When music isn’t pop, rock, country, folk or classical, what is it? It could actually have many names but most refer to it as “alternative”. So how did this name come about?
There are many theories or ideas about how “alternative” became a term used so commonly today. Some say it stemmed from the DJs and promoters of the 1980s who were playing music beyond the top 40 rock radio formats. With freedom of song selection, new bands began making a presence and becoming more requested. From here, college radio grabbed on to the sound, dubbing the music with terms such as new post-punk, indie, or underground music. The use of the term “alternative” gained further exposure due to the success of Lollapalooza, where festival founder and Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell coined the term “Alternative Nation.”
By the late 1980s, the American alternative scene was dominated by styles ranging from quirky alternative pop (They Might Be Giants and Camper Van Beethoven), to noise rock (Sonic Youth, Big Black) to industrial rock (Ministry, Nine Inch Nails). Simultaneously, grunge bands emerged in Seattle, Washington, which included synthesized heavy metal and punk rock. These bands included Soundgarden and Mudhoney. By the end of the decade, a number of alternative bands began to sign to major labels.
In the UK, alternative rock was making a scene at the same time but often called indie. While a few bands achieved commercial success and some mainstream recognition, most alternative rock artists were considered cult acts that were recorded on independent labels and whom mostly received their exposure through college radio airplay and word-of-mouth.
Alternative bands developed underground followings and toured constantly. This was followed in the early 1990s by an industry that recognized the commercial possibilities in these bands. Major labels actively began seeking out these “alternative” bands and signing them. Nirvana found great success in this time and with the release of the band’s single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” along with the constant airplay of the song’s music video on MTV.
Commercial radio stations saw this success and began allowing heavier alternative bands play time. The New York Times declared in 1993, “Alternative rock doesn’t seem so alternative anymore. Every major label has a handful of guitar-driven bands in shapeless shirts and threadbare jeans, bands with bad posture and good riffs who cultivate the oblique and the evasive, who conceal catchy tunes with noise and hide craftsmanship behind nonchalance.”
By 1992 Soundgarden’s album Badmotorfinger and Alice in Chains’ Dirt, along with the Temple of the Dog album collaboration featuring members of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden began selling thousands of albums. Rolling Stone magazine began labeling Seattle ‘the new Liverpool’ and major record labels signed most of the prominent grunge bands in Seattle.
With the death of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain in 1994 and Pearl Jam’s lawsuit against concert venue promoter Ticketmaster, which in effect barred the group from playing many major venues around the United States, by the end of the 1990s, alternative rock’s mainstream prominence declined.
This decline shifted again and alternative rock again began gaining popularity with artists such as Creed and Matchbox Twenty becoming some of the most popular rock bands in the United States.
Today “alternative” music is almost mainstream and synonymous with quality music. What does the future hold for alternative bands? It is hard to tell, but from its current history, it appears that there will be a continuation of a market for unique expressions of artistry and sound for time to come.
Jeff Bachmeier is owner of 977music.com, an online music and online radio station network providing live streaming Internet Radio channels with music from the 50’s thru Today. Users can also choose to create their own customized on demand playlist through their own social media profile. For more information please visit http://www.977music.com.alternative rock, Internet radio, online music, online radio