Distinction Between the Alternative and Indie Genres

Arms raised concert

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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 similar when people say they're into "alternative" and "indie" music, but is there actually any validity to a separation between the two? Well, yes and no.

Alternative and indie, at their roots, stand more for vague ideas and beliefs than any kind of specific musical styles of sounds, and truly the only real difference is the location of the artist: alternative was the preferred nomenclature of American artists while indie came straight from the British Isles.

The British Indie Invasion

Yes, indie is at heart the English expression. In the U.K., 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, the UK Indie Chart began chronicling the best-selling independently-released singles in 1980. 

Yet at some point, the simple classification changed. Many point to the iconic cassette compilation "C86," which was given away with an edition of the English weekly "NME" in 1986. The album sought to chronicle a burgeoning English guitar-pop underground called either "cutie" or "shambling" at the time. 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.

Rough Trade recording artists, The Smiths, were the biggest band in the U.K. at that time. Known as a proudly indie band whose obvious debt to The Byrds contrasted their frontman Morrissey's Oscar Wilde rakish wit, The Smiths unsurprisingly released "C86" to great critical acclaim.

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 retro-phonic, 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.

The Evolution of Alternative

After a quarter-century of sexually-frustrated, bookish boys and block-fringed girls playing proudly indie music labels, 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.

Yet, back in England — the birthplace of the word — "indie" has come to mean something else entirely. No longer a term used, often proudly, to describe bands with a down-to-earth attitude and do-it-yourself beliefs, indie has come to be shorthand for the direst 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 The Fratellis, The Kooks or Razorlight, you likely live in the United Kingdom.