What Is Alternative Music?

Mac DeMarco, Tame Impala, The Neighbourhood and Young the Giant are examples of artists whose music could be considered independent or “indie”. While they usually record independently but may also work with major recording labels.

Alternative/indie rock is more than a genre; it is an expansive form of musical expression that celebrates difference, experimentation and independence.


At the tail-end of the 1970s, when musicians rebelled against mainstream culture through alternative music, they created what would later be known as alternative rock. Their stripped-down guitar music, often distributed via independent record labels and distinguishing it from other genres was key. Today, alternative rock has since developed into many subgenres each with its own distinct flavor and cultural context.

These subgenres include gothic rock, grunge, post-punk and shoegaze – each known for its distinctive combination of guitar jangle and emotive lyrics that often draw inspiration from other genres to form its own distinctive sound.

Alternative music remains a unified genre that embraces diversity and experimentation, from Tokyo’s underground rock clubs to Johannesburg’s indie music festivals. Some notable alternative bands include Arctic Monkeys, Mac DeMarco, Tame Impala and The Neighbourhood; their distinct sounds helped them stand out among their competitors and secure massive audiences. Although “indie” has been co-opted into mainstream culture over time, its original definition still describes an aesthetic rather than genre specificity.


After the advent of punk rock, bands such as The Smiths and Joy Division began crafting darker sounds with poetic lyrics exploring themes of melancholy and depression. Refusing to sign with major record labels, these groups came to be known by fans simply as “indie.” Although originally, this label did not imply any particular musical or stylistic characteristics for these bands, over time its meaning evolved to describe their distinctive styles; eventually indie rock became synonymous with underground music as well as its practitioners’ DIY mindset.

Alternate and indie rock have evolved into two distinct genres with distinctive sounds and audiences over time, even though their origins lie in similar places. Indie has come to denote an anti-establishment philosophy while alternative remains more of an art-centric style focusing on artistic integrity; this difference has caused some confusion as people attempt to identify whether the two styles overlap or differ; cross-pollination between styles has also occurred, with indie artists often adopting hip-hop sounds in their music as an attempt at connecting the two styles;


Alternative rock’s rise in the 1990s inspired artists like Blink-182 and My Chemical Romance, who combined raw emotional authenticity with mainstream pop. Grunge became the predominant musical style from mid to late ’90s onward, giving rise to bands such as Nirvana and Pavement.

Since its initial roots, alternative rock has broadened its sound palette and found new audiences. The DIY aesthetic allowed bands to remain independent while remaining true to their artistic integrity and message.

Today, alternative rock is an influence on various genres and artists, such as pop-punk, emo and post-hardcore music. These artists draw influence from garage rock, post-punk and new wave styles and incorporate elements of electronic music and orchestral music. Popular artists in this vein include Arctic Monkeys, Mac DeMarco, Tame Impala and Young the Giant who all owe much of their musical style and aesthetic to 1970s punk movement; indie music has also had an effect on modern musical landscape through neopsychedelic pop and indie folk styles that have taken root today.


Alternative music encompasses an expansive spectrum of subgenres. Each subgenre stands on its own merits; however, they all share one trait in common: independent label releases with an emphasis on creativity and experimentation.

Grunge, punk rock and indie pop music genres are among the most favored alternative styles today. Each has their own distinctive sound that often addresses social issues or personal growth with emotionally charged lyrics and powerful guitar work – such as those by Nirvana, The Strokes or Soundgarden to name just three of many iconic alternative rock artists.

Alternative music comprises various subgenres, such as lo-fi hip hop and black metal. Lo-fi hip hop combines elements of hip hop with ambient sounds for an ambient experience while black metal features high-pitched guitar riffs, blast beat drumming, and darkly emotive lyrics – two genres beloved among young people who use them for studying or relaxation purposes; they are also popular among gamers and movie enthusiasts.

DIY approach to promotion and distribution

Indie music has long been associated with DIY ethics and an aesthetic that values artistic integrity over commercial success, leading many idiosyncratic bands to forgo major labels and release their music independently instead. Some early pioneers of indie rock even used home recording equipment to capture its raw essence.

As the indie music movement gained steam, it infiltrated mainstream music festivals. Many of these festivals featured indie artists who had built up significant followings through social media to reach a much broader audience and gain wider recognition.

Modern audiences often misuse the term “indie” to refer to any band without a record label, which is unfair for independent musicians who work harder than their signed peers and deserve more support from their audience. Independent artists typically take responsibility for booking, marketing, merchandising and networking in addition to writing, recording and producing their music.


Alternative music has quickly become a cornerstone of festival scenes in recent years. Re-invented genres often make an appearance at well-known events like Lollapalooza and Coachella, giving fans the opportunity to hop between genres for sets by artists they love or discover something completely new. This diversity gives festival goers an array of sounds they may enjoy or simply discover altogether.

Festivals often combine activities beyond music to offer attendees an immersive cultural experience. For instance, California’s High Sierra Music Festival includes audience participation parades and yoga areas into their festival experience, creating more of an environment than simply concert hall environment.

Mo Pop Festival in Detroit brings together indie rock and hip hop acts. Last year’s lineup featured Bon Iver, The National, Vince Staples and many others.

Other festivals dedicated to indie rock include the Grassy Lake Art & Music Festival in Iowa and Hinterland Music & Arts Festival in Luhmuhlen, Germany. Mitski and Phoebe Bridgers both perform under this genre at this former festival.

Movies and TV shows

Alternative music often finds the greatest exposure when featured in films and TV shows, giving artists access to an entirely new audience that otherwise might never hear it. Examples of this include the soundtracks for 500 Days of Summer, Juno and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou; plus many TV shows featuring songs by independent bands, such as Scrubs, The OC and Grey’s Anatomy.

Internet sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum have played an instrumental role in spreading alternative rock to wider audiences, providing critical reviews of artists as well as providing avenues for smaller record labels to gain visibility and find success.

YouTube has provided bands with an effective platform to self-promote and build fan bases, while digital streaming services like Pandora offer listeners an effortless way to discover new music without buying an album – this has proven particularly helpful for alternative bands with higher production costs, leading to greater emphasis on creativity and originality in alternative rock.

Influence on other genres

Alternative rock has had an enormous influence on other music genres despite its rejection of mainstream commercialism. Its DIY ethos has encouraged independent bands to explore new ideas and experiment with sounds; leading them to form subgenres such as grunge, Britpop and shoegazing; as well as new wave and post-punk (which blend punk’s aggressive edge with rock melodies and song structures).

Due to this trend, indie music has grown into an influential genre, garnering widespread fans. Bands such as The Killers and Billie Eilish have found mainstream success thanks to their catchy tunes and distinctive sounds.

Streaming platforms and social media have provided alternative/indie bands an avenue to self-promote without needing major record labels, while their influence continues to expand as it introduces new trends and movements in music. Its eclectic nature could lead to hybrid fusions like alt-rock meets Afrobeat or glitch-hop with Asian influences; eco-conscious festivals, sustainable vinyl productions and reflective lyrics should also become common.