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What is Indie Music? Full Explanation With Examples

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The term indie music can get confusing for a lot of people because it isn’t a genre but more of a production style. It is basically just independent music, which means it isn’t associated with any major record labels. There are plenty of independent music labels out there, and that’s where many indie groups choose to publish their albums. 

In truth, three major record labels control somewhere between 80% to 90% of the music industry. Sony BMG, Universal Music Group, and Warner Music Group are the big three, with most of the labels you’ve heard of being smaller subsidiaries of those three groups.

True, pure indie music has no connection to any of those big three, but it’s an incredibly rare thing to actually see with any musical artists. Most may start out independent before deciding to sign with a major label, but others have always remained independent. 

In this article, we’ll define indie music for our purposes, discuss how artists can remain independent today more than ever before, and talk about some of the best indie bands in history. 

Indie Music Defined

So, we left a bit out at the beginning of the article. In most cases, indie music refers to independent music that has no financial connections to the three big record labels. But that’s not the only way to define indie music today.

In modern times, indie music has come to refer to a few specific genres, even if it isn’t a genre itself. Folk music, experimental styles, and alternative music can all be called styles of indie music. You’ll find some genres that are almost entirely based on independent recording labels. They tend to be obscure, well out of the mainstream, and sometimes, highly controversial. 

So how exactly can we define indie music? The best way to keep it simple is to just talk about music and artists that don’t have recording contracts with any of the big three record labels. Finding them can be incredibly difficult as most artists eventually sign with one of them out of either necessity or to get their music to a wider audience. 

If you’re really interested in finding independent musicians, you’re going to have to do some research on your own. For the most part, you can check which label released any of a band’s music and which companies it is signed to. It’s easier with bigger groups that have dedicated wikis and web pages because it will be clearly listed on the page somewhere who they’re signed with.

Be careful when doing it though. In a lot of cases, the label name won’t say one of the three major labels. It’ll likely say something else like Columbia Records, which is a subsidiary of Sony.

Also worth noting, the big three used to be a big four. EMI was the fourth record label that controlled most of the music market until they were acquired by Universal Music. So if it says EMI, it’s Universal.

You can also usually do a quick test to determine if the record label is independent: If you’ve heard of it, it’s probably an offshoot of the big three. That isn’t true for everyone though, with some people more in tune with the indie scene than others. Be sure to search up the label and check which ones are owned by who. Most of the time, it will be owned by one of the major record labels out there. 

Almost every independent label is proud to be an independent label. It’ll be clearly advertised on their website that they aren’t part of a bigger conglomerate, so a quick Google search should be all you need. You can also go look through some of the most popular independent labels or search up ones that some of the bands you do know about have worked with in the past. 

While we’re here, we should cover what signing with an independent label actually means. Publishing with an independent label does not mean a group isn’t “indie” anymore just because they worked with a label. We’ve basically defined indie music as not being connected to the big three, and independent record labels aren’t connected to them. They’re typically funded on their own and don’t have the financial backing of a massive monopolistic corporation. 

Artists also typically retain the rights to their music when signed to indie labels, meaning they aren’t being forced to make creative changes and can do what they want with the music after it’s been recorded. So yeah, signing with an independent label doesn’t suddenly make a group mainstream or no longer “indie.”

Why Do Indie Artists Sign With Major Labels?

One of the secret, but not really a secret, things about the music industry is that you have to put a lot of money in to make money. Airtime on radio stations and highly-ranked spots on streaming apps are typically pay-for-play. What that means is that for most of history, working with radio stations was incredibly challenging for indie artists because their music wouldn’t get played just because it was good, they’d have to pay for airtime. 

In a 2004 investigation, New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer did do a lot to get rid of the pay-for-play practice on radio stations, but it didn’t solve the problem. The findings also did nothing to keep the practice from influencing Spotify and Apple playlist curators. All of that makes it super hard for indie artists to actually get their music out there. 

Major record labels offer musicians a lot once they deem you worthy of a contract. The band then doesn’t have to worry about financing airtime, producing and distributing albums, or if they’ll be making a profit since they’ve signed a deal that actually pays them. Major record labels open doors that most indie artists just can’t push themselves through on their own. 

So, in many cases, singing with a major record label is a financial decision for a group. Many just might not get to keep going without the support of an established firm. Others do it as an artistic choice to help spread their music to wider audiences that they previously couldn’t reach. Either way, signing with a major label or subsidiary is the fastest path to growth in the music industry.

It’s incredibly hard to find artists that are completely free of the big three influence since they have their hand in so many areas and are basically everywhere in the world.

So with all of that in mind…

Is It Even Possible to Stay independent Now?

In a word, yes. Artists can stay independent, and there’s nobody forcing them to sign deals with major record labels. As we discussed, the decision to sign is usually either financially beneficial or allows them to reach a wider audience and spread their art more. However, if a band doesn’t want to have an evil overlord influencing their work, they can choose not to regardless of their viability on their own.

The modern world has done a lot to make music more accessible. It started hundreds of years ago when music was finally able to be copied and distributed without the influence of the church thanks to the printing press. As technology continued to advance, artists found they had more and more options for getting their music out there. 

There are tons of platforms now where artists can share their music and even monetize their works. YouTube has been a huge deal since its inception, allowing music artists to freely upload their songs and find widespread fame through viral videos based on algorithms instead of paid-for-clicks—though that is a thing now, we won’t be diving into the world of the internet bots and tricking algorithms.

YouTube For Indie Artists

YouTube has gotten numerous artists noticed and allowed them to create music careers without needing a major record label to promote them. While curated Spotify playlists are a thing, you can get your music onto the platform relatively easily. It doesn’t cost anything to upload music to it, and you’re free to promote and monetize your merchandise as you see fit.

Other platforms like SoundCloud do the same thing, allowing artists to upload and share their music regardless of experience, previous notoriety, or bankroll. 

There’s a lot of indie music being produced and uploaded all the time, in almost every genre. The innovations and freedom of the internet have spawned all sorts of genres as well, like lo-fi hip hop, vaporwave, electronic music, drill rap, and nerd-core. 

12 A.M Study Session 📚 [lofi hip hop/chill beats]

Now, the point of uploading to these platforms for most artists is to get noticed, not to monetize. While things like Patreon, OnlyFans—before it became what we know today—and Twitch have all been around for a while it’s ridiculously difficult to make sustainable money on them. The rise of monetization on apps like Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram has made monetizing on your own more viable, but it’s never easy. 

Even in the best cases, a lot of artists blow up on their platform of choice, receive millions of views, then sign with major record labels to continue their careers and attempt to secure their success. Music has never been more accessible at any time in history, and it’s easier than it’s ever been to get your art out to the public. Unfortunately, the same is true for everyone, and many artists get lost in the tidal wave of others trying to make it big on the same platforms. 

Digital music distribution also helped indie musicians stay independent. Independent record labels have a much easier time distributing and promoting music online. They don’t have to have the manufacturing capabilities to church out physical copies of records and ship them around the world anymore. They can simply upload with a click and start promoting.

Signing with an indie label also comes with a few other perks. Since they’re small and don’t have huge operating costs, they typically sign people to make music they like. That means they won’t be coming in and trying to change the artist’s style to make it more profitable.

Artists also generally retain rights to their music, meaning once it’s recorded, the label only takes part of the distributed profits, and you’re free to do whatever you want with the song afterward. Finally, independent labels work on much shorter contracts than the big three, so if the relationship doesn’t work out, you can move on easier. 

It isn’t all sunshine and roses with independent labels though. They generally can’t afford big marketing campaigns or promotional tours. Those smaller budgets can also lead to some disorganization and might limit future opportunities for you. 

With all of that in mind, I’ll answer the question a little better than just saying yes. It is possible for artists to stay entirely independent today, now easier than ever. There are still independent record labels out there to publish music with, and there are tons of platforms to publish and monetize your work on your own.

The downside is that working as an independent artist can’t match the financial backing of a major label, which is why it’s so uncommon for music groups to remain independent their entire careers. 

Next: What exactly is Lo-Fi music?

Best Indie Bands of All Time, A Totally Not Definitive List

Hey, look, indie music is still very very popular since people have different tastes. Most indie groups that remained independent survive on cult followings rather than widespread appeal, and the vast majority of successful ones eventually sign on with major labels to reach a wider audience, and frankly, make more money. 

For this section, we’ll be including bands that are currently independent and those that started out as indie groups but signed with one of the bigger labels later in their careers. 

Arctic Monkeys

Arctic Monkeys - Do I Wanna Know? (Official Video)

Arctic Monkeys were the first group to show major record labels that it was possible to market bands solely on the internet, and their rise to fame was done just that way. It marked one of the first times in history a group gained notoriety outside of traditional marketing techniques. Their debut album in 2006 would become the fastest-selling debut album in UK history and is hailed as one of the greatest debut albums ever.

The song Do I Wanna Know? in 2013 put Arctic Monkeys on the fast track to international recognition, topping four separate Billboard charts. They were the first independent label band to debut number one on the album charts with their first five albums, making them one of the greatest indie groups of all time, even though they eventually signed a massive deal with Warner. 

The Strokes

The Strokes - You Only Live Once (Official HD Video)

The Strokes started out as an informal band and eventually moved on to playing in bars and clubs before releasing their first EP The Modern Age in 2000. They would become the subject of a bidding war between labels working with two independent record labels in Rough Trade and Cult before eventually signing with RCA, a subsidiary of Sony.

Their debut album Is This It was released to wide critical acclaim and great sales figures. After some up and down times, The Strokes returned in 2020 with The New Abnormal, which would go on to win the Grammy Award for Best Rock Album. In total, they have sold over five million records worldwide. 

Oasis

Oasis - Wonderwall (Official Video)

Oasis signed with the independent label Creation Records in 1993 and was involved in the huge Britpop music movement. Their third album, Be Here Now was released in 1997 and became the fastest-selling record in UK history. Throughout their lifespan, they’ve remained mostly independent and are one of the best-selling independent bands of all time with over 70 million worldwide album sales.

By the time they were done, they had won two Grammy Awards and six BRIT Awards to go along with their long-lasting legacy and incredible album sales records.

Nirvana

Nirvana - Lithium (Official Music Video)

Nirvana is easily one of the most important indie bands in history. They came out of the Seattle grunge scene, releasing its first album with an independent label before signing to DGC Records in 1991. As an indie group, they became one of the figureheads of grunge and a pioneer of the alternative rock movement.

Once signed to DGC, the release of their Nevermind album outperformed any and all expectations, launching alternative rock into the mainstream music world and forever immortalizing Nirvana as the band that brought alt-rock to wider audiences. Smells Like Teen Spirit, Lithium, and Come As You Are carried the album to incredible success and helped make them one of the all-time best-selling bands with over 75 million worldwide record sales.

Radiohead

Radiohead - Creep

Even if you’ve never heard another Radiohead song, you’ve absolutely heard their hit single, Creep. They were one of the key bands in advancing alternative rock in the late 90s, going beyond where groups like Nirvana and the Foo Fighters left it. While they started out as an indie band, they signed with RCA Records to release their album Pablo Honey, which featured Creep and became a worldwide hit.

Throughout the years, they’ve undergone several evolutions in sound. In total, Radiohead has recorded over 30 million worldwide record sales, won three Grammy Awards, and ranked seven singles in the Top 10 of the UK charts. Rolling Stone magazine named them as one of the 100 greatest Artists of All Time and ranked them second on their reader-polled best artists of the 2000s list. 

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Red Hot Chili Peppers - Californication (Official Music Video) [HD UPGRADE]

Today, we don’t think of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as an indie group. I mean, they’re legitimately one of the best-selling bands of all time with well over 120 million album sales. But, they started out as an independent, alt-rock band that developed a signature style that never got compromised. They hold records on the Billboard Alternative Songs Chart for most number-one singles with 14, the most cumulative weeks at number one with 85 weeks,  and the most Top 10 songs with 25.

Six Grammy Awards, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame are the achievements to cap off their still ongoing musical careers and a testament to what a record label can do for a group. 

Modest Mouse

Modest Mouse is one of the best-known indie artists ever, despite signing with Epic Records in 2000. The technically brilliant band would go on to release seven studio albums, all to varying degrees of success. They made a name for themselves in the Seattle area after forming in the early 90s and adapting the sounds of their city to their own styles.

A few EPs were released with independent records. More interestingly, frontman Isaac Brock founded his own independent label Glacial Pace in 2005, which serves numerous independent artists in their hometown. 

Neutral Milk Hotel

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea

Neutral Milk Hotel is a bit of an odd one. Founded by Jeff Mangum, the band was active from 1989 to 1998 and again from 2013 to 2015. They’re mostly known for a few individual releases and have developed a large cult following during their long hiatus, but the coolest part about them is that they have always worked with independent labels.

It began as a home recording project by Mangum, releasing the song Everything Is with Cher Records and finding some exposure that convinced him to keep recording. Their best-known work was the album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, which has been called a landmark album in indie rock and one of the best albums of the 90s by several indie music outlets like Pitchfork. 

Foster The People

Foster The People - Pumped Up Kicks (Official Video)

Foster The People are easily known best for their viral single Pumped Up Kicks, which was the song that launched them out of the indie market and into a deal with Startime International. It was included in their debut album Torches in 2011 and became a crossover hit, reaching number three on the Billboard Hot 100. The album and the track would earn the group three Grammy nominations. 

Final Thoughts on Indie Music

Despite the stranglehold the big three record labels have on the music industry, indie music is still alive and well. Many of the biggest names in music and all-time best-selling bands began their careers as indie artists before securing the bag with major record labels. 

Finding truly independent artists can be challenging. You’re most likely going to find them in alternative genres and subsections of folk music, but it’s still possible. The quickest way would be to search for independent record labels and check out groups that have published music with that label. If indie bands are what you want, always check their history and see what labels they work with. 

Today, it’s easier than ever for artists to get their work out there, though getting viral hits and getting the masses to see it is another story. TikTok, YouTube, Spotify, and SoundCloud are all opportunities for indie artists to get noticed and develop a following, even sometimes to the point they can monetize their work. 

No matter what anyone tells you, the indie music scene isn’t dead. There are still plenty of great bands and artists out there waiting to be discovered. Plus, if you find them, you can say you were a fan before they were mainstream like the cool kid you are.

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