Origin of term
Before the term alternative rock came into common usage around 1990, the sort of music to which it refers was known by a variety of terms.
 In 1979,
Terry Tolkin used the term Alternative Music to describe the groups he was writing about.
 In 1979 Dallas radio station
KZEW had a late night
new wave show entitled "Rock and Roll Alternative".
College rock" was used in the United States to describe the music during the 1980s due to its links to the
college radio circuit and the tastes of college students.
 In the United Kingdom, dozens of small
do it yourself record labels emerged as a result of the
punk subculture. According to the founder of one of these labels,
Sounds magazines published charts based on small record stores called "Alternative Charts". The first national chart based on distribution called the
Indie Chart was published in January 1980; it immediately succeeded in its aim to help these labels. At the time, the term indie was used literally to describe independently distributed records.
 By 1985, indie' had come to mean a particular genre, or group of subgenres, rather than simply distribution status.
The use of the term alternative to describe rock music originated around the mid-1980s;
 at the time, the common music industry terms for cutting-edge music were
new music and
post modern, respectively indicating freshness and a tendency to re contextualize sounds of the past.
 Individuals who worked as DJs and promoters during the 1980s claim the term originates from American
FM radio of the 1970s, which served as a progressive alternative to
radio formats by featuring longer songs and giving DJs more freedom in song selection. According to one former DJ and promoter, "Somehow this term 'alternative' got rediscovered and heisted by
college radio people during the 80s who applied it to new post-punk, indie, or underground-whatever music".
 At first the term referred to intentionally non–mainstream rock acts that were not influenced by "heavy metal ballads, rarefied new wave" and "high-energy dance anthems".
 Usage of the term would broaden to include
post-punk, and occasionally "
indie" rock, all found on the American "commercial alternative" radio stations of the time such as
KROQ-FM. The use of alternative gained further exposure due to the success of
Lollapalooza, for which festival founder and
Jane's Addiction frontman
Perry Farrell coined the term Alternative Nation. In the late 1990s, the definition again became more specific.
 In 1997,
Neil Strauss of
The New York Times defined alternative rock as "hard-edged rock distinguished by brittle, '70s-inspired guitar riffing and singers agonizing over their problems until they take on epic proportions".
Defining music as alternative is often difficult because of two conflicting applications of the word. Alternative can describe music that challenges the status quo and that is "fiercely iconoclastic, anticommercial, and antimainstream", but the term is also used in the music industry to denote "the choices available to consumers via record stores, radio, cable television, and the Internet."
 However alternative music has paradoxically become just as commercial and marketable as the mainstream rock, with record companies using the term "alternative" to market music to an audience that mainstream rock does not reach.
 Using a broad definition of the genre, Dave Thompson in his book Alternative Rock cites the formation of the
Sex Pistols as well as the release of the albums
Patti Smith and
Metal Machine Music by
Lou Reed as three key events that gave birth to alternative rock.
 Until recent years (early 2000s) when
indie rock became the most common term in the US to describe modern pop and rock, the terms "indie rock" and "alternative rock" were often used interchangeably;
 whilst there are aspects which both genres have in common, indie rock was regarded as a British-based term, unlike the more American alternative rock.