What is Alternative Music?

Dan Cavallari

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.

Many credit Seattle as the birthplace of grunge music.
Many credit Seattle as the birthplace of grunge music.

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.

Alternative rock was first termed college rock in the 1980s.
Alternative rock was first termed college rock in the 1980s.

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.

Alternative music is finding more mainstream success thanks to social networks and online distribution.
Alternative music is finding more mainstream success thanks to social networks and online distribution.

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Discussion Comments


"Alternative" is mainstream pop rock from the early '90s to now. That's it. That's all. It is the "Alternative" to having music that you actually like to hear. Turn on the radio right now.

Yeah, RHCP, The Counting Crows, Nu McTallica. That's alternative. That's what you hear instead of dead silence when you forget your MP3 player.

It's the musical equivalent of a hot pocket or a cheap, microwave burrito. Better yet, it's kind of like a county jail, party platter. Nobody really likes it or has ever really liked it but hey... There it is... Hurray.


What does that term mean? Alternative? Alternative to what you ask? Let me tell you once and for all what "alternative rock" is.

Alternative is anything that hasn't been playing in a loop on Clear Channel Radio for the last 20 years. It’s anything from Hootie & the Blowfish to the Smashing Pumpkins and Counting Crows to Alanis Morissette and Lenny Kravitz -- the same crap they still play on Clear Channel even though nobody likes it and nobody has bought it for the last 15-20 years.

Long story short: Clear Channel radio owns nearly all radio. They are a monopoly. They do not sell records; they sell time slots. They don't care what you like or what you buy. They only want you to keep the radio on long enough to not turn it off, so you can hear their commercials.

The wishy-washy, eternally vague terminology of the bogus word "alternative" says it all. Alternative is mainstream pop rock. There was never, ever a "decline" in "Alternative" after Kurt Cobain died". What crap!

However, pop rock (Alternative) is in a decline now (2014). People are sick of hearing Matchbox 20, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Puddle of Mudd and Dave Navarro. They stank to begin with. They stink now. They will always stink!

Since popular rock has no real, T.V., radio or other mainstream format anymore, people who still listen to rock, download their own or listen to the old stuff. Sadly, many have ditched the genre altogether and moved on to country, rap or anything besides Limp Bizkit re-runs. Can you really blame people?


I personally really liked alternative music and wish that nu-metal had never taken over. There is such obnoxious music out there now that I don't know if I can tolerate the sounds that come off the airwaves. The only thing that I actually have faith in is that the music scene will eventually come around again as we move toward the next revolution in audible sounds.


I can't stand to listen to alternatively descried music. It just seems so redundant and not even close to what pleases my ears. I have to say that I believe that music was intended to have a specific purpose or at least somewhat of a direction in which the sounds are going from the band.

Look up alternative music reviews and you will find my same sentiments. I wish there was more influence then just a vaguely described genre that has no real basis for it's cultural roots other then Music Television and the horrible cable channel abuse of music videos.


@thumbtack is right, just type in the term alternative music to any search engine and you will find a huge variety of musical selection that looks more like a hodgepodge of tunes then a single genre. Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that alternative music artists actually describe a time period rather then a type of sound or effect.


I love how the music industry today is so subjective in the labels that are assigned to different genres of music. When I first heard the term alternative music term it was in the 1990's. Even then it was used to describe a very vague combination of popular rock music that didn't quite fit the description of anything else.

Honestly the first thing that pops into my head when I hear the term alternative music is Alanis Morissette. I know that sounds somewhat selective but I think that can go to show you just how broad the genre really is.

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