In the past, particularly in the sixties, underground music was a label given either to cult artists who were difficult to seek out or whose music could in some way be defined as oppositional to the establishment.
As critic Simon Reynolds points out in his excellent article for The Guardian, these former definitions are no longer convincing as a new generation of fans consume and conceive of music in a wholly different ways.
When I was a lad, if I read about some obscure new band in the New Musical Express, the only way to hear what they sounded like was to track down the vinyl or hope that John Peel would play them on his radio show. Nowadays such enlightenment is just a mouse click away. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it reveals to us some amazing ‘hidden’ sounds while on the other hand the sense of mystery is lost. As Reynolds points out, you can’t keep secrets for very long on the Net – the worldwide web is a free for all community.
Personally, the accessibility of all this marginal music has opened by ears to a wealth of possibilities and re-ignited my enthusiasm for sounds which can’t be neatly packaged within narrow boundaries. It has confirmed my loathing for the nostalgia peddled by glossy adult orientated mags like Mojo and Word. This pseudo rock academia merely panders to the post 30 something listeners who get a hard on for whatever they got their collective rocks off to when they were 18.
The fact that legal and illegal downloads makes limited edition or deleted titles available to the masses doesn’t make this music for the masses. Whenever there’s a choice between easy and ‘difficult’ listening, the vast majority of consumers opt for the former. The mainstream media may have expanded enormously in the past decade but it is still largely unable to grasp the true value of anything that cannot be readily compartmentalized or easily packaged for a target audience.
This is exemplified by the rise of the so-called ‘weird’ music of drone, noise, new psychedelia and free folk which has thrived in spite of being largely ignored by the mass media. The smart press have belatedly acknowledged ‘overground’ artists like Animal Collective, Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom but have largely ignored the fact that these represent only the tip of massive iceberg.
I agree with Reynolds that the old definitions of ‘underground’ music no longer carry much weight in the same way that to describe artists as ‘alternative’ or ‘indie’ is ultimately meaningless. I take comfort from the knowledge that the best music is still out there in the margins rather than festering in the mainstream. This may be easier to locate than it was half a century ago but this doesn’t mean that it’s any more palatable to the lumpen masses . To my ears the counter cultural edge has not been entirely blunted. There is still a healthy minority who oppose the disgusting normalness of modern culture and look to music to communicate a truth and vitality that squeaky clean X-Factor wannabes will never satisfy.
The underground is dead – long live the underground!