It doesn’t take long for the music snob to become queasy from popular music’s bland, saccharine aftertaste. They start to seek obscure genres, independent artists, and difficult sounds. The snob, as a matter of course, begins to burrow into underground music. But many of the barriers of entry into “underground music” have been toppled by the lightning-fast speed and hyper-accessibility of the internet. Stephen Graham, writing in The Journal of Music’s August-September issue, speculates on the nature and feasibility of underground music in the iTunes-era.
The underground is a guerrilla philosophy that is mostly defined in relation to the mainstream, and so could be anything at any time,” says Graham. “Defining it in concrete, practical terms is therefore a tricky business. Frank Zappa tried: ‘The mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground’. In the sixties, seventies and eighties, the fact of having to go to the underground was more clear cut, but since the advent of digital technology and the web, such a relation has become confused ... Everything has become available, everywhere, all of the time: culture has become flat.
Despite underground music’s newfound exposure, Graham argues that some cities are uniquely suited to host artistic, counter-cultural music communities. “Cities with a rich cultural history and with firmly established public arts institutions lead the field in terms of underground scenes,” he writes, citing Berlin, Dublin and Tokyo as prime examples. (I’ll nominate Minneapolis as well—the city boasts vibrant experimental electronica, drone and psych-rock scenes.)
It's true, ravenous music consumers can now feast on the odd 70-minute-long improvised tuba-solo as easily as the latest Lady Gaga single. But the Internet has also been a boon for experimental musicians. According to Graham, “The underground has largely shifted from physical meeting places such as record shops to virtual networks organised through and on the web. Underground musicians themselves are keenly aware of this, promoting their activity through their own websites, or through independent, web-focused labels, and transmitting much of their music through social media such as Soundcloud.”
Regarding other tenuous genre-tags, Senior Editor Keith Goetzman recently wrote about “indie rock” (both as a noun and a verb) and how bands and artists continuously struggle to challenge the conventions of mainstream music.
Source: The Journal of Music