Alternative Music

Q: According to usual representations, pop music is all about youth, sexuality, rebellion, outrageous haircuts, drugs, staying out all night dancing and offending old people. So how come it appears to be administrated by huge corporations staffed by middle-aged accountants and lawyers who gatekeep every last single creative decision and totally control the music and musicians?

A: :(

It does seem rather sad that such an essentially vibrant, spontaneous medium has become so much about big business and screwing both artist and consumer. However, there has always, since the beginnings of rock'n'roll, been a healthy set of alternatives to the corporate mainstream. For every Elvis who sold his soul to Sun, there was a Screamin' Jay Hawkins dancin' on the fringes.

When we refer to "alternative" music, we are referring to music that alternates from the mainstream in any, all or some of the following ways:

Representation Artists may choose to represent themselves in alternative ways - e.g. Insane Clown Posse's masks - that defy normal categorisation
Style/Genre There are many styles of music that are considered alternative, perhaps too "difficult" for mainstream audiences to cope with eg thrash, punk, bizarre electronic stuff, anything considered "avante-garde". It is interesting to note that most forms fo music make it into the mainstream somehow, often in a diluted form (the Nu-Metal of Limp Bizkit, for instance): remember your Trickledown Theory?
Lyrical Content/Ideology Particularly that which is overtly political and/or sexual. There are definitely mainstream ideologies to do with pop lyrics, and these ebb and flow with history. The cultural revolution of 1968 led to much more politicised American mainstream pop, whereas in Britain, in the 1980s, there was a brief flirtation with 'Agitpop' by the mainstream. Straight Edge began as an alternative to the mainstream and then sadly got subsumed by it. Bubbling under,however, you will always find hardcore vegan punk bands.
Form Any pop music that cannot be neatly packaged onto a CD exists in an alternative form. Also, artists that refuse to release radio friendly singles or MTV friendly videos are often considered alternative. Some bands only play live. Some are now releasing DVDs which combine electronic music with video art

Production The production of mainstream music is an expensive process - mainly down to the salaries and equipment of those whoa re hired to give it a gloss. However, bedroom recording equipment has been around since the days of the four-track, although it now revolves around computers, and much music is produced and distributed quickly and cheaply : alternatively
Distribution The majors used to have it sewn up but now anyone who can upload files to a website like MySpace or SoundCloud can distribute their music. Whether or not they can make money doing it is another matter. Also, anyone who is prepared to lump a box of CDs round their local high school or record stores and plead with potential customers is taking advantage of alternative distribution processes.
Consumption Alternative music may be designed for very limited, local consumption (no global markets here). There are alternative music venues alternative radio stations, alternative internet sites, all catering for a non-mainstream audience
Fans is an attitude and a choice. Those who describe themselves as being fans of alternative music often live an alternative lifestyle (- or claim to, as shown by their clothing & hairstyle). They see themselves as actively differentiated from mainstream music fans, perhaps as Innovators or Early Adopters. They may share the ideology of their chosen form of music. There tends not to be such a gap between the creators of alternative music and their fans - no time for manufactured stars.

Alternative music has its sites of institutional support - except they aren't quite so institutional. The preferred form used to be fanzines, photocopied (usually badly) and stapled screed which were available at gigs, independent record stores, and by sending an SAE and a few extra postage stamps. This was in the 1980s. Now, there's the Internet.

The Internet has also enabled some bands to maintain their alternative status by bypassing record companies altogether. Radiohead have given away albums free online and promoted their tours via their website. This means they have a more direct connection to fans, and may even earn more money from their endeavours because they aren't paying middle men out of their royalties. Not every band has a pre-existing fanbase that enables them to work like this, however.