By Michele Kadison
Alternative music online, also known as “indie” music, emerged in the 80s as an alternative to music being played on commercial radio stations. It was first known as “college rock” as it was played by many college radio stations, reflecting the tastes of students who were tired of the typical classic rock format being played on FM radio. It wasn’t until the mid-80s that the name “Alternative” became standard.
Born of bands that rejected commercial, mainstream culture, Alternative artists began their careers playing in small local clubs and were signed to the new indie record labels such as SST Records, Twin/Tone Records, Touch & Go Records, and Dischord Records.
Spawning many sub-genres, this independent music scene became fertile territory for exploring forms of expression that would not necessarily be embraced by the mainstream. Thought Alternative was a catch-all word describing the general underground rock sound, there were many categories that defined the new artists coming out of the punk, new wave, and post punk scene.
Alternative Music: The Early Days
What we call today’s alternative music online originally evolved from the punk rock scene that was strong in the 1970s. Most of the first part of this phase gave birth to cult bands that found their way to listeners through word of mouth and local college stations. Many bands featured a fusion of sound, like the Feelies, the Violent Femmes, and the Velvet Underground who merged a punk sound with folk. The Paisley Underground created a more psychedelic sound, while groups like Husker Du and the Replacements appeared. Starting out as punk bands and then progressing to a more melody-driven sound over time. The Meat Puppets and the Minutemen had sounds that married punk with country and funk. Other early bands such as The Pixies, They Might Be Giants, Throwing Muses, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, and Big Black each had their own unique artistry which continued to expand the Alternative dimension, presaging the Alternative music we have online today.
Alternative radio stations began to crop up, playing a wide range of artists. Los Angeles’ KROQ FM and Boston’s WFNX were two of the most prominent. When R.E.M. and the Cure gained their huge fan base, commercial radio stations got up to speed, providing more airplay to many indie bands.
Meanwhile in Britain, Alternative music had given birth to Gothic Rock, which came out of the 70s British post-punk phase. Bands like Bauhaus, Siouxie & the Banshees, and the Cure enraptured listeners with their dark feel and big synthesizer and guitar sounds that created what is often called “epic soundscapes.” The Goth subculture grew as nightclubs like The Batcave gained popularity with disenfranchised kids looking for a new tribe. The mid-80s saw bands like the Sisters of Mercy and the Mission rise to success on the UK charts while indie rock and pop bands like the Smith’s, Orange Juice, and Aztec Camera were signed to labels such as Rough Trade Records. Morrisey, former lead singer from the Smiths, went on to create an important solo career and other bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain, New Order, the Cocteau Twins, and My Bloody Valentine started getting more and more airplay, both in Brittan and elsewhere.
Alternative: The Evolution
In the Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and others entering mainstream radio play, helped Alternative music explode on the scene as a viable alternative to classic rock and pop. The end of the 80s saw many indie bands signing with major labels. R.E.M. and Jane’s Addiction both went gold, then platinum. The Pixies became a major success overseas; leading to the music industry increasingly becoming aware of the commercial possibilities of Alternative rock.
In 1991, Nirvana’s second album, “Nevermind” catapulted Alternative rock onto a level of visibility never imagined. Pearl Jam came out with “Ten”, Soundgarden with “Badmotorfinger”, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers with “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.”. Commercial radio stations were playing more indie music while more Alternative bands were signed to mainstream labels. The year also introduced a category called “Alternative Music” at the Grammy and MTV Video Awards. The new Lollapalooza festival featured indie bands. Created by Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction, he coined the name “Alternative Nation” for the bands joining the tour. Nine Inch Nails, the Smashing Pumpkins, Hole and many others became popular and available to mainstream audiences, especially with visibility on MTV and Vh3.
At the same time there were Alternative bands still leery of mainstream culture. New indie labels cropped up to accommodate these artists, such as Matador Records and Merge.
Upheavals came with the death of Kurt Kobain in 1994 along with Pearl Jam’s lawsuit against Ticketmaster for their high prices. In 1998, Lollapalooza couldn’t find a headliner and stopped dead in its tracks. Many popular indie bands broke up at the end of the 90s such as Rage Against the Machine, Stone Temple Pilots, and Alice in Chains, making way for new sounds to break though like the White Stripes, the Strokes, the Killers, Interpol, and Death Cab for Cutie.
There was also enormous growth of the genre in Britain during the 90s with indie bands like Oasis, Blue, Suede, and Pulp. Australia brought forward Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, the Vines, and the Go-Betweens. Canada had its bevy of Alternative bands with Barenaked Ladies and Crash Test Dummies, and Iceland had the Sugarcubes, ultimately giving birth to Bjork’s solo career. Japan, Mexico, Argentina, and other countries generated their own versions of indie artists, which continue to this day.
Alternative Music Online: The Phenomenon Now
In 2009, Radiohead won best Alternative Music Album of the Year at the Grammys for their tour de force, “In Rainbows.” Beck, Death Cab for Cutie, Gnarls Barkley, and My Morning Jacket were other award contenders who have received enormous attention from listeners, radio stations, and CD stores. With alternative music artists online and on TV receiving constant visibility through MTV, Vh3 and other music television venues along with heavy radio airplay, we can be sure to see upcoming artists enjoying the same kind of successes with alternative music online as their forebears did on the radio.