In the 1980s and 1990s, a new genre of rock music emerged and quickly gained the title college rock because of its prominence on college radio. Eventually, the name of the genre became alternative music because of its new sound that did not draw from the more typical heavy metal and new wave genres popular at the time. The style instead built a post-punk era defined by indie sounds and rock roots. Alternative music was extremely popular through the 1980s and into the mid-1990s, when the genre experienced a decline in popularity.
The term alternative music became the defining words of the genre after DJs on radio stations across the United States used the term to describe longer songs that did not fall into the Top 40 category. These songs gave DJs more options for their playlists, but the songs were not necessarily what would now be considered alternative music. College radio stations eventually latched onto the term to describe the new genre, which was prominent among a younger generation on college campuses, and alternative music, as a genre, was born.
The characteristics of the music are a bit harder to pinpoint. Originally, the genre was focused on independent bands and music that drew from the punk era but did not fit into the category of metal or new wave. Bands like REM gained prominence in the eighties, but generally, the alternative music scene was not necessarily a commercially successful one. That changed in the early nineties, when the Seattle-based grunge band Nirvana hit the music scene. Bands like Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots soon emerged, further defining the alternative sound.
In the mid to late nineties, the genre experienced a sharp decline. After the death of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain and a lawsuit on behalf of the band Pearl Jam against Ticketmaster, alternative bands became scarcer as other new genres, such as nu-metal, emerged and took over the airwaves. Over the course of the next decade, alternative bands sought to redefine the genre and reignite the public's interest in the music. Bands like the White Stripes and Radiohead in the early 2000s did just that, paving the way for a renaissance of alternative music. They paved the way for innovative bands like Modest Mouse, The Strokes, and The Killers, and the genre seemed to be reborn.
The alternative genre became a catch-all term that encompassed indie rock, Brit-pop, grunge, and other sub-genres. Because of its nebulous definition, it became, and remains, difficult to distinguish an alternative band or artist from that of another genre definitively.