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Defining the best indie rock bands and music in the 21st Century is a challenging proposition. In an era of online music platforms like Bandcamp and SoundCloud and massive streaming services like Spotify, where independent musicians are able to reach mainstream audiences by the millions, what really qualifies as 'indie'?
Things get even more convoluted when you consider the fact that a large percentage of the world's largest music festivals all cater to indie crowds. From the Pitchfork Music Festival to Austin's SXSW or Austin City Limits, it sometimes seems like independent music is the mainstream. While there's some truth to that, as much of the best indie rock goes on to mainstream success, other musicians spend their entire careers in the underground.
Let's take a look at the history of independent rock to understand where the genre's at today and how it got that way!
When you look at the history of rock 'n roll - or any form of popular music, really - it seems that it's all indie. Or it started out that way, at least.
Some of the most influential music of the 20th Century all started out on independent labels. Stax, Sun Records, Motown, Chess, even A&M, all started out as indies. Indie music is woven into the DNA of nearly every sound and style we listen to today.
Things really got going in the '70s, however, with the birth of punk rock, the beginnings of a truly underground music network, and the rise of home recording.
Independent music truly came into its own in the '70s, as people moved away from the pomp and grandiosity of Prog and Arena Rock. There are tons of influential indie bands, labels, scenes, and movements in the '70s. It just wasn't called 'indie rock.'
Much of the obscure, mind-bending sounds to trickle out of the underground in the 1970s can't be easily categorized. You've got the surreal, psychedelic, avant-garde blues of Captain Beefheart, who released some of his most seminal albums on Straight Records, also home to other Californian freakniks such as Frank Zappa. Captain Beefheart would become synonymous with a certain kind of obscure music fanatic - the indie hipster - as seen in the movie High Fidelity. A sweating music geek asks to buy a copy of Trout Mask Replica on pristine vinyl, only to be turned down by Jack Black because he wasn't cool enough.
Meanwhile, The Stooges and The Velvet Underground were laying the groundwork for Punk Rock, Art Rock, an influx of non-Western music, and a drug-addled style and aesthetic that would also become de rigeur for many denizens of the musical underground. They just happened to do it on major labels within the context of indie rock songs.
Punk Rock and its offshoots are probably the best example of what we now think of as indie music. Inspired by the 'Year Zero'/anything goes spirit of The Sex Pistols, legions of angry, disaffected youth took up cheap guitars, photocopies, and staplers to create their own music network. The Punk pioneers of the '70s had to establish their own venues, radio stations, and record stores.
This is the true spirit of independent music and culture, which is still echoing into modern times.
Again, much of what we now think of as 'indie music' got its start in the 1980s. It just wasn't called by that name. Instead, the '80s saw the rise of college rock and alternative rock, which was still being used synonymously with indie rock.
Bands like The Smiths, while referred to as alternative, would become a template for uber-serious underground music with an activist's spirit and a broken heart worn on its sleeve. To this day, indie kids all over the world are still rocking Morrissey t-shirts and copying lyrics from "How Soon Is Now?" onto their backpacks in White Out. Johnny Marr's pyrotechnic guitarwork - adventurous and experimental while still sticking in your ears like saltwater taffy, are good representations of two indie movements emerging from the '80s - Indie Pop and Noise Rock.