Does indie music really mean shitty music?

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I’ve heard it often: Indie music means bad sounding music, in other words, it’s shitty!

First, indie music is often confused with music recorded in a garage by inexperienced musicians with little or no knowledge of recording and mixing, and sometimes less than adequate equipment. 

It’s also confused with a genre that would be some kind of lo-fi punk alternative.
This is why, more often than not, I would use the term “unsigned” rather than “indie” to talk about independent music, recorded by talented musicians and producers all around the globe, in every possible genres you can imagine.

Now, while it’s true that some of it can sound bad, it’s detrimental to think that all of it does, and I would argue that more and more, with the prices and quality of recording gear and digital audio workstations (DAW for short) being so affordable nowadays, and tons of resources on how to record and mix, the end result is getting better and better and more and more unsigned artists are producing quality music.

Still, there are some things that contributes to the myth:

1/ the fact that people are listening on devices that are less than adequate to get a good sound (phones, tablets and laptops speakers are not meant to be hi-fi, and even most bluetooth smart speakers are too often synonym of lo-fi, no bass, mono sound)

2/ streaming platforms and internet radios are using low rates* mp3 quality to air the music, this is because bandwidth has a cost, in terms of speed, and also in terms of prices when it comes to the power of computers able to sustain hundreds or thousands of listeners in a continuous stream. This power cost also translates directly to services costs that radios are subject to.

* streaming rate is measured in kbps, short for kilo bits per second, this is the amount of data that is used to reproduce the sound - the higher the better, up to 320 kbps which is the upper limit and almost lossless.

Now there is a reason why most streaming platforms (like SoundCloud, Spreaker, or even Spotify in their free tier) and most internet radios are streaming at 128 kbps mp3 or more. They have recognized that this is the absolute minimal limit when it comes to listenable quality. Anything under that rate is creating so much artifacts and distortion to the sound that it’s barely recognizable anymore.

Check out this example of a snippet compressed at 128 kbps and the same snippet compressed at 64 kbps. You will hear the enormous difference between the two, check out how muffled the 64 kbps mp3 sounds, how much the cymbals are drowned in a kind of swirling phase artifact, and how horrible this truly is, it’s even worse that cassettes were back in the 80s…
No matter what device you are using I bet you will be able to hear the difference!

You can go back and forth between two snippets in the player below (opens in a new tab/window):

Compression comparison

To me the 64 kbps version is hardly listenable. I wouldn't want my music to sound this bad, I bet most indie artists will agree.

Anyway, when you’ll hear a shitty sound don’t just assume the source music itself has been poorly recorded and mixed, check that the streaming rates you are served are not below the minimum of 128 kbps, I and every unsigned artists striving to produce great sounding records will thank you!

15 comments

  • KiKi Skinner

    KiKi Skinner USA/UK

    Thanks for posting this article G. Within our brand of TK Skinner, when me and my sister attempt to market some artists we are uber excited about to some sources or sites that state they support new artists, we run up against this same opinion. So, I totally agree with your point-of-view right here. I also feel that many think “Indie” equals “crap,” because they have been preconditioned to feel that way from years and years of being pushed into seeing “majors” and “Top 40” as the “best” in music from their labels. The money goes to that pool, so we hear THEM on the radio; THEY have the award shows and massive concerts, so what else are the practical music lovers supposed to think? Right? True, they have the numbers often showing that “major” is the most requested, and therefore of better quality, but the journals in the music market places are also displaying their images too to keep this going. But, still, this is all because the public’s voice is silenced (really) and artists labeled “indie” are hidden from the listening audience’s view. If there were a forum where both Indie and Major artists were played, and those listeners were asked to poll their choices, I’d bet the Indies would come out on top, because I see how they are force-fed, or brainwashed, into listening to Top 40. It is a vicious ball of wax of politics and greed that needs to be melted, and with articles like this, notice is being made, thus hopefully forcing the pendulum to “indie” or “unsigned.” Thanks G. 😊

    Thanks for posting this article G. Within our brand of TK Skinner, when me and my sister attempt to market some artists we are uber excited about to some sources or sites that state they support new artists, we run up against this same opinion. So, I totally agree with your point-of-view right here. I also feel that many think “Indie” equals “crap,” because they have been preconditioned to feel that way from years and years of being pushed into seeing “majors” and “Top 40” as the “best” in music from their labels. The money goes to that pool, so we hear THEM on the radio; THEY have the award shows and massive concerts, so what else are the practical music lovers supposed to think? Right? True, they have the numbers often showing that “major” is the most requested, and therefore of better quality, but the journals in the music market places are also displaying their images too to keep this going. But, still, this is all because the public’s voice is silenced (really) and artists labeled “indie” are hidden from the listening audience’s view. If there were a forum where both Indie and Major artists were played, and those listeners were asked to poll their choices, I’d bet the Indies would come out on top, because I see how they are force-fed, or brainwashed, into listening to Top 40. It is a vicious ball of wax of politics and greed that needs to be melted, and with articles like this, notice is being made, thus hopefully forcing the pendulum to “indie” or “unsigned.” Thanks G. 😊

  • Mojo

    Mojo San Francisco

    I agree that audio quality is not a barrier any longer even for the most modest budget. But what's missing from the article and from the indie music world are the gatekeepers that used to be a barrier to entry into the music industry. Historically there were always people that would determine if an artist or song was worth the recording resources, and would help hone both the artist and craft the songs for optimal return on investment. Now anyone can make music and publish it, and everyone does... What's really missing in the indie music world in my opinion is an honest feedback loop that allows a new and upcoming artist to hone their songcraft and recording process as they progress. It's easy enough to say well, I'm not getting noticed because there's too much music out there. It's harder to say maybe my songs aren't that great, I need to woodshed until I come up with something worth noticing. Especially if no one is telling you.

    I agree that audio quality is not a barrier any longer even for the most modest budget. But what's missing from the article and from the indie music world are the gatekeepers that used to be a barrier to entry into the music industry. Historically there were always people that would determine if an artist or song was worth the recording resources, and would help hone both the artist and craft the songs for optimal return on investment. Now anyone can make music and publish it, and everyone does... What's really missing in the indie music world in my opinion is an honest feedback loop that allows a new and upcoming artist to hone their songcraft and recording process as they progress. It's easy enough to say well, I'm not getting noticed because there's too much music out there. It's harder to say maybe my songs aren't that great, I need to woodshed until I come up with something worth noticing. Especially if no one is telling you.

  • Ghostly Beard

    Ghostly Beard Montreal

    Thanks for your comment, KiKi! It's true that indie music is under-represented and under-played on many occasions, and various levels, and that a lot of people thing indie music = shitty music. And it's up to everyone who cares to fight this myth. As I said there is some bad music out there, for sure, but amalgamating all indie music into a shit pile is something we must denounce and show that it's wrong every occasion we get. But for this we need to educate people and ask for a better representation on radios and platforms.

    Thanks for your comment, KiKi! It's true that indie music is under-represented and under-played on many occasions, and various levels, and that a lot of people thing indie music = shitty music. And it's up to everyone who cares to fight this myth. As I said there is some bad music out there, for sure, but amalgamating all indie music into a shit pile is something we must denounce and show that it's wrong every occasion we get. But for this we need to educate people and ask for a better representation on radios and platforms.

  • Ghostly Beard

    Ghostly Beard Montreal

    Thanks for your comments Mojo! I hear you about a need for a platform that would allow artists to get some honest and valuable feedback. On the audio engineering side, I've been getting that from a forum that I recommend called "Indie Recording Depot" http://indierecordingdepot.com/ where everyone is welcome to post their song and work in progress and get real feedback by their peer. Still, it all comes down too to the ability one has to listen to feedback and criticism, of course.

    Thanks for your comments Mojo! I hear you about a need for a platform that would allow artists to get some honest and valuable feedback. On the audio engineering side, I've been getting that from a forum that I recommend called "Indie Recording Depot" http://indierecordingdepot.com/ where everyone is welcome to post their song and work in progress and get real feedback by their peer. Still, it all comes down too to the ability one has to listen to feedback and criticism, of course.

  • Clint Slate

    Clint Slate Paris, France

    I totally agree with you! Great music is now everywhere and can come from anyone with great quality, but people get used to listen to things streamed or on Youtube, where everything is lo-fi (well, worse, I love myself some lo-fi from time to time). At some point, either they will realize their ears are going to fall off or they will adjust to this 'shitty' sound. And we artists will eat the ears that fell, including our own... But anyway, great subject and I'd love to read more about it, thanks!

    I totally agree with you!
    Great music is now everywhere and can come from anyone with great quality, but people get used to listen to things streamed or on Youtube, where everything is lo-fi (well, worse, I love myself some lo-fi from time to time).
    At some point, either they will realize their ears are going to fall off or they will adjust to this 'shitty' sound. And we artists will eat the ears that fell, including our own...
    But anyway, great subject and I'd love to read more about it, thanks!

  • Colin - The Million Reasons

    Colin - The Million Reasons Chicago, USA

    I think you make some great points GB. There is a stigma with indie music and the assumption that it is going to be "shitty music". It is like pulling teeth to get people to listen to our music or come out to a show. When they finally do, the reaction is always the same "oh wait, this is ACTUALLY good". It always includes "actually". The expectation is that "this is going to be rough". As far as the streaming sites, while we have a presence, I do try and send downloads whenever possible for a better listening experience. It just isn't the same. Last thing I will say is I truly believe indie artists (such as yourself) are coming out with the best music these days. It is where the heart and soul of music still lives! Just need to know where to find it.

    I think you make some great points GB. There is a stigma with indie music and the assumption that it is going to be "shitty music". It is like pulling teeth to get people to listen to our music or come out to a show. When they finally do, the reaction is always the same "oh wait, this is ACTUALLY good". It always includes "actually". The expectation is that "this is going to be rough". As far as the streaming sites, while we have a presence, I do try and send downloads whenever possible for a better listening experience. It just isn't the same. Last thing I will say is I truly believe indie artists (such as yourself) are coming out with the best music these days. It is where the heart and soul of music still lives! Just need to know where to find it.

  • Ghostly Beard

    Ghostly Beard Montreal, Canada

    Thanks for the visit and comment, Colin! I agree with you that some of the best music nowadays comes from independent artists, and the quality of the sound of independent releases can be every bit as good as commercial/label backed recordings. Now it's up to streaming platforms and internet radios to make sure that quality is respected when it's aired...

    Thanks for the visit and comment, Colin! I agree with you that some of the best music nowadays comes from independent artists, and the quality of the sound of independent releases can be every bit as good as commercial/label backed recordings. Now it's up to streaming platforms and internet radios to make sure that quality is respected when it's aired...

  • Jeff

    Jeff Fredericton

    Agreed with all you said. I think some indie music does fall short of an acceptable or “professional” level of quality with respect to a polished final product. Some great compositions recorded with excellent musicianship do make their way onto community and / or internet radio, and receive extended airplay, while falling short when it comes to quality mixing / mastering. That being said, those who would generalize that all “Indie = Shitty” are overlooking the fact that there are Indie recordings, and many many of them, that outshine the “mainstream” to a wide degree. We have not paid close enough attention to verify that streaming platforms are not overly compressing what is played prior to us submitting our music. Thank you for your observation and recommendation because we agree with you and will be more careful in the future.

    Agreed with all you said. I think some indie music does fall short of an acceptable or “professional” level of quality with respect to a polished final product. Some great compositions recorded with excellent musicianship do make their way onto community and / or internet radio, and receive extended airplay, while falling short when it comes to quality mixing / mastering.

    That being said, those who would generalize that all “Indie = Shitty” are overlooking the fact that there are Indie recordings, and many many of them, that outshine the “mainstream” to a wide degree.

    We have not paid close enough attention to verify that streaming platforms are not overly compressing what is played prior to us submitting our music. Thank you for your observation and recommendation because we agree with you and will be more careful in the future.

  • Clare Fowler - Dandelion Charm

    Clare Fowler - Dandelion Charm Newhaven, UK

    Hi GB, its Clare here from Dandelion Charm I just wanted to add something to John’s essay…I said he’d have something to say on this subject LOL! It seems to me that decisions/judgements are made so quickly these days. I see it both in the music and visual realms, a judgement came be made in a nano second about whether to pass something over. The difficulty seems to be in getting people to engage for long enough. Higher audio quality surely will encourage this, and yes I think we should fight for it. Also I wanted to comment on the term indie…I have often found it confusing as to me it sets up a genre assumption. Our music is Folky/Rocky/Progish so I tend to favour Unsigned or Independent when describing Dandelion Charm. Thanks for your post, and all the other great comments. As you can imagine there has been a great deal of discussion in the DC household this morning…. and now off to finish the album

    Hi GB, its Clare here from Dandelion Charm I just wanted to add something to John’s essay…I said he’d have something to say on this subject LOL! It seems to me that decisions/judgements are made so quickly these days. I see it both in the music and visual realms, a judgement came be made in a nano second about whether to pass something over. The difficulty seems to be in getting people to engage for long enough. Higher audio quality surely will encourage this, and yes I think we should fight for it. Also I wanted to comment on the term indie…I have often found it confusing as to me it sets up a genre assumption. Our music is Folky/Rocky/Progish so I tend to favour Unsigned or Independent when describing Dandelion Charm. Thanks for your post, and all the other great comments. As you can imagine there has been a great deal of discussion in the DC household this morning…. and now off to finish the album

  • John Fowler- - Dandelion Charm

    John Fowler- - Dandelion Charm Newhaven, UK

    Hi all, thanks GB. I think this is a complicated subject. Let's take Aja by Steely Dan (in my opinion, one of the best records ever made, and the gold standard to aim for). Two writers working together with years and years of experience honing their craft. They handpick the very best session musicians available (on a song by song basis). They are working in a top flight studio with all the best gear, with a fantastic engineer. It's then mixed and mastered by the very best people around. The record company has an in-house PR team, radio promoters, marketing budget, hires an artist for the cover, etc. Most independent artists have to do all of this on their own (often after the day job) with little or no budget. Despite all this, some indie artists STILL manage to make great music! Strides in technology have made this possible. The downside is, anyone with computer can warble some Autotuned nonsense over a few loops and quantised MIDI and call themselves a singer/songwriter/musician/producer - artist!! This just muddies the water for artists that have spent years working on their craft - as if it wasn't hard enough already! I also think it's important to recognise WHO you are aiming your music to, and who's comments you take to heart. Your 'average Joe' may say "if you were any good, you'd be on the Tele" - but is that person ever going to actually appreciate YOUR music? Many people have said to me “you should go on Britain’s Got Talent”……… these people are unlikely to enjoy (or even understand) a Dandelion Charm album. I’d like to address the mp3. issue too. I HATE THEM! That aside, I think people who regularly expose themselves to mps3’s get used to them. They are comparing your mp3 to other mp3’s. Many people I’ve spoken to don’t even hear the top end aliasing, etc. But as the person who’s spent so much time making the music as good as possible however; this can be sole destroying!! – sorry for the rant, John.

    Hi all, thanks GB.
    I think this is a complicated subject. Let's take Aja by Steely Dan (in my opinion, one of the best records ever made, and the gold standard to aim for). Two writers working together with years and years of experience honing their craft. They handpick the very best session musicians available (on a song by song basis). They are working in a top flight studio with all the best gear, with a fantastic engineer. It's then mixed and mastered by the very best people around. The record company has an in-house PR team, radio promoters, marketing budget, hires an artist for the cover, etc. Most independent artists have to do all of this on their own (often after the day job) with little or no budget. Despite all this, some indie artists STILL manage to make great music! Strides in technology have made this possible. The downside is, anyone with computer can warble some Autotuned nonsense over a few loops and quantised MIDI and call themselves a singer/songwriter/musician/producer - artist!! This just muddies the water for artists that have spent years working on their craft - as if it wasn't hard enough already!
    I also think it's important to recognise WHO you are aiming your music to, and who's comments you take to heart. Your 'average Joe' may say "if you were any good, you'd be on the Tele" - but is that person ever going to actually appreciate YOUR music? Many people have said to me “you should go on Britain’s Got Talent”……… these people are unlikely to enjoy (or even understand) a Dandelion Charm album.
    I’d like to address the mp3. issue too. I HATE THEM! That aside, I think people who regularly expose themselves to mps3’s get used to them. They are comparing your mp3 to other mp3’s. Many people I’ve spoken to don’t even hear the top end aliasing, etc. But as the person who’s spent so much time making the music as good as possible however; this can be sole destroying!! – sorry for the rant, John.

  • Donna

    Donna Shropshire

    Hi GB and all, GB I’m glad you posted about this as there are two important issues here. The Indie label is confusing as it has different connotations to what I believe we are hoping to refer to ourselves as. I would only use the ‘indie’ label if it referred to a song of mine that was of that genre. I wonder, do we need a label? Can’t we be freelance musicians, writers, singers or songwriters? The next part of this issue is the quality of the music. Which is something that seriously needs addressing. John you spoke there about the excellent work on Aja by Steely Dan. It is sad to think of how following the work of productions such as this that the music will then be mastered and compressed for streaming platforms. However aside from the time/experience of the musician producing the music there is the issue of the poor quality of what people are listening to and the crazy state we are in where it seems to be acceptable! I hear more and more people talking about buying music on vinyl, which is great, but we need to look at quality in the digital world too. I’m old enough to recall the way that CD’s took over everything because of the incredible quality that they offered at that time. We could really do with people being made to see how the quality of the music they listen to on streaming platforms is not their only choice. And I’d love to know if there are any other options out there in terms of streaming platforms or other avenues that are looking into this issue. THIS is where there could indeed be a movement of artists who could showcase the quality of their work.

    Hi GB and all,
    GB I’m glad you posted about this as there are two important issues here. The Indie label is confusing as it has different connotations to what I believe we are hoping to refer to ourselves as. I would only use the ‘indie’ label if it referred to a song of mine that was of that genre. I wonder, do we need a label? Can’t we be freelance musicians, writers, singers or songwriters?

    The next part of this issue is the quality of the music. Which is something that seriously needs addressing. John you spoke there about the excellent work on Aja by Steely Dan. It is sad to think of how following the work of productions such as this that the music will then be mastered and compressed for streaming platforms.
    However aside from the time/experience of the musician producing the music there is the issue of the poor quality of what people are listening to and the crazy state we are in where it seems to be acceptable!
    I hear more and more people talking about buying music on vinyl, which is great, but we need to look at quality in the digital world too. I’m old enough to recall the way that CD’s took over everything because of the incredible quality that they offered at that time. We could really do with people being made to see how the quality of the music they listen to on streaming platforms is not their only choice. And I’d love to know if there are any other options out there in terms of streaming platforms or other avenues that are looking into this issue. THIS is where there could indeed be a movement of artists who could showcase the quality of their work.

  • Ghostly Beard

    Ghostly Beard

    Hi John and thanks for visiting and your comment! I think we are in total agreement. Yes, quality can be found in indie music as well as commercial music. Money is no longer an obstacle, if you got the chops, knowledge and patience to craft great recordings... true though that there is a lot of music released that might never have been released because none of the above was there to produce it. As to mp3, I believe there is some reasonable quality to be found with higher bit rates, like 320 kbps, and it's sometimes hard to hear the difference with a wav file, but the lower you go and the more these aliasing and distortion artifacts are obvious, even though some people don't really realize them, so used to hearing it that they are...

    Hi John and thanks for visiting and your comment! I think we are in total agreement.
    Yes, quality can be found in indie music as well as commercial music. Money is no longer an obstacle, if you got the chops, knowledge and patience to craft great recordings... true though that there is a lot of music released that might never have been released because none of the above was there to produce it.
    As to mp3, I believe there is some reasonable quality to be found with higher bit rates, like 320 kbps, and it's sometimes hard to hear the difference with a wav file, but the lower you go and the more these aliasing and distortion artifacts are obvious, even though some people don't really realize them, so used to hearing it that they are...

  • Ghostly Beard

    Ghostly Beard

    Thanks for your comment and visit, Donna! Yeah, I know that for some people "Indie" is a genre, but more generally, and in my mind, it was nothing but a shortcut for "independent"... Since it's often confusing, I now prefer "unsigned", although some people say that it's kind of saying "waiting to be signed" which is not true in most case. I don't think labels are of any values nowadays and we can indeed be freelance, although this also means we have to do everything ourselves... As to the quality of what people are listening to, this makes me crazy. When my daughter is listening on her iPod's tiny speaker, or her laptop, that makes me cringe... but this is unfortunately what a lot of people her generation are doing. They have no idea what bass really is, or what a great stereo sound can be. When they go to concert they are blasted by distorted PA that are mono and so loud that you cannot distinguish anything, and everything is compressed to death anyway... So what's the answer? I think as always, it's up to us, independent artists, to educate our fans and let them know that we're doing our best to create a great sound, and if they don't listen on proper devices they are missing out!

    Thanks for your comment and visit, Donna! Yeah, I know that for some people "Indie" is a genre, but more generally, and in my mind, it was nothing but a shortcut for "independent"... Since it's often confusing, I now prefer "unsigned", although some people say that it's kind of saying "waiting to be signed" which is not true in most case. I don't think labels are of any values nowadays and we can indeed be freelance, although this also means we have to do everything ourselves...
    As to the quality of what people are listening to, this makes me crazy. When my daughter is listening on her iPod's tiny speaker, or her laptop, that makes me cringe... but this is unfortunately what a lot of people her generation are doing. They have no idea what bass really is, or what a great stereo sound can be. When they go to concert they are blasted by distorted PA that are mono and so loud that you cannot distinguish anything, and everything is compressed to death anyway...
    So what's the answer? I think as always, it's up to us, independent artists, to educate our fans and let them know that we're doing our best to create a great sound, and if they don't listen on proper devices they are missing out!

  • Laptop Phiharmonic

    Laptop Phiharmonic UK

    I think I missed the memo about indie music sounding rubbish to be honest. Quite possibly because I hardly ever pay attention to the music press. Point 1 is definitely a massive issue though. I sometimes wonder how many people have skipped a track and never listened to an artist again because they had it on tinny little phone or laptop speakers and didn't realise half the sound was missing.

    I think I missed the memo about indie music sounding rubbish to be honest. Quite possibly because I hardly ever pay attention to the music press.

    Point 1 is definitely a massive issue though. I sometimes wonder how many people have skipped a track and never listened to an artist again because they had it on tinny little phone or laptop speakers and didn't realise half the sound was missing.

  • Ghostly Beard

    Ghostly Beard

    Thanks for visiting and commenting, LP! I don't think it's only the music press that is propagating this idea that indie = bad sounding, it's in the mind of many people, again possibly because for many it equates a genres that is basically garage rock. Now the point about speakers is something we cannot do much apart from telling our fans that they are missing something... my issue is that before it hits their speakers the sound is already pretty garbled due to some stations and streaming platforms that use too low compression rates...

    Thanks for visiting and commenting, LP! I don't think it's only the music press that is propagating this idea that indie = bad sounding, it's in the mind of many people, again possibly because for many it equates a genres that is basically garage rock.
    Now the point about speakers is something we cannot do much apart from telling our fans that they are missing something... my issue is that before it hits their speakers the sound is already pretty garbled due to some stations and streaming platforms that use too low compression rates...

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