From the mild Coldplay to the stadium-filling Muse to the ever-changing Beck, it seems like music labeled “alternative” is everywhere. “Alternative” is usually known to be short for “alternative rock,” but there’s also alternative country (frequently abbreviated “alt-country”), alternative hip-hop, and alternative metal. In these latter cases one, can deduce that “alternative” means “different from the usual style,” and that artists within these subgenres are likely not the most popular within the broader genre itself. In other words, naming an alt-country musician as an example for country music or an alternative metal band as an example for metal would probably be met with “well, kind of” by most fans of these respective genres. On the other hand, “alternative” might be used to show some kind of partial interest in the genre, saying for example “well I don’t like most country/rap/metal, but I do like [X alt-country/alt-rap/alt-metal act].”
While it’s easy enough to figure out what “alternative” means for most of these genres except rock, why is pinning down alternative rock so difficult? You don’t hear too many people saying that they generally don’t like rock but then listing alternative rock bands they enjoy. And with the popularity of acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Radiohead, and Foo Fighters, all frequently considered “alternative rock,” it’s hard to think that they aren’t popular “rock” acts as well. This may be why “alternative rock” is usually shortened to just “alternative,” since alternative rock bands are fairly archetypal of rock itself nowadays. But that leads to the question- what is “alternative” an alternative to? Isn’t the term somewhat meaningless if all of the top rock acts are “alternative?”
It turns out this wasn’t always the case. You probably know the 1970s as the time when hard rock acts like Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, and Deep Purple came to dominate the overall rock scene. However, it was also during this decade that The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, and The Clash began to form punk rock and its accompanying subversive subculture. As it turns out, this is the origin of alternative rock. It may be difficult to imagine a connection between the more mild artists we now call “alternative” today and the spiky-haired punks of the past, but the bridge between the two lies in punk’s successors – post-punk and new-wave. These subgenres, which gave us bands like New Order, The Cure, The Smiths, and Depeche Mode, took the basic musical template of punk and pulled it in all sorts of new directions, either giving it more of a pop influence and adding synthesizer (new-wave), or making it more “artsy” and experimental (post-punk).
By the mid-1980s, the term “alternative rock” began to emerge as a catch-all term for punk rock and its successor subgenres. The term “alternative” suggested that this music was different from the mainstream rock of the time, which as you can imagine involved a lot of hair metal and kitschy ballad rock. There was nothing especially cohesive about the music alternative rock bands created, and the label had more to do with a general opposition to mainstream and commercial music itself. However, by the 1990s alternative rock had become so popular that its opposition to the “mainstream” became questionable. New subgenres such as grunge and Britpop had emerged, and “indie” started to move beyond only describing record labels. Alternative rock had gone from being played almost exclusively on college radio stations to receiving widespread airplay on rock stations and on MTV.
Now that alternative rock had proven to be both accessible to significant amounts of listeners and commercially viable enough for radio stations, TV channels, and record labels to invest in it, one question remained: what was “alternative rock” an “alternative” to at this point?
The short answer is nothing. There was no longer a “mainstream” rock to be positioned against as alternative rock bands found themselves to be the new normal for rock music. These bands may have resisted this shift and tried to portray themselves as anti-establishment, but nothing seemed to be able to stem their rising popularity. Instead, as alternative rock became the new mainstream rock, indie rock became the new alternative to the mainstream. Eventually, indie rock started to become more popular as well, and the line between alternative and indie rock would blur.
While most indie bands can also be described as “alternative,” why does this not apply the other way around? Is indie just part of alternative?
To examine this, I looked at the top artists listed under the “alternative” tag on last.fm and the top artists under the “indie” tag and compared the two lists. It’s not a precise or scientific method, so you may object to the way some of the names listed here. Anyway, here is what I found:
The right list indicates artists that appeared on the top indie artists page and lacked “alternative” as a top tag for their band. The left list indicates artists that appeared on the top alternative artists page and lacked “indie” as a top tag for their band. The middle column is for bands that appeared as either top alternative or top indie and had both the “indie” and “alternative” tags for their band.
As you can see, there is quite a bit of overlap between the two labels. More tellingly, almost every artist loved by indie music fans also earned the “alternative” label as well. There are few artists in the indie-only list, potentially because other tags like “singer-songwriter” ranked as a top tag for many of them instead, which would have pushed the “alternative” tag off. Otherwise, I cannot think of any other reason why the bands on the indie-only list are not also tagged alternative, since I would not consider any of them as being more “indie” than the bands in the middle.
The greater dichotomy instead comes from the bands in the alternative-only list and the bands that had “indie” as a top tag. Arguably, some of the bands in the alternative-only list including Oasis and The Cure are loved by many indie music fans, and I personally would consider Placebo to be alternative, not indie. However, most of the other alternative-only bands seem to be a good fit, since you would be hard-pressed to find people calling Green Day or Rage Against the Machine “Indie.” The alternative-only list also includes the more eclectic multitude of styles, including bands that can be described as rap-rock, grunge, industrial, Britpop, and emo. Therefore, we can make draw two conclusions from this chart:
- “Alternative” seems to be a vague umbrella term for music that almost always has another descriptor, be it punk, grunge, Britpop, emo, funk-rock, or gothic rock. For older bands, it describes artists that were either part of punk, influenced by punk, or had the anti-establishment attitude of punk. For newer bands, almost any rock band (excluding heavy metal) can be called “alternative.”
- Indie falls under the great big umbrella of alternative. All indie music can be considered “alternative,” but not all alternative music can be considered “indie.”
These are of course generalizations, and there are some nuances that separate indie from alternative in common usage. For starters, “indie” is more of a British term and “alternative” is more American. The term “indie” has become very popular in the US, but it mostly remained as a British-ism until the early 2000s. Additionally, there is an implication in usage that indie bands are less popular than alternative bands, although it’s anyone’s guess where the popularity threshold lies. This gets even more confusing when a band with millions of fans retains its “indie” status, yet an up-and-coming grunge band is called “alternative.” As with most genre labels, who gets what title is determined by fan bases, and there is a lot of grey area between indie and alternative. Just know that you’re probably correct if you call an indie band “alternative,” and don’t be surprised if you hear your favorite indie bands on both indie and alternative rock stations. As for alternative, the first conclusion from that chart is fairly accurate – basically any rock band since the 90s can be called “alternative.”