Arts : Encyclopedia of Indie Rock

The Reviewers

Terry O'Brien, Deputy Librarian, Waterford Institute of Technology, Waterford, Ireland



Review Subject:

Encyclopedia of Indie Rock

Kerry L. Smith

Publisher Name:

Greenwood Press

Place of Publication:

Westport, CT and London

Publication Year:



978 0 313 341199


£41.95, $75

Article type:



xxxv+400 pp.


Encyclopedias, Music, Popular culture

Emerald Journal:

Reference Reviews









Copyright: ©

Emerald Group Publishing Limited



This is the latest encyclopedia in a growing list of popular culture reference works produced or to be soon published by Greenwood Press. Greenwood are becoming the doyens of popular music reference works in North America, the Encyclopedia of Indie Rock joining an existing variety titles on hip hop (Hess, 2007) (RR 2008/234), punk music and culture (Cogan, 2006) (RR 2007/039), heavy metal, rap and hip hop culture (Bynoe, 2006) (RR 2006/435), R'n'B and soul and a six-volume encyclopedia of rock history (The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Rock History, Greenwood Press, 2006) (RR 2006/277). Kerry L. Smith's Encyclopedia of Indie Rock surveys the history and development of “indie” – independent rock – with entries on all the original and main indie players from Frank Zappa, Nirvana, REM to more recent groups such as Belle & Sebastian, Death Cab for Cutie, TV on the Radio and the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs.

With over 250 entries, Smith captures the flavour of indie and does a fine job in differentiating the different genres and styles. There are entries on various sub genres such as emo, lo-fi, twee pop, post-rock and freak folk although to the uninitiated it can be difficult to tell the difference. The introduction places indie music in context in terms of its position in the mainstream music market and the brief narration of where indie came from and is going in relation to the major record labels is insightful. The timeline from 1952-2007 adds further framework but it really is not until Zappa in 1964 and The Velvet Underground in 1967 that indie starts to emerge. Two appendices listing the author's ten most influential indie rock artists and significant rock albums will no doubt be a cause for further discourse. There is also a useful resource guide. With these publications there can often be debate over omissions and inclusions. The inclusion of one Mr James Blunt has surely lessened the author's indie credibility!

Indie has become a fairly loose term signifying a kind of independence or autonomy from the main movie studios in the case of film and the main record companies in terms of music. Many indie artists are however, happy to piggy back on the distribution channels of the big players as long as they can, or at least appear to, retain artistic independence and hold on to their cherished creative control. This is one of the central tensions to the indie movement; musicians who start out as non-conformists, in it for the love of music and their art inevitably come to a stage where they may be required or tempted to loosen their control in order to bring their music to the masses or attain some kind of commercial success. In indie music as with many unconventional music genres such as punk (but not perhaps modern hip hop which for some associate success only with commercial success), it is often regarded as some kind of sell-out if the music makes its way to the mainstream. This is seemingly acceptable if achieved through unconventional avenues, through, gigging, social networking, word-of-mouth, bootlegging etc. but not by attaching music to the mainstream music industry record companies or the corporate dollar. That said, it would be highly unusual for any band or indie artist with some kind of published output not to have their material on Apple's iTunes. Many indie bands attach themselves to social sites like Myspace, seemingly oblivious to the behemoths that actually own these sites. On the other hand, it is reasonable to surmise that the web has benefitted indie music and those in DIY movements immensely (in the musical sense) enabling a relatively free and easy platform for their music and a level of self-promotion and exposure that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.

There are though many prominent and relatively successful indie labels, and some examples of very successful self-publishing but one has to wonder whether some will go the way of Tower Records, the long-term viability of many of these operations with digital music and copying so rampant. That is not to say there have not been and continue to be many major commercial success stories in indie music – The Smiths, REM, Arcade Fire to name but a highly prominent few.

Equally, there is no doubting the cultural longevity and continuing musical influence of indie rock. Indie is ubiquitous. It remains extremely fashionable and retains a highly productive and popular output. I do feel that the author has overstated the socio-political influence of indie music, notwithstanding the effect Kurt Cobain and others have had on millions of young people; indie is too loose a collective to have been politically important in the way punk was in the 1970s. Is the anti-conformist card overplayed? The musical diversity and sensibilities of indie music certainly make it appealing to millions of people. This book is as the author states, a labour of love and as a result lacks a little rigour in parts. That said it contains a fine collection of entries both eclectic and obscure and one cannot doubt either the author's knowledge or the love that went into producing the book. The focus is primarily North American and British, such geographical bias simply a reflection of where the genre is centred.

This book is a promising introduction for the general reader even if some of the cross-references require some knowledge and are a little self-knowing. It is hard to say who its target audience is – those with a passion for popular and indie music will find it valuable and a handy reference as will those seeking to learn more about the genre and its cultural roots. Recommended for public and high school libraries; academic programmes in music and cultural studies should include it in reading and reference lists, particularly at undergraduate level.


Bynoe, Y. (2006), Encyclopedia of Rap and Hip Hop Culture, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.

Cogan, B. (2006), Encyclopedia of Punk Music and Culture, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.

Greenwood Press (2006), The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Rock History, 6 vols, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.

Hess, M. (2007), Icons of Hip Hop: An Encyclopedia of the Movement, Music and Culture, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.