I have to admit I've never really gotten the notion of "alternative" as a genre-label. Presumably, the implication is that the artist constitutes an alternative to the mainstream, but it you look at the overall charts on last.fm you'll see that Postal Service, Death Cab, Surfjan Stevens and other "alternative" acts are among the most "popular" (i.e., "pop") among last.fm fans, so can they truly be considered "alternative"? Clearly last.fm users will tend (like most internet users) to be younger, more tech savvy, pretty smart, etc., and their tastes are bent toward the "alternative" which makes this an interesting paradox: How can we ALL be listening to the same "alternative" music?
Also, is "alternative" a label that fans attach to a band or that a band attaches to itself? Does "alternative" music sound different or is it a descriptor that means the artist isn't signed by a major label and supported by a big advertising budget, etc.? (These questions are really sort of rhetorical, of course...).
I think a lot of bands want to be thought of as alternative b/c it has apppeal to young fans, who don't want to conform to the tastes of the "establishment" -- but I think it's ultimately up to US to decide if the artist hold true to that promise.
One interesting comparison is that in the movie industry, the term is "independent" (not produced by a major studio, sometimes, but less frequently used in the music industry), and "alternative" has no meaning. Independent films are obviously very low-budget in comparison to major studio releases. I think that is really what "alternative" should mean muscially: outside the mainstream marketing channels and not supported by a label with a lot of dough (and therefore unlikely to be in the Billboard charts) -- so we need to "check the label" so to speak. The term "independent" is being more widely used now wrt music which I think is more informative, even if it doesn't describe a musical sound, per se.
DCFC and Franz Ferdinand just sold out a 20K seat arena in Boston. Are they still "alternative"? Help me out here -- I'd love to know what other people think.
Anyway, the term/line is blurry to me -- and maybe that's just a musical phenomenon rather than a question of genre labeling -- the internet has really fragmented the music biz and allowed us to tap into anything, no matter how obscure. Good for us, but complicated in terms of defining "popularity" (CD sales v. what people actually listen to on the internet as tracked by last.fm).
Love to hear your thoughts.