Be careful when using the ‘alt’ word

(February 12, 2016)

There’s a view that says be careful using the word ‘alt’ to preface your work. The reason being it can prompt one or two knee-jerk reactions. First, your music is ‘off the wall’ and possibly avant garde, which may well turn off half your potential audience before they even listen. And second, it’s going to slip into a bracket that makes it hard to define and people do love definitions. So ‘let’s look at ‘alt-folk’. Does it mean alternative? And if so just how ‘alternative’? Different, unconventional, or marginal and unorthodox?

The true answer may lie somewhere between any of those words and where the real differences lie between contemporary, traditional and alt. Traditional folk is usually classed as anything that falls under the ridiculously vast umbrella of folk from another age based on the oral tradition. Fair enough, but that leaves out those contemporary artists that write ‘in the tradition’ about subjects directly focused on today. Then again, traditional subjects such as the oppression of the individual, the mendacity of politicians, the curse of absentee landlords, and the exploitation of the poor by the rich never really went away and they certainly are not forgotten. Even though the influences and ‘reasons for writing’ have hardly changed, is writing in the tradition in a modern world truly traditional? Of course it is, why not?

How about contemporary folk? Does that include the equally huge umbrella of acoustic music? Perhaps involving more and wider scope of instruments and with possibly a less historical perspective and expounding a more modern ‘socially aware’ focus, the label contemporary folk has been applied to a vast raft of artists, who although not writing ‘in the tradition’ do in fact class their work as folk music. If all acoustic music is contemporary folk, which it patently is not then what differentiates contemporary folk? Perhaps it’s more complex music, perhaps a wider reliance on soundbites and effects or perhaps anything that ‘sounds like folk’ but only talks about contemporary issues. Although as stated earlier, so many issues keep on coming round, wherever you want to place them historically or in a modern context.

Back to alt folk. However you decide to define it, without doubt, alt folk is used as a catch-all. Bands that clearly come from the sometimes bizarre and often downright-weird folk genre have alt applied to their music from time to time; either by themselves or someone else. Sometimes the alt folk category is applied to psych folk, which in itself is strange because psych folk is clear in its influence and content, which gives it a position of its own rather than falling under a catch-all umbrella. The same applies to such influence-spanning folk as dark folk and ghost folk – folk that mixes a range of styles and seemingly uncomfortable bedfellows to create its sound.

Basically, anything that’s unusual, strange or odd and worth investigating, often labours under the alt folk yoke. The alt folk box has been used to classify music in the same way that ‘roots’ initially became a utility-bin of folk expression. Aside from rather patronising middle-class definitions of roots being music from the third world, ‘roots’ initially became the classification of music not from around here’. Thankfully, that has changed somewhat and roots is now used with slightly more discretion and accuracy.

For those artists that feel comfortable basking within the term alt folk, my view is get on with it and hang the consequences. However, if that sort of thing bothers you be aware that a certain section of your potential audience may well see the ‘alt’ word and turn off. Equally, those that classify themselves and their own lives under the alt banner will probably love you to death.

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