In the 1980s, a subculture developed primarily in Europe alongside dark wave music, whose followers were called wavers or dark wavers. In some countries such as Germany, the movement also included fans of gothic rock (so-called trad-goths).
Since the 1980s, the term has been used in Europe to describe the gloomy and melancholy variant of new wave and post-punk music. At that time, the term "goth" was inseparably connected with gothic rock, whereas "dark wave" acquired a broader meaning, including music artists that were associated with gothic rock and synthesizer-based new wave music.
The term darkwave originated in the 1980s as an indicator of the dark counterpart of new wave. Bands such as Cocteau Twins, Soft Cell, and Depeche Mode are exponents of this first generation of darkwave. Darkwave ... employs relatively slower tempos, lower pitches, and more minor keys in its musical settings of melancholy texts than new wave.
The movement spread internationally, developing such strands as ethereal wave, with bands such as Cocteau Twins, and neoclassical dark wave, initiated by the music of Dead Can Dance and In the Nursery. Simultaneously, different substyles associated with the new wave and dark wave movements started to merge and influence each other.
In the 1990s, a second generation of darkwave bands became popular, including Diary of Dreams, Deine Lakaien, and The Frozen Autumn... The German band Deine Lakaien ... is audibly influenced by the dark synthesizer sounds of Depeche Mode.
— Isabella van Elferen, Professor of Musicology
At the same time, a number of German artists developed a more theatrical style, interspersed with German poetic, metaphorical lyrics, called Neue Deutsche Todeskunst (literally New German Death Art). Other bands combined synthesizers with elements of neofolk and neoclassical dark wave.
Faith & The Muse (Monica Richards and Marzia Rangel of Christ vs. Warhol and Scarlet's Remains)
After 1993, in the United States the term dark wave (as the one-word variant 'darkwave') became associated with the Projekt Records label, because it was adopted by label founder Sam Rosenthal after leafing through the pages of German music magazines such as Zillo, and has been used to promote and market artists from German label Hyperium Records in the U.S. (e.g. Chandeen and Love Is Colder Than Death).
I first became aware of the term "Dark Wave" back in 1992. It appeared in German magazines – such as Zillo – describing a style of European music that followed other "waves" such as New Wave ... I found those two words ("dark" and "wave") quite interesting. This was something underground, submerged, obscure... which swept over you, immersed you, surrounded you. It was a poetic phrase that could describe many different sounds. At the time, I was looking for a name for my little mail-order company. I wanted something that would encompass the variety of music available in my catalog.
an expansion of the rather limited gothic repertoire into electronica and, in a way, the US answer to the 'ethereal' subgenre that developed in Europe (e.g. Dead Can Dance). Anchored by Sam Rosenthal's now New York-based label Projekt, dark wave music is less rock and more roll, supporting bands who tend to emphasize folk songcraft, hushed vocals, ambient experimentation, and synthesized sounds [...] Projekt bands like Love Spirals Downwards and Lycia are the most popular of this subgenre.
^Dumeier, Michael: Smalltalk & Concerts, The Mettmist music magazine, issue 1, 1984, p. 24 Janning, Frank: The Lawyers of Death, SPEX. Musik zur Zeit, issue 9/86, September 1986, p. 10 Schubert, Dieter: Was ist ein Perfect Beat?, My Way music magazine, issue 9, 1988, p. 20