The term indie rock, which comes from “independent,” describes the small and relatively low-budget labels on which it is released and the do-it-yourself attitude of the bands and artists involved. Although distribution deals are often struck with major corporate companies, these labels and the bands they host have attempted to retain their autonomy, leaving them free to explore sounds, emotions and subjects of limited appeal to large, mainstream audiences. The influences and styles of the artists have been extremely diverse, including punk, psychedelia, rock and country. The terms “alternative rock” and “indie rock” were used interchangeably in the 1980s, but after many alternative bands followed Nirvana into the mainstream in the early 1990s, “indie rock” began to be used to describe those bands, working in a variety of styles, that did not pursue or achieve commercial success.

Allmusic identifies indie rock as including a number of “varying musical approaches [not] compatible with mainstream tastes”. Linked by an ethos more than a musical approach, the indie rock movement encompassed a wide range of styles, from hard-edged, grunge-influenced bands, through do-it-yourself experimental bands like Pavement, to punk-folk singers such as Ani DiFranco.Many countries have developed an extensive local indie scene, flourishing with bands with enough popularity to survive inside the respective country, but virtually unknown elsewhere.

Indie rock has been identified as a reaction against the macho culture that developed in alternative rock in the aftermath of Nirvana’s success. Indie rock is noted for having a relatively high proportion of female artists compared with preceding rock genres, a tendency exemplified by the development of the feminist-informed Riot Grrrl music of acts like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile, 7 Year Bitch, Team Dresch and Huggy Bear.