Headed to South By Southwest? With thousands of indie bands vying for your attention, you’ll need some help sorting out all the many flavors of indie. Here, for your convenient reference, is our field guide to some of the most prominent types of indie acts.
Art project indie: It’s not music, it’s art. They’re not concerts, they’re evening-long installations—just with cheap beer instead of cheap wine. See: Animal Collective, Fever Ray.
Buzzband indie: This is the meat and potatoes of indie. Guitars, bass, drums, usually a guy standing there with a laptop looking awkward. Everyone wants to ride the buzzwaves, but few succeed. See: Best Coast, WAVVES.
Celebrity wanna-indie: Lots of mainstream celebrities want to get with dirty indie stars (see: Drew Barrymore); some go so far as to get with them onstage (see: Scarlett Johansson). Sometimes they actually make good music, inconveniently forcing thousands of indie fans to justify themselves at length for having it on their iPods.
Death-rattle indie: Mainstream stars whose commercial success has peaked and who have gone indie so that they can more easily collaborate with old-school indie artists (below). See: Paul Simon, Jimmy Buffett.
Fuck-the-man indie: Mainstream stars who abandon major labels, often amidst unhinged public denouncements, so that they can release three-disc sets of mediocre material that their labels wisely advised them against releasing. Once they get it out of their system, they often return to their labels. Definitive example: Prince.
Hip-hop indie: Instead of Biggie and Tupac, their 90s heros are Talib Kweli and Mos Def. More likely than mainstream rappers to be white and/or female, and to play with live musicians instead of a DJ. In lyrics, domestic violence replaces public violence and love for your town replaces hate for other towns. See: Aesop Rock, Doomtree.
Hippie indie: Takin’ it back to ’69 and remembering when being indie also came with smoking lots of pot and practicing free love. Groovy. See: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Fleet Foxes.
Indierena: They think they’re indie, and they call themselves indie for street cred, but their not-so-secret ambition is to fill arenas with lamestreamers drinking wide-mouth plastic bottles of Miller Lite. See: Kings of Leon, Snow Patrol.
Laptop indie: In the 21st century, a laptop, some loops, a mic, and an ironic t-shirt can make you a star—at least, an indie star. Guitar optional, but recommended. See: Diamond Rings, Baths (pictured above).
Old-school indie: These guys have been indie since before indie was indie, back when it was “college rock” or “alternative rock.” They still make the festival rounds, usually supporting a new record that Rolling Stone just called their most energetic since 1987. See: Guided By Voices, R.E.M.
Singer-songwriter indie: Much like mainstream singer-songwriters, but hairier, with more eclectic instruments (accordion! marimba!), and often with laptops instead of backing bands. See: Pezzettino, Iron & Wine.