas,” and R.E.M.’s “Man On The Moon.”

The Pixies, a key player in the indie scene, left a lasting impression with their iconic song “Where Is My Mind?” due to its unique sound and emotional resonance. The Smiths, another influential band, inspired a new generation of artists. The rise of the grunge movement in the early 1990s, spearheaded by bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, solidified indie music’s role in popular culture. This progression persisted with bands such as Big Black and Oasis, showcasing the genre’s adaptability and continuous impact on the music landscape.

The 1990s saw the emergence of “Britpop” in the UK, with indie bands like Oasis and Blur becoming massively popular. Oasis’ debut album, “Definitely Maybe,” reached the top spot in the UK Album Charts, further solidifying indie music’s influence. In the United States, Nirvana’s second album, “Nevermind,” sold over thirty million copies, proving that indie bands could achieve immense success without the backing of major labels. Indie music during this period was often referred to as alternative rock, further blurring the lines between the two terms.

During the 90s, indie music continued to explore new sounds and styles, with acts like Stereolab, Disco Inferno, and Neutral Milk Hotel pushing the genre’s boundaries. Emo music also emerged as a significant influence in the late 90s, with bands like Weezer and American Football paving the way for future emo artists.

Indie Music in the 2000s

The 2000s saw indie music enter the mainstream, with bands like Modest Mouse, Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, The Killers, and Arctic Monkeys achieving commercial success. The Killers, formed in Las Vegas in 2001, gained immense popularity, selling over 28 million records worldwide. Their debut single, “Mr. Brightside,” became one of the most downloaded songs ever after its re-release in 2004. Arctic Monkeys’ debut album, ‘Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not,’ released in 2006, sold over 363,000 copies in its first week and won the prestigious Nationwide Mercury Prize.

Key tracks from this period include Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” Bright Eyes’ “First Day of My Life,” Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Follow You Into The Dark,” The Killers’ “Mr. Brightside,” and Arctic Monkeys’ “I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor.”

Emo music also continued to gain popularity, with bands like My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy dominating the charts with tracks like “Welcome To The Black Parade” and “Sugar, We’re Goin Down.”

The 2000s also marked a significant increase in indie musicians, with the US Bureau of Labour Statistics reporting a 71% increase since 2003. Additionally, the sale of vinyl records experienced a resurgence, with a 33% growth in 2013, selling six million copies. This resurgence is closely related to the growth of indie music, as many indie artists released their music on both CD and vinyl to give a more throwback/vintage feel.

Indie Music in the 2010s and Beyond

The 2010s saw indie music continue to evolve, diversify, and occasionally enter the mainstream. Artists like Vampire Weekend, Tame Impala, and Sufjan Stevens explored new styles and sounds, while others incorporated elements from various genres like folk, electronic, hip hop, and pop. Key tracks from this period include Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk,” Tame Impala’s “Let It Happen,” and Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago.”

Indie music in the 2010s demonstrated its diversity with folk and country acts like The Lumineers, Mumford & Sons, and The Avett Brothers, electronic artists such as Four Tet, Caribou, and Jamie xx, and hip-hop performers like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Frank Ocean. Experimental works like Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs,” Vampire Weekend’s “Modern Vampires of the City,” and Lorde’s “Melodrama” showcased the blending of various styles and elements, while influential tracks like Lorde’s “Royals,” Frank Ocean’s “Channel Orange,” and Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” achieved significant success and recognition.

Indie electronica also gained prominence during this period, with artists like James Blake, M83, and Chvrches redefining the genre. Key tracks from this era include James Blake’s “Retrograde,” M83’s “Midnight City,” and Chvrches’ “The Mother We Share.”

The 2010s indie music landscape resisted neat categorization due to changes in how we consume music and the influence of pop music. Scenes and collectives became more diffuse, and the importance of the album as a format continued to diminish. The creative renaissance in pop music further blurred the lines between genres, making indie music more ubiquitous and diverse than ever before.

The influence of indie music remains strong today, with artists continuing to push boundaries and experiment with new styles and sounds.


Indie music, characterized by its diversity and evolving nature, has consistently been driven by independence, experimentation, and creativity. Its development from the 60s and 70s through the 80s, 90s, and into the 2000s and 2010s showcases its enduring impact on the music world.

For indie artists and enthusiasts, understanding the genre’s history is essential in shaping their own musical expressions. The indie scene has a reputation for producing innovative artists who defy categorization, exemplifying the genre’s inherent adaptability.

As we look to the future, it is vital to acknowledge indie music’s rich history and the artists who contributed to its evolution. By drawing inspiration from their work and embracing the spirit of experimentation, we can continue to redefine indie music and maintain its significance in the contemporary music landscape. In line with this spirit, Activ8te is set to release their first indie electronica track, “All We Do Is Shine (feat. footleg),” on April 28th, further contributing to the ever-evolving genre.

The views expressed on these pages are my own and do not represent the views of anyone else.
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