These days it’s impossible not to have an opinion about a wide range of matters from what’s the definition of quality all the way down to if cows cause global warming by farting too much. Furthermore, one man’s version of quality is another man’s trash and vice versa. And when it comes down to definitions such as what is classed as House music,what determines if a musical piece is underground or not or who has the right to dictate the boundaries for such difficult questions, the answers couldn’t possibly have a wider range.
It’s the age of free speech amplified by the phenomenal success of the Facebook revolution. If I have ever believed in a prophet in my 41 years on this planet, it cannot possibly be anyone else but Andy Warhol. He foresaw a naturally occurring chain of events from post war prosperity to the obnoxious collective consciousness of today’s global society. All he had to do to come up with his famous phrase “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”, was to study human nature and connect it with the rise and accessibility of technology.
Although I was late to join the social media phenomenon (I was partly reluctant to do it as I didn’t really fancy joining millions of profiles which state the user works in the music industry), I was taken aback by the amount of debate (sometimes well founded but most times touching the boundaries of moronic) I saw going on!!
But why have we become so politically aggressive about what’s happening to our scene and is this just a repetition of a pattern emerging from other aspects of society?
I am a strong believer that people are much more political when it comes down to the dance music industry mainly because there are no real, universally accepted boundaries and definitions. We do not have an “e=mc2” equation in order to study, measure and define the industry.
Anybody with a few tracks, a cracked version of DJ software with sync, a Facebook profile with an elementary knowledge of photoshop, a few friends and the ability to sequence pre-made generic samples (bought on the web for a few quid) can be called a DJ/ producer/ promoter. And the consequence of technology giving you the tools to be a DJ in an instant, is the disillusionment that you actually are a part of the industry.
But what has really happened here is that you joined the utopian world of popular culture. The massive majority of DJ’s/producers/promoters out there have aspirations on becoming significant, to be in the spotlight and to become famous (and cool at the same time). Being ordinary and insignificant scares a lot of us these days and that’s why we created pop culture. The notion of being a star, travelling around the world on business class and making loads of money (or even an honest living) just by playing other peoples’ music is much more attractive than the harsh reality of a 9-5 job, and if technology gives an individual a chance to do so, then he or she will take that chance. I mean, to be a celebrated scientist and win the nobel prize, for example, you need to dedicate your life’s work to one subject or to be a famous and successful athlete you also have to dedicate your life to the strict regime of training. But to be a celebrated DJ is an easier route to fame and fortune, right?
I, for one, don’t think so!!!!!!!!
Is this vague chance of the easy road to success any different from the chances you have to become a millionaire by winning the lottery? In my humble opinion, it’s one and the same thing, it’s just the illusion that you can get everything for doing not much!!!
The latest craze in the wonderful and carefree world of a dance music promoter (laughing out loud) is the misuse of the word Underground. So many in the global promoter community spend a lot of time and effort trying to convince people that they are the real soldiers of the underground, they are only interested in quality, not like the other crappy commercial promoters who are best at creating media hype. And when it comes down to the DJ’s, 80% of them claim to play quality underground music, which is a contradiction in itself. Underground can only exist in a minority not in an 80% majority (I must stress here that the numbers aren’t in any way representative of the actual scene but only an indication!).
So, who is an underground promoter/DJ/producer (if there is such a thing)? Is there a chart or a graph where you can measure how underground or mainstream someone is? No, there isn’t, but I believe there can be!
Let’s firstly have a look at the definitions of Wikipedia on what is Popular (pop) culture & what is classed as Underground music.
Popular culture is the entirety of ideas, perspectives, attitudes and other phenomena that are preferred by an informal consensus within the mainstream of a given culture, especially Western Culture of the early to mid 20th century and the emerging global mainstream of the late 20th and early 21st century. Heavily influenced by mass media, this collection of ideas permeates the everyday lives of the society.
Although the terms popular culture and pop culture are in some cases used interchangeably, and their meanings partially overlap, the term “pop”, which dates from the late 1950s, belongs to a particular society and historical period. Pop refers more specifically to something containing qualities of mass appeal, while “popular” refers to what has gained popularity, regardless of its style.
Popular culture is often viewed as being trivial and dumbed down in order to find consensual acceptance throughout the mainstream. As a result, it comes under heavy criticism from various non-mainstream sources who deem it superficial, consumerist,sensationalist and corrupted.
Underground music comprises a range of different musical genres that operate outside of mainstream culture. Such music may tend to express common ideals, such as high regard for sincerity and intimacy, freedom of creative expression as opposed to the highly formulaic composition of commercial music, and appreciation of artistic individuality, as opposed to conformity to current mainstream trends.
The term “underground music” has been applied to various artistic movements, for instance, the psychedelic music movement of the mid-1960s, but the term has in more recent decades come to be defined by any musicians who tend to avoid the trappings of the mainstream commercial music industry. Frank Zappa attempted to define “underground” by noting that the “mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground.”
Taking these definitions in consideration, we now have two points of reference where we can fit the whole industry inside: Imagine the whole industry as a tree, the tips of the roots are the furthest point you can go underground and the leafy branches are the overground/ mainstream/ popular culture system. A tree cannot exist without roots but a root can survive without the need to surface overground. Basically,if you are an underground DJ/producer, then consider yourself as a potato (or a beetroot if you prefer!!)
If DJ’s/producers/promoters represent parts of the tree, most will choose to live overground because there is the fresh air (money) and loads to see from up there (spotlight)….but there are a few that want to keep their heads down and live a humble existence by the routes and dedicate themselves to making the tree stronger!!!!
So let’s try and classify the whole industry on this tree :
The Definitive Underground
This is the place were true and pure art comes to life. It’s a place where there is no compromising on what you want to create and your aspirations don’t look towards either success or fame. Actually, true art doesn’t have any aspirations in the first place, it’s just the expression of the inner soul that matters and the most important time is the moment of creation of something meaningful, challenging and thought provoking out of thin air.
A few months back, I had a conversation with a friend who in turn had a conversation with a DJ about why he is reluctant to release all those amazing tracks that he plays at his gigs. His answer was the answer of a true underground artist. He said something along these lines: “it is much more artistically rewarding for me to play this music to a crowd that has never heard it before than to release it for the masses and make a few hundred or even thousand bucks. That moment when I play an unreleased track is the moment where magic really happens and you cannot possible put a price tag to that”.
So for me, the purest form of underground music is music that is not published or available anywhere to buy, and to hear it, you have to hear it from the creating artist himself.
Of course there are also some small groups of DJs that share unreleased music between them so they also pass with flying colours on this category!!
The Underground Record Label
These are labels that choose to release a limited number of copies (not more than a few hundred) on a unconventional medium such as vinyl (unconventional only if you compare it with the vastness and accessibility of digital mediums). This is the beginning of aspiration although the expectation of publishing such music is not fame or fortune but the distribution of quality uncompromising music within a close knit community of likeminded vinyl lovers.
The lower end of this category and thus closer to the first category, are the individuals who press the music themselves (Press & Distribution deals with a vinyl distributor) and display no information other than a simple name and a volume number. After them, there are also the labels who provide some release info but do not spend any time on building a promotional plan. At the higher end of this spectrum are the labels who operate as the ones I just mentioned but who also have a limited promotional strategy.
Such labels are usually run by one or 2 people and the more staff you add to your operation, the more the aspirations rise as more people depend financially by the success of the release.
And, as you add staff and raise expectations, the point of singularity comes into the picture. No, I am not talking about black holes (we will cover them another time), I am talking about the point where because of rising aspirations, art starts to get diluted as it gets compromised by the need to relate to a wider consuming audience than the few hundred vinyl die hards. It’s the point of art starting to become something else…….Entertainment!!!! Goodbye pure art, and hello rat race : )
The Independent Record Labels
“Yeah I love the track but it’s too deep, only Ricardo and Zip will play this”
If you are a producer and hear an independent label boss mutter these words, you know you have past the point of no return for true art….I am not saying that quality music ceases to exist from now onwards but I am saying that the more you go up the ladder, the more compromises you have to endure in order to make enough money to keep the business afloat. You don’t have the artistic freedom to do as you like and release the most obscure track ever if you choose to, and if you are brave enough to do so, the business will be put in jeopardy.
15 years ago and before the unbelievable rise of technology, this category was like the Underground Record Label category, as the possibilities to reach millions, instead of a few thousands, were limited due to digital releases not being developed at that time. The prospect of widening the customer/ consumer base drives a label to adapt strategies usually practiced by the majors.
These days, there are different kinds of independent labels. The ones closer to the previous category are digital-only labels who exist (for example) as a hobby for a person that has a good ear for quality music and as this is not the money earner for him/her, there is more freedom to release music they like without worrying too much about a marketing strategy. Then there are the physical & digital release independent labels who run as successful businesses and try to balance between compromising for sales and releasing quality music. And then there are the labels who aspire to become majors one day, the bigger the market they reach, the more they come closer to the doors of popular/commercial dance music.
As the potential digital market grows (and shows no signs of stopping any time soon), the lure of bigger revenues will drive a large percentage of independent labels up towards success recognition and money. It’s a very simple mechanism: the more you invest in your record label business by adding staff, spending serious amounts on marketing and promotion etc, the more you have to make your sound simpler and easily digestible. And the more you think like that, the closer you come to the next category.
Welcome to co-operative dance music entertainment for the masses!!
This is a world where artistic integrity collapses into a sea of flash
ng cameras and where money dictates the formulas and the formulas dictate the music. The simpler the message, the more people it will reach and the more income will be
generated, Gangnam style!!!
Mass media manipulation, mass production for mass consumption for the brave new world of globalised society. But even up here at the dizzy heights of success and fame, you can still find quality but it’s such a small percentage that you cannot actually hear it in the midst of the formulaic cacophony of mainstream music.
I am not a hater of EDM or the commercial aspect of the industry. Yes it is much less art and much more entertainment but it’s euphoric formula makes millions of people happy and that can only be a good thing. We are all different and perceive life in a different way and thank God, there is music for everybody out there!!
I hope this list and my attempt to classify a basic structure of the industry will spark a debate and in the end, we can have some kind of point of reference on what is Underground, how it connects with art and the mechanism which turns art into entertainment for the masses.