Searching for an Alternative: A Brief History of Alternative Rock

‘Alternative rock’ uses somewhat vague terminology.

Rock has a very long history. It’s no wonder why you might not know where the term originated. 

Are you someone who loves alternative rock? Do you want to know how it all got started?

Check out this brief history of alternative rock! 

What Is Alternative Rock?

Alternative rock originally emerged on the scene in the 1970s. It gained notoriety through the growing underground rock scene in the 1980s.

The word ‘alternative’ emerged from the desire to distinguish itself from mainstream rock. Recently, alternative has attached itself to multiple genres. This has somewhat obscured its original meaning. 

At times, alternative music has included any unclassifiable genre of music that breaks into mainstream circles. 

The term, however, Originated in punk rock during the 1970s. The band who brought it to fruition was The Velvet Underground. 

The Velvet Underground 

Before the widespread dissemination of the term alternative rock existed, Velvet Underground pioneered its sound. Their trajectory was what alternative music came to signify.

In the early 1970s, the innovative band’s music didn’t adhere to strict mainstream music business norms. They didn’t operate within the confines of the typical rock group’s blueprint to success.  

The 1980s 

By the 1980s, a small number of independent music record labels started to form that promoted bands with similar trajectories to Velvet Underground. 

These labels weren’t only producing bands that sounded like Velvet Underground. They were producing bands that were dissimilar from what was being heard on the radio.

Alternative songs would occasionally break the mainstream barrier. These infrequent examples of mainstream success were usually accompanied with critical praise from mainstream media publications such as Rolling Stone. 

For the most part, however, alternative music was still an underground movement. In large part, they distributed their music with through college radio stations, fanzines, and independent record labels. 

Bands such as the Violent Femmes and R.E.M began to change this narrative with their brands of rock and roll combining punk and folk. R.E.M. was perhaps the most successful of these early alternative rock groups. Its debut album, Murmur reached top 40 status. 

The Late 1980s and 90s 

The turning point for alternative music was in the late 1980s. All the different subgenres that rock and roll had spawned were now starting to gain as much notoriety as the mainstream style of rock and roll. 

Just a few examples of this shift include Sonic Youth spawning the noise rock genre. Ministry and Nine Inch nails spawned the industrial rock genre. And grunge rock rising in popularity throughout the early to mid-90s. 

Alternative rock’s height was reached in the mid-90s with the likes of Nirvana, Jane’s Addiction, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Nirvana was perhaps most instrumental in facilitating the transition from hair metal to grunge.

It’s feasible to argue that by the mid-1990s, there was little-to-nothing alternative about alternative rock music. In many regards, it became the mainstream music it was born in opposition to. 

The 2000s and 2010s 

That argument isn’t to say that alternative rock is dead.

The fracture of traditional music publishing in the early 2000s ushered in the age of the internet. Because of this, alternative rock still has an underground platform. 

Now more than ever, interesting rock subgenres can find success through niche markets. They can also break into mainstream audiences without following the mainstream blueprint to success. 

An Ongoing Saga

Alternative rock bands still don’t need to conform to the major label commercial success route.

Though alternative rock is alive and well, the term ‘alternative music’ is now growing to encompass other genres, such as hip hop and pop. 

Lou Reed should be proud he’s somewhat responsible for the success of so many musicians. In many ways, alternative rock genres gave birth to underground music as a pop culture reference. Kudos to him!

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