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Not exactly punk and not quite grunge, the world of alternative music is hard to define. When you say alternative music you have to understand that this is a form that touches on many genres. It is considered to be college rock, indie rock, punk rock, grunge music, and so many other forms.
It has a lot of famous names associated with it, and that makes many feel that alternative is also going mainstream. However, let's take a second to consider whether that is true or not.
For example, the grunge band Pearl Jam is known to be slightly more alternative than mainstream. They also do something that zero mainstream bands do and that is to encourage the people at their live performances to make bootleg recordings to distribute freely.
This is very distinctly an alternative philosophy for a modern rock band. In fact, it is the actual rejection of commercialism that seems to be one of the defining traits of most bands and performers labeled with the alternative tag. This is why it is fairly common to read that bands you might think of as alternative are performing in smaller venues, or even in clubs - they are rejecting the commercialism of the massive arena show.
This trend began in the 80s when a lot of bands avoided the big labels and made their first albums with independent ones. The band REM is a prime example of this, and their disks first started being played on college stations because of it. Not only did their themes speak to students, but their general message of free thinking did too. This applies to other bands of the area such as The Cure, The Smiths, Jane's Addiction, and Nirvana.
So, we can agree with music expert Mark Josephson who said that "Alternative music is any kind of music that has the potential to reach a wider audience. It also has real strength, real quality, real excitement, and it has to be socially significant…"
Today, alternative is less a formal type of music than a band or performer who is showing that potential to speak to a wider audience with an original voice. These are the ones to watch, and most definitely the ones to catch live.