The term "indie rock" is short for independent rock, and refers to a category of music in which many artists are on small independent labels or are unsigned, as opposed to being signed to major labels. Some artists, such as Death Cab For Cutie, have signed to major labels, yet are still considered to be indie artists. It is a fairly ambiguous term, and can be used to define a wide variety of different bands and musicians. In general, however, indie rock musicians have a very strong do-it-yourself ethic, and do not change their sound to fit popular trends.
Indie rock artists are often played in heavy rotation on college radio stations, so this type of music is sometimes referred to as "college rock." Some of the earliest indie bands who met popular acclaim on campus stations were REM and 10,000 Maniacs. Many early artists hailed from Great Britain, including the Smiths, the Cure, and the Stone Roses. These artists rarely, if ever, made an appearance on the popular music charts. College stations often compiled their own lists of the most popular songs, however, and they often featured these artists. Though musicians played on college rock stations did not necessarily make huge amounts of money, they often had strong fan bases among a younger crowd that are loyal to this day.
Today, there are many different styles of indie rock music. The low-fi style, epitomized by bands like Sonic Youth and Pavement, features an unpolished sound and frequent distortion. Artists like Devandra Bernhardt and Joanna Newsom, who perform experimental folk music, are labeled as "freak folk." Artists like Belle and Sebastian, who play bouncy, mostly acoustic music, are sometimes called "twee pop." New sub-branches of the scene are always developing.
There is a particular lifestyle often associated with people who listen to this type of music. Many of these people, who often dress in unique vintage clothes, are referred to as hipsters. Many cities have large indie rock scenes, particularly New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In such cities, the local independent rock bands often have very strong followings, which helps them to expand into other areas.
Though some bands that were once considered to be independent are now quite successful, such as the Shins and Death Cab For Cutie, most are still under the radar and have to struggle to earn a living with their music. People who like a particular band's music can support them by legally purchasing their music, attending their shows, and recommending them to friends whenever possible.