alternative music

alternative music
   The label ‘alternative music’ was most prevalent during the mid- to late 1980s, and was often used as a synonym for ‘indie music’, the latter being seen by some commentators and fans as a misnomer, as many of the ostensibly independent labels were actually controlled by major record labels (see indie pop). For example, The Cure, one of the leading bands of the indie/alternative scene, were signed to Fiction, a small subsidiary of the Polygram empire. Furthermore, the term ‘alternative’ could also be applied to bands who sounded like indie bands but who recorded for major labels, such as Simple Minds (in their early years) who were signed first to Arista and then to Virgin.
   Stylistically, alternative music was characterized primarily, but not exclusively, by guitar-based rock. Bands as diverse as Echo and The Bunnymen, with their 1960s-influenced sound, The Cult, who adopted a fairly straight take on heavy rock, and the Spacemen Three, who experimented with layering textures of sound over infrequently changing chords, were all encompassed within the ‘alternative’ tag. This broad stylistic range may be partially due to the fact that many of the bands who comprised the alternative scene either stemmed from or drew their inspiration from the post-punk movement, which in itself encompassed a wide range of sounds. Another, possibly more likely explanation is that the variety found within the alternative scene can be attributed to the fact that the term was used to describe any band that could not be neatly categorized as belonging to any of the established genres of the time.
   It was perhaps this understanding of alternative music that led to the phrase becoming redundant. Alternative music was defined by what it was not, rather than by what it was. Most importantly, it was not mainstream chart music (a fact from which many alternative music fans took an elitist pleasure), so when an ‘alternative’ band such as The Smiths had a succession of top twenty singles, it became difficult to describe them as an alternative anymore. Similarly, alternative music was not dance music, but when groups such as Primal Scream began approaching dance producers such as Andrew Weatherall to remix their songs, the distinction became blurred. Ultimately, the term alternative music ceased to have much meaning, and it fell out of common usage.
   See also: indie pop; new wave; punk rock
   Further reading
    Savage, J. (1991) England’s Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond, London: Faber & Faber.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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