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Alternative Rock

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Primary Stylistic Influences:
Punk Rock, Post-Punk, New Wave Music, Hardcore Punk


Secondary Stylistic Influences:
Proto Punk, Garage Rock, Psychedelic Rock, Progressive Rock, Electronic Music, Kraut Rock, Heavy Metal, Glam Rock, Folk Music, Country Music, a wide variety of other influences, depending on subgenre

A term used when looking at a stone and talking about a different stone... Ow, okay, just kidding.
Advertisement:propertag.cmd.push(function() { proper_display('tvtropes_mobile_ad_1'); })Rock that is alternative. Weird. Different, somehow. Alternatively, you could define the term as any form of rock that doesn't fit the criteria for "classic" first-wave rock, Progressive Rock, Punk Rock, Post-Punk, hard rock, straight Heavy Metal (and its variants), or any other form of rock that held a prominent mainstream presence before 1987-1991. Also known as "indie" in the UKnote In The United States, "indie" describes a specific subgenre of alternative rock, the one that bands such as Pavement, The Decemberists, and Death Cab for Cutie play. Also like "alternative," the "indie" in this genre's name is not to be taken literally— many key Indie Rock bands have left their independent labels to sign to major labels and the term "Indie Rock" now describes the general aesthetic and overall sound these bands perform..
Advertisement:propertag.cmd.push(function() { proper_display('tvtropes_mobile_ad_2'); })The general consensus is that alternative rock evolved from Post-Punk back in the early '80s, with R.E.M.'s 1981 debut single "Radio Free Europe" typically being regarded as the de-facto starting point. However, many would argue that post-punk itself was technically alternative music, with artists like Wire, Talking Heads, The Cure, and Joy Division generally agreed to be "alternative" in some sense of the term (and if not that, they're typically considered major influences on alternative rock; a large number of post-punk acts would more explicitly adopt alternative rock as the 80's went on, further muddying the distinction). However, others frequently cite the Velvet Underground, who predate punk itself by a decade, as the actual first alternative band (and a few point to the even earlier work by Hasil Adkins). There were also artists like Captain Beefheart, Can, Robert Wyatt, The Shaggs, Scott Walker, Tom Waits, and King Crimson who were kicking around in the late '60s-'70s doing stuff that would've been called "alternative" if they debuted with that kind of sound during or immediately before the early '80s. Also, there were several artists, such as David Bowie, Frank Zappa, The Fugs, The Stooges, Roxy Music, Patti Smith, Sparks, Television, Pink Floyd and even The Beatles, who whilst weren't really alternative acts in general, recorded material that would serve as major building blocks for what would become alternative in the future.
Advertisement:propertag.cmd.push(function() { proper_display('tvtropes_mobile_ad_3'); })For the rest of the eighties, it blossomed underground, and was truly "alternative"; if you were bored of all that tiresome Hair Metal, you could just switch on the college campus radio station and hear the music of moderately obscure bands like R.E.M., The Smiths, The Replacements, The Fall, Hüsker Dü, Minutemen and Dinosaur Jr.. The passionate cult followings these artists generated caused commercial radio to take notice, with pioneering stations like L.A.'s KROQ and Boston's WFNX offering a more polished take on alternative rock radio, while also regularly adding local and lesser known acts into their playlists just like the college stations did.
The alternative scene of the 1980s was dominated by medium-sized independent or semi-independent labels who often promoted the artists on their rosters as a unit, sometimes highlighting a specific sound or local scene that was heavily represented among those acts. The best known American alternative labels of this time included I.R.S. Records, Sub Pop, SST, Twin/Tone, Dischord, K Records, Enigma, Sire Records, Bar None, Touch and Go Records, Slash, Epitaph, Restless, Sympathy for the Record Industry, and Elektra Records. In Britian, where indie labels and scenes had flourished in the punk and post-punk eras, the most important alternative labels were 4AD Records, Factory Records, Rough Trade, Beggars Banquet, Mute Records, Fiction, Creation Records, Caroline, Postcard, One Little Indian, Cherry Red, Sarah Records, Fire Records, and Cooking Vinyl.
American fans heavily coveted import or stateside releases by the British labels, and the Brits often recognized the top American acts. Audiophiles sought imports for improved sound quality because stateside releases tended to be mastered from multi-generation safety tapes. The Rhode Island band Throwing Muses were one of the first American alternative groups to garner a British following, and were signed to 4AD in 1986 as their first American act, later joined by fellow New Englanders Pixies. Other examples include R.E.M. being critical darlings in the UK from the get-go (and eventually establishing a large fan following outside of the US eastern seaboard as well) and New Order becoming so well-known among the American urban scene that they eventually acquired a major label deal with Quincy Jones' Warner (Bros.) Records-backed Qwest Records in 1985 (as well as their predecessor Joy Division being a posthumous critical darling in the American music press). Additionally, The Smiths and Depeche Mode established prominent footholds in the American west coast, owing to their regular airplay on KROQ and its NorCal counterpart, KITS. Import Filter tended to apply, as the best alternative bands were often distributed by major labels overseas. I.R.S. Records proved to be the most popular of these labels in the US, as not only did they have R.E.M. on their roster, but also mainstream leaning acts like Buzzcocks, The English Beat, and The Go-Go's in addition to offbeat college radio favorites like Wall of Voodoo and Oingo Boingo. One I.R.S. act, the quirky husband-and-wife duo Timbuk3, were among the first college rock bands to break onto Top 40 radio, with their 1986 classic "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades". In the UK, meanwhile, Factory, Mute, and Rough Trade all simultaneously emerged as the "Big Three" of the British alternative scene, with their idiosyncratic approaches to the movement, favoring of artistic creative control (to the point where Factory never signed formal contracts with their artists— which came back to bite them when they ran out of money and unsuccessfully tried to negotiate a buyout with London Records, leading to their bankruptcy in 1992), and strong public and commercial presences cementing them as the most important and influential alternative labels east of the Atlantic.
There was obviously an audience for alternative or college rock on both sides of the Atlantic, but the only way college radio acts got popular in the eighties was to either make your sound more mainstream friendly (Tears for Fears, U2), have a Black Sheep Hit (Simple Minds, Was (Not Was)), or already be a commercially successful musician who just happened to get popular on college radio (Peter Gabriel, Sting); there were also odd cases where an artist's sound was both commercially successful and decidedly alternative in ethos, but wasn't recognized as alternative rock until decades later (Talk Talk, latter-day Talking Heads). Between 1987 and 1989, however, the genre started breaking through to pop radio, with bands like R.E.M., The B-52s, The Cure, Midnight Oil, New Order and Love and Rockets all reaching the Top 40. Other more accessible alt-rock acts, like 10,000 Maniacs and Jane's Addiction, also found their way into the mainstream by the end of the '80s even if they didn't crack the Top 40. The biggest acts that had started playing clubs in the early '80s were playing stadiums by the end of the decade. For instance, Depeche Mode sold out the 90,000 seat Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California in June 1988, which acted as a watershed moment for the rise in popularity of left-of-center college radio acts in the United States.
R.E.M., the Cure, and Depeche Mode became three of the biggest names in rock music by 1989 without any of them compromising their alternative ethos; R.E.M. even signed to Warner (Bros.) Records in 1988 on the condition they be given total artistic and creative control of their music... and the major label agreed (which, tellingly, was the only reason why R.E.M. signed onto them instead of onto other labels offering much more lucrative deals). The other two major bands were already distributed by other Warner subsidiaries in the U.S., with the Cure on Elektra Records and Depeche Mode on Sire Records. Of the major labels, Warner seemed to invest the most in alternative that decade, as despite their notorious penny-pinching in all other areas (which had already become the subject of mockery among the likes of Devo and Frank Zappa, who had repeatedly butted heads with Warner execs in the past over more commercially risky endeavors like a contract-rushing quadruple-album), the label still had a reputation for being willing to take risks on less commercial acts and were still keen on demonstrating it.
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