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Alternative Music 101 - Are 'Alternative' and 'Indie' the Same Thing?

By

The Smiths

The Smiths

Clare Muller/Redferns/Getty Images

There's a much-quoted lined from that old Blues Brothers movie, in which a staff-member of a rough-and-tumble redneck bar offers that the venue's stage plays host to "both kinds" of music: "Country and Western."

It feels a little like that being billed as a guide to Alternative and Indie music. Yes, both kinds. The seeming interchangeability of those two words —which, at root, stand more for vague ideals and beliefs than any kind of specific style— may have you wondering something:

Are 'Alternative' and 'Indie' essentially interchangeable terms?

Well, yes and no. The basic rule of thumb used to be that the difference was only about location. Alternative was the preferred American term, Indie came straight from the British isles.

Indie, Yeah?

Yes, indie is, at heart, the English expression. In the UK, indie started out, simply, as the trade term for records released on independent record-labels.

In the wake of punk-rock in the late 1970s, the do-it-yourself ethos had flowered in England. With labels like Rough Trade, Factory, Mute, and Cherry Red all growing in stature, in 1980 the UK Indie Chart began, chronicling, simply, the best-selling independently-released singles in the land.

Oh, C86, So Much to Answer For

Yet, at some point, the simple classification changed. Many point to the iconic cassette compilation C86, which was given away with an edition of English weekly NME in 1986. The compile sought to chronicle a burgeoning English guitar-pop underground called, at the time, either 'cutie' or 'shambling'. As these descriptive names suggest, these bands played a twee, amateurish form of home-made music drawing deeply from sunny '60s acts like The Byrds and the Velvet Underground.

Given that, at the time, Rough Trade recording artists The Smiths —a proudly indie band whose obvious debt to The Byrds contrasted with their frontman, Morrissey, a fey, rakish wit out to evoke Oliver Wilde— were the biggest band in the UK, it makes sense that C86 became a landmark.

Featuring bands like The Pastels, The Shop Assistants, and Primal Scream, C86 became a huge hit, then a buzz-word, then a catch-all. Sometime thereafter, indie meant being synonymous with this particular style, this particular cassette.

Stylistically, this meant a retrophonic, largely sexless, form of music; with jangly guitars and the vague taint of nostalgia. Indie no longer referred to the factual realities of record distribution. Indie was somewhere between a state of mind, and a singular guitar tone.

This Indie World

After quarter-century of sexually-frustrated, bookish boys and block-fringed girls playing proudly indie music, you'd think it would've made indie a definable style, if not a singular sound. Yet, as I originally said, this depends on which side of the pond you're on.

In America, indie often means twee, meek, Anglophilic; and it always means retrophonic. To be indie is to do so without distortion, without aggression. And, given the state of modern American radio, this almost by nature makes indie acts underground bands. In fact, aside from The Shins, I can't think of anyone with a true indie-pop sound who's made a run on the American charts.

They Were All Yellow

Yet, back in England, birthplace of the word, 'indie' has come to mean something else entirely. No longer a term used, often proudly, to describe bands with down-to-earth attitude and do-it-yourself beliefs, indie has come to be shorthand for a most dire form of non-rock.

In Britain, these days indie is routinely used as a catch-all to describe an ever-growing succession of impossibly bland, laddish bands playing inoffensive, melancholy ballad-rock. Their kings are Coldplay and Snow Patrol, two outfits of indistinct, fresh-faced fellows who've made a mint by playing soft, jangly songs free from tension and edge and polished up to a modern-FM-radio sheen. But Coldplay and Snow Patrol are the ones you know, the ones who made it outside the British Isles. If you've heard of —or, worse, actually heard— The Fratellis, The Kooks, or Razorlight, you likely live in the UK.

The Verdict

So, yes, there is a distinction between 'Alternative' and 'Indie,' and now that you know, you too can use each judiciously. As for the differences between indie, indie-pop, and indie-rock, well, um, you'll just have to use your imagination. Because there aren't any, really.

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