Music outside of the mainstream wears the label of being alternative. In the 1980s, alternative music encapsulated what college students preferred, which included music from small indie and European bands. It also included various types of punk sounds.
When the 90s rolled around, alternative music became mainstream as grunge became the sound of choice in the early years of the decade. Eventually, alternative music bands became the norm as their music was featured in movies, commercials, and television shows. Making the label “alternative”, lose its original meaning, at least in terms of popularity.
Alternative music continues to be popular with fans who enjoy finding obscure bands that haven’t signed onto major labels. Bands appreciate having the freedom to create their sounds and staying within the alternative label keeps them quirky and unusual.
The types of alternative music flow through all of the mainstream genres. The sounds have changed over the years, and will continue to change, but what gives the music it’s nickname has more to do with the independence bands from a label that ties their hands, that’s what makes them appealing.
Types of alternative music can usually be described in many subgenres, but the underlying premise is that this type of music is far from the mainstream, commercialized sounds.
Although this music often begins as an alternative sound from independent artists, eventually, they become a part of the mainstream. Consider bands like REM, Adele, Nirvana, and Cowboy Junkies. Some bands stay independent, while others appreciate the opportunity to hit the charts and find more fans.
Alternative music has been around since the 1980s and continues to have a strong following, usually adults who listened to these artists when they were in their teens and college years in the 80s and 90s.
Among the most popular of Alternative music genres are:
- Adult Alternative Pop/Rock
- Alternative Country-Rock
- Alternative Dance
- Alternative Pop/Rock
- Latin Alternative
- New Wave/Post-Punk Revival
Easy-Listening, Sophisticated Sounds
Alternative music does not have to be loud and guitar-heavy. It can involve easy-listening sounds that listeners might enjoy while drinking cocktails, reading, or having conversations. This type of alternative music might even have some complicated jazz beats and melodies with complicated counts.
The audience for this music also tends to be older adults who listened to these sounds when they were younger.
- Adult Alternative
- Math Rock
Electronic Dance Music
While popular dance music has dominated the airwaves for decades, alternative dance music draws fans. This type of music usually has hypnotic beats, electronic sounds, and melodies that encourage dancing.
The audience for this music tends to be teens and college students who listen to it at clubs where it tends to be played most frequently. It might also be played in exercise classes where participants need speedy beats to reach their cardio goals.
- Indie Electronic
- Industrial Dance
Artists in this genre avoid electronic sounds, opting for acoustic strings for their sounds. You can expect to hear fiddles, banjos, and jangly acoustic guitars. They might not use drums, instead, they rely on string instruments to keep the beat.
The audience for this type of music can be listeners of all ages. The music tends to have family-friendly lyrics, so you might see families attending their concerts.
- Free Folk
- Indie Folk
- New Zealand Rock
This type of music is similar to the underground sounds but tends to lean toward heavy metal sounds from the late 80s and early 90s. The original audience for this genre was younger men, who enjoyed the heavy guitars and pounding beats. The lyrics often expressed frustrations, so teens and college students tend to relate to it best.
As the original fans of grunge music are in their 40s and 50s, they are introducing the genre to their teenage children.
- Garage Punk
Hypnotic, Avant-guard Beats
This type of alternative music involves soothing and hypnotic electronica beats. It might have lyrics, but it might not. You might hear this type of music played in yoga studios.
The audience for this genre can be people of all ages who are looking for background sounds with hypnotic beats and soft lyrics.
- Cold Wave
- Dark Wave
- Witch House
Indie and alternative sounds operate in similar ways. Both have a good chance of hitting the mainstream, but alternative music did it earlier. Indie bands might still be under the radar of most listeners.
As bands continue to produce indie music, the audiences continue to change. Generally, people who listen to indie music tend to seek it out, so they constantly update their playlists with the latest bands.
- Indie Electronic
- Indie Pop
- Indie Rock
Music for the Depressed
This music is often associated with people who need to express their depressed state of mind. The lyrics and beats allow listeners to cry or vent their frustrations. The audience for these sounds are often teens and college students. It is rare to find older adults who listen to emo or sadcore, unless they listened to this music in their younger years.
Pop music has upbeat rhythms, but different melodies that fit into the traditional pop genres. These subgenres have individual sounds that offer soothing melodies, dance grooves, or other alternative themes. Most alternative pop relies on electronic sounds from synths.
For example, ambient and bedroom pop have calm melodies, while emo-pop and twee-pop are geared to a specific audience, usually to teens.
- Ambient Pop
- Bedroom Pop
- Chamber Pop
- Dream Pop
- Indie Pop
- Jangle Pop
- Left-field Pop
- Noise Pop
Punk sounds and underground sounds have similar roots in creating relatively noisy music with loud guitars and expressive singing. Punk sounds might have electronic sounds embedded with the guitars and amplifiers.
The early audiences for punk rock were teens and college students who appreciate venting their frustrations to the grinding beats and powerful guitars. The audience tends to remain the same as new bands release their music on the latest apps.
Different punk sounds tend to reach certain audiences, especially goth-punk, queerpunk, and skatepunk, that cater their lyrics and sounds to issues in the goth/emo, queer, and skater communities.
- Goth Rock
- Pop Punk
- Punk Blues
Retro and Revival
Independent bands take inspiration from mainstream artists, but they put their unique spin on the style and sound. The inspiration comes from bands from mid-century popular music like The Beatles, David Bowie, Prince, and Donna Summer. The audiences for these revival sounds vary but often draw in the fans of the original bands.
- British Trad Rock
- Garage Rock Revival
- Grunge Revival
- Paisley Underground
- Punk Revival
- Space Rock
- Third-wave Ska Revival
With its roots in the sounds of the 50s, rockabilly appeared as an inspiration for several bands that appreciated adding the retro sounds in an updated, modern style. The audience for this sound enjoys dancing to the swing and ska sounds. It’s common to see fans of all ages attending local swing concerts just to show off their acrobatic dance moves.
- Retro Swing
Underground bands usually avoid electronic sounds. They rely on guitars, drums, and unaltered voices with plenty of volume thanks to amplifiers. The typical audience for underground music is college students and young adults to visit their local underground bars to see the local bands show off their skills.
- American Underground
- College Rock
- Pop Punk
At its heart, alternative bands do not set out to avoid the mainstream. They often create new sounds that mainstream listeners eventually hear. That’s why alternative music has one of the most varied sounds – from loud Screamo sounds to calming Chillwave and Cocktail sounds.
The point of this type of music is to be a pioneer that introduces new sounds to the whole mix. Whether they end up being mainstream or not, has little to do with being alternative.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.