the indie music database

since 2007

How to Spot Indie Using Five Telltale Signs

by Cris



When I started this site, one of my goals was to define what ‘indie music’ is. After listening to many a song from the pool of what popular culture defines as ‘indie’, I’ve come to realize that though you can’t really sum up ‘indie music’ in terms of musical style, you can however, spot the ‘indie-ness’ of a certain song / band by some telltale signs. For this week, we’ve got a list of indie trademarks culled from hundreds of hours of music surfing and an odd number of family and friends commenting on what the heck I’ve been listening to –

1.  There’s a dog barking in the background or the ‘Lo-fi’ sound
Not to say that all artists not doing Lo-fi recordings are not indie – but to some extent, most indie bands have their own lo-fi recordings out there, since most started from humble, no professional recording equipment beginnings. Come to think of it, some even love the DIY authenticity of it so much that it became one of their trademarks (i.e. The Mountain Goats, Guided by Voices).

Why it’s not bound for mainstream success:
People love the flawless, polished sound. In the era of high tech and dolby digital, most people would want clear and crisp sounds to accompany their HDTV viewing. Also, with all people growing up in this new era, background sounds can be annoying – like that one time, when I was watching TV with my husband – we’ve retrogressed to using rabbit ears for the moment (actually a customized version, lovingly built by my hubby for the purpose of getting the free HDTV channels). To those of you experienced in catching channels from an antenna, you’d regularly experience snow and white noise (I know, this would be lost to some of you young folk). My husband was quite surprised as to why it wasn’t bothering me at all. I proudly replied, ‘I’m used to the crackling sound that vinyl makes’ – but in truth, I grew up with a black and white TV and we never got cable until I was in university.

Fave lo-fi song:
I’ve posted it twice on the blog before, and it’s my all-time favourite song: Strange Things Will Happen by The Radio Dept., a band that does their own recording at home. However, to offer some variety in my Friday list, here’s another favorite lo-fi gem from wonder siblings CocoRosie. The song is their version of Damien Jurado’s Ohio. CocoRosie’s first EP was recorded in comfort of their own Parisian bathroom.

CocoRosie – Ohio

2.  You only need the vocal prowess of William Hung to sing the song
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of indie band singers are much much better than William Hung. All I’m saying is –around 85% of the indie songs that I’ve listened to have that anyone can sing it quality to them (but not in any way do they have disastrous vocals). These songs miraculously, can be sung by the non-vocally trained without them ruining the song.

Why it’s not bound for mainstream success:
Actually, by this virtue alone, it still can be bound for mainstream success. In the history of Top 40 songs, there’s a whole bunch of songs with terrible singers. However, a voice at par with Celine Dion is still a plus for mainstream likeability.

Fave song with unconventional vocals:
One of my favorites at the moment is Corduroy Utd.’s I Saw Love, which I also included in a previous list. However, there is one particular song that first made me realize this unique trait that indie songs shared. While listening to Johnny Foreigner’s The End and Everything After in the car, my sister (a fan of R&B and jazz) couldn’t help but laugh. According to her, the guy’s yelpy vocals sounded like he was currently undergoing puberty. I didn’t realize it until she it pointed it out. I still love their songs to death though.

Johnny Foreigner – The End and Everything After

3.  Trippy band names
If you think of bands in terms of marketable products, you’ll probably stick with a name that everyone can easily remember and pronounce. With indie bands though, product marketability is not at the top of their list and band names are chosen at the spur of the moment. 

Why it’s not bound for mainstream success:
Though it’s a phrase commonly used, try to promote a band named Fucked Up at your local radio station and imagine it to be easy. It’s also hard to remember how many ‘nanas’ there are in Dananananaykroyd.

My fave band name:

My favourite ones are names with symbols in them, especially one that use symbols exclusively. I don’t know if someone has claimed it yet, but “&” would be the worst band name to have.  Try googling it and see what happens.
My favourite is actually not the worst band name to have, but it’s not one of the best either:  +/- . I love them, they’re a great band and they’ve actually wised up enough to have themselves be alternatively called Plus/Minus. I’d prefer ex/dash though, it has a more Eerie Indiana-ish feel to it. 

+ / –  Steal The Blueprints

4.  Non radio-friendly lyrics

A lot of Indie bands are non-conformist, so in a sense, you also have a great deal of unconventional lyrics as well. The most notable of course, is the casual use of explicit words in pop sounding songs. If you want a sample, go check out my list of F*cking Brilliant Songs. It’s also good to note that you can find a wide array of choices for subjects in indie songs, some of which aren’t quite fit for public consumption.

Why it’s not bound for mainstream success:
It’s just not for everyone. Mainstream songs are meant for all ages and I don’t think people are ready to explain what the ‘Blood between my legs’ part of that Parenthetical Girls’ song is when their kid asks about it. (The Parenthetical Girls are also a prime example of #3. They were previously named The Swastika Girls and switched on to become  (((GRRRLS))) – also pronounced as Parenthetical Girls, to which they are now more popularly known )

Fave song with non radio-friendly lyrics:
I’d guess a song that starts with ‘But for the cum on your hair, cocaine on your teeth’ wouldn’t be so radio-friendly. They don’t call themselves The Indelicates for nothing.

The Indelicates – New Art for the People

5. The first time you hear it on mainstream media is on a television ad or playing in the background on some TV show
Did you know that Stars was on The OC Soundtrack? That an Architecture In Helsinki song was used on a Sprint commercial or that UPS was a big fan of The Postal Service? More often than not, a lot of indie artists break through the mainstream using these two favourite avenues. And, more often than not, those indie songs are ones probably prone to the ‘Hey what’s the name of that song?’ reaction.

Why it’s not bound for mainstream success:

Being in TV and commercials are actually a great way towards breaking through the mainstream. In fact, most of the time that Apple releases a new iPod commercial, that’s one indie artist off to mainstream success. Just look at Feist.
Then again, when being included in TV show soundtracks, mainstream success would be on it’s way if you get picked up by shows like Gossip Girl or Grey’s Anatomy (they even got a Psapp song for their opening titles). However, some can also go for the cult following type of popularity via children’s TV shows. Just check out Yo Gabba Gabba…..or if you’re feeling nostalgic, how about Nickelodeon’s The Adventures of Pete & Pete?

Fave song from an indie band that got featured on TV:
Of course it’s going to be a Pete and Pete song. I’ve already included some in my previous lists (Polaris, The 6ths and The Magnetic Fields) so here’s a song from Semi-gloss, which to some, will bring fond memories of our all-time favorite redheads, Pete and Pete.

Semi-gloss – The Sunburn Song

photo by quinn.anya