The term “alternative music” started kicking around in the early 80s. It was a handy phrase, something that vaguely described all the left-of-centre music that came in the wake of punk and New Wave. It was material that wasn’t either, but you could tell that both punk and New Wave had happened. Definitely not for the mainstream–which was pretty cool for a certain segment of music fan.
I’d always been under the impression that the term originated organically. When these artists couldn’t find a home on major labels, they went with small, independent ones, labels that were an alternative to signing with a major. Ergo, anything that was released on one of these alternative labels was classified as “alternative music.” I never thought it through beyond that.
I should, however, have suspected that someone somewhere must have had marketing in mind. Just as Sire Records dreamed up “New Wave” for the American market–their term for the poppier, more melodic outgassing of punk–it stands to reason that someone must have done the same for post-punk music in general.
There was such a person. His name was Terry Tolkin.
Terry was an A&R guy out of New York City who worked at 99 Records, a record store and label (ESG and Liquid Liquid) and later Touch & Go, one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite imprints.
In 1979, while writing for the music publication Rockpool, Terry used the phrase “alternative music” to describe the vast swath of underground, indie, punk, and post-punk groups he loved. That seems to be the first use of the term anywhere in the music industry.
Luna, the band headed up by Dean Wareham, wrote this song about Terry.
Terry later signed the Butthole Surfers, started up No.6 Records (distributed by Rough Trade), and later moved to handle A&R for Elektra from 1992-96, signing bands like Luna, Stereolab. Afghan Whigs, Nada Surf, and others.
Terry had been ill for years. The Brooklyn Vegan reported his death last week at the age of 62.