"Indie" is short for "independent." ("Indy" is short for "Indianapolis.") So, "indie music" is "independent music." Whazzat? The most common definition is "music released on independent labels." So you ask, "What's an independent label?" With that, you, gentle reader, have stumbled upon the much-vaunted Late-20th-Century Indie-Quandary.
That's right, it's a special re-broadcast of "Story-Time! with Mr. Mark." Story-Time! is sponsored by American Cyanamid - on the air because they care... by Joe's Pizza, at 123 Main St. - the best pies in town... and by the generous contributions of Viewers Like You.
In countries like Great Britain, there are laws about such things. But in the devil-may-care United States, the question of "what's an indie label?" is difficult (if not impossible) to answer definitively. It used to be simple. An indie label was any label not owned or operated by a major label. The major labels (a.k.a. "The Gang Of Six") were Time Warner (inc. Warners, Sire, Reprise, Elektra, Atlantic, et al.), Sony Music (inc. Columbia, Epic, Chaos, et al.), CEMA (inc. Capitol, EMI, Chrysalis, SBK, Virgin, et al.), Matsushita (inc. MCA, Geffen/DGC, Radioactive, et al.), Philips/PolyGram (inc. Polydor, Mercury, Island, A&M, et al.) and BMG (inc. RCA, Arista, et al.) And an indie band was any band on an indie label.
Then shit happened. Rough Trade went bankrupt, and many smaller labels who were owed money by Rough Trade went under too. Companies like Sony and Virgin bought interests in large indie distributors (Relativity and Caroline, respectively). Bands like R.E.M., Depeche Mode, and (oh no! the N word!) Nirvana sold millions of records. Big labels saw dollar signs in the eyes of indie labels and bands. Some indie labels signed P & D deals (i.e., co-marketing agreements) with big labels, and big labels bought other indies outright. Big labels even set up "fake indie" labels. MTV created grunge fashions. The rest, as they say, is "Under The Bridge." (I don't ever want to feel like I did that day... the day the music died.)
These days, it's nearly impossible to tell what's indie and what's not. Sonic Youth (who, before 1990, released several famous records on Homestead, SST, and Blast First) are now on DGC; are they an indie music band? Fire, a British indie label, is distributed by Atlantic (and/or its subsidiary, Seed) in the US; is Fire an indie label over here? Mercury Rev are signed to Columbia in the US but Beggars Banquet in the UK; are they an indie band? Small Factory released an album on SpinArt, a label in which Sony has a financial interest and a label for which Caroline (owned by Virgin PLC) is the sole distributor; was SF an indie band at that point? Is SpinArt an indie label? The whole 9 yards is a cross-threading mystery.
Therefore, indie-ness is in your own head. Take a look and see what other people think indie means. Then decide for yourself. Because "Bob" knows even The Man couldn't figure out the current state of affairs. (Now let's see, Frontier used to be distributed by RCA, but now the new Flop CD is on Frontier/550, and 550 is a division of Sony, but I heard something about Frontier being distributed by Ryko, which also released Sugar, who are on Creation in the UK, and Creation has a deal with Sony, and they used to have one with SBK, and... ah, damn it all to hell. :-)
[Thanks for joining us today for "Story-Time! With Mr. Mark." Tune in next week for another exciting tale of corporate treachery and mayhem.]
By the way, the opposite of "indie", as any Minutemen fan will tell you, is "mersh" (shortened from "commercial.")
Borrowed from the Indie-List Digest FAQ; written by Mark Cornick (with additional snide remarks and HTML conversion by Sean Murphy).