So what makes something indie rock? Good question. Unfortunately, there is no clear set of criteria that you can apply to make that determination; it is easier to define indie rock by what it isn't. It isn't successful, it isn't glamorous, it isn't sexy, it isn't insipid, and it isn't likely to get you laid. Nonetheless, getting to the point where you can identify those negative predications is going to take a little work. You might actually have to read a book or some magazines to get a sufficient feel for what qualifies as indie in order to pull this off.

Whatever you do, don't read Rolling Stone. Rolling Stone is for housewives and teenage girls. In Rolling Stone you can read about Puff Daddy and Lillith Fair. That's the kind of fodder that feeds indie rock disdain. Spin - it's for poseurs. You might be best off flipping through a copy of Alternative Press. But don't buy it off the newsstand. Paying retail is not at all indie rock.

Familiarize yourself with the names of the indie record labels because seven times out of ten, if it's on an indie label, it's indie rock. Remember this name: Matador Records. Once cooler than Steve McQueen, Matador is now the Warner or Sony of indie rock, as its staff numbers about 30 people and its roster includes about 40 bands. Hardly small. In fact a few of their most popular artists (e.g., Liz Phair, The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) have distribution deals with Capitol Records.

You know the drill: because Matador has become moderately successful, in many respects it's yesterday's news. So now, even if you've never listened to the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (a.k.a. JSBX), you can act like you think they are passé because you know that they're on Matador. In fact if you've ever been around a music snob, you probably already know the phrase, "Yeah, their old stuff is better." It's a cliché, but in the case of JSBX, it's true. If you want to talk about them, limit the conversation to either their Extra Width or Orange albums, both of which, incidentally, are truly worth owning if you actually like indie rock. But if you do actually like indie rock, you probably own them already.

Other labels you should familiarize yourself with include:

And if you see anything on C/Z Records in the used bin, you might be wise to jump on it or at least read the name of the band on the CD so it will be familiar in conversation. Bloodshot is certainly indie but it ain't rock, but even if twang ain't your thang, you should still have respect for the label's adherence to general indie principles.

Unlike most major labels, which are as likely to sign a rapper as a teen boy band, indie labels are kind of like brands, meaning that they generally stay stylistically consistent. This is especially true when the label is young and small. For example, most of the early Seattle grunge bands were playing under the Sub Pop label long before David Geffen showed up in the Pacific Northwest with a checkbook and started playing Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? with a bunch of depressed kids in flannel shirts. It's not so much the case anymore, but once upon a time, you knew that if you bought a band on the Sub Pop label, you wouldn't need a volume knob. (Oh, and as a brief aside: do not wax nostalgic for the pre-Nirvana Sub Pop days yet. It's still too early for that. You can, however, still be bummed out about what Island Records and Casey Kasem did to SST Records as a result of the Negativland/U2 incident.) The point is: if you can identify the sound of one band on the label, there's a better than even-money chance you'll be in the ballpark with the others.