Differences between alternative and indie genres

There is an oft-quoted line from an old movie, The Blues Brothers, in which an employee at a rough and awkward country bar says that “both kinds” of music are played on the bar’s stage: “country and western.” It’s like when people say they like “alternative” or “indie” music, but is there any point in separating the two? Yes and no.

Alternative and indie are rooted in vague ideas and beliefs rather than any particular musical style or sound, and indeed the only real difference is the artist’s location: alternative was the preferred nomenclature for American artists, while indie came straight from the British Isles.

British Indie Invasion

Yes, indie is basically an English expression. In the UK, indie began simply as a trade term for records released on independent labels. In the wake of punk rock, the do-it-yourself spirit blossomed in England in the late 1970s. As labels such as Rough Trade, Factory, Mute and Cherry Red grew, in 1980 the UK Indie Chart began listing the best-selling singles released by independent labels.

And yet, at some point, the simple classification changed. Many point to the iconic cassette compilation “C86” that was distributed with the 1986 edition of the English weekly NME. The album chronicled the emerging English guitar/pop underground, which at the time was referred to as either “cutie” or “shambling”.

As their descriptive names suggest, these bands played a sugary, amateurish form of home-made music, drawing deeply from the sunny 60s like The Byrds and Velvet Underground.

The Smiths, recording at Rough Trade Studios, were the biggest band in the UK at the time. Known as an indie band whose apparent debt to The Byrds contrasted with their frontman Morrissey’s racist wit, it’s no surprise that The Smiths released C86 to critical acclaim.

Featuring bands like The Pastels, The Shop Assistants and Primal Scream, “C86” became a huge hit, then buzzword, then public domain. After a while, indie meant synonymous with this particular style, this particular cassette. Stylistically, this meant a retro-phonic, mostly genderless form of music with thundering guitars and a vague undertone of nostalgia. Indie was no longer relevant to the actual reality of record distribution. Indie was something between a state of mind and a specific guitar tone.

The evolution of the alternative

After a quarter of a century of horny, insecure flowery boys and girls playing on the proud labels of indie music, one would think that this made indie a distinct style, if not a distinct sound. However, it depends on which side of the pond you are on.

In America, “indie” often means “sweet”, “meek”, “Anglophile”; and always means “retrophonic”. Being indie means doing it without distortion, without aggression. And given the state of modern American radio, it almost inherently makes indie bands underground. In fact, aside from The Shins, it’s hard to remember anyone with a real indie pop sound who made it to the US charts.

However, in England – the birthplace of the word – “indie” began to mean something completely different. No longer a term often proudly used to describe bands with a down-to-earth attitude and do-it-yourself beliefs, “indie” has become shorthand for the most vicious form of non-rock.

In Britain these days, “indie” is regularly used as a catch-all term to describe an ever-growing succession of impossibly gaudy, sugary bands playing plain, melancholy ballad rock. Their kings are Coldplay and Snow Patrol, two line-ups of slurred, fresh guys who made their money playing soft, resonant songs devoid of tension and edge and polished to a shine on modern FM radio.

But Coldplay and Snow Patrol are the ones you know, the ones that have been successful outside of the British Isles. If you’ve heard of The Fratellis, The Kooks or Razorlight, chances are you live in the UK.

A musical genre is a category that includes works that are similar in a number of ways: stylistic, compositional, plot, etc. Music can be divided into different genres according to a variety of characteristics, such as the use of certain musical instruments, tempo features, general mood of the melody, and others.

The artistic nature of music means that these classifications are often subjective and controversial, and some genres may overlap.


Heavy metal in the late sixties was an interchangeable term with hard rock. The earliest examples of the genre are often referred to as examples of Hard Rock and vice versa. Thus, classic metal is a loosely defined genre: simply “heavier than hard rock”, mainly due to more amplification and distortion of the sound.

The main features of the style are that usually in this direction they sing about nihilism, anarchy, pain, loss or some kind of tragedy, or openly anti-religious texts, and a large number of “heavy” instruments. Typical representatives are Iron Maiden, Metallica, Kiss, Black Sabbath, Marilyn Manson.