Music History

How Indie Rock Changed the Universe

There was a time when even alt-rock types looked down upon indie artists as unimportant wannabes. Sure, there were exceptions–Sonic Youth, early REM, punk bands like Black Flag–but as for indie music in general, even the Lollapalooza Generation considered it to be too fringey to warrant much attention.

That attitude began to change around 2000 thanks in large part to the rise of P2P sharing services, the consolidation of major labels from five to four then three, a proliferation of new non-mainstream very nimble independent record labels and a new band called The White Stripes. Today, “indie” is to rock what “alternative” was back in 1992.

But as important as alternative was to the history of rock, indie might be more important. The Atlantic explains why.

Two decades before a bunch of geeky American boys messing around on computers created social media, an earlier generation of geeky kids (mostly boys) messing around on guitars created another sort of social network. At its heart was the kind of music you wouldn’t hear on commercial radio or, except in the wee hours of Monday mornings, on MTV. It came on the heels of 1970s punk rock, and while it owed something to punk’s velocity and sneer, the spirit was experimental, as if all the old rules had been swept away.

Ragged guitar riffs, ferocious decibel levels, and unpredictable song structures were its trademarks, but the sounds—from the percussively headlong to the distorted and depressive—proliferated as fast as the labels for them. Under the various headings of punk, post-punk, hardcore, alt-rock, underground, noise rock, post-rock, and, most generic, indie rock, bands such as Mission of Burma, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, and Slint laid down the soundtrack of an alternative culture.

If you were over the age of 30 when the Berlin Wall fell, this music probably seemed pretty much pointless. If, on the other hand, you were in your teens or 20s, especially if you were a skinny white male and wore glasses, it’s just possible that indie rock sounded like community—salvation, even.

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Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37880 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

One thought on “How Indie Rock Changed the Universe

  • Not a bad article but it’s trying to hard to sound smart. “leitmotif”.. what? who wants to have to look up words to read an article on music. It’s not an English Lit. course. I do remember when Alternative was a small section in the music store, until Lolapalooza and CFNY changed the game.


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