Music comes up from the underground. To eschew any kind of rigor for the moment, this is something that we’ve always known, deep inside us. Tens of thousands (or more) years ago, someone sang something, or beat out a rhythm, or blew a column of air across a hollow branch or bone. Someone else liked that, and started to do the same thing, or maybe something a little different that fit. And thus music began, with improvisation and social activity, and music spread by others listening and joining in, thus also beginning the unbroken oral tradition of music (and every time a kid picks out a melody they heard on a piano or guitar, the oral tradition continues).
But here in the twenty-first century, we must have some kind of documented proof for this thing we already know and have known. Nothing is real unless there’s a citation. This has infected the culture as a whole, seeping in from academia—all those historians who refused to believe Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings because that was just a “story” that Black people told in their families—and into social media, where users obnoxiously demand citations for facts that they find objectionable to their worldview (there’s a whole sub-genre of Twitter threads where User A states a fact, Reply Person B condescendingly responds “citation?!?”, and User A points out that it is their own work which is a standard of the research). So, for proof, pick up a copy of Ted Gioia’s Music: A Subversive History, in which he shows how, over and over again, changes and advances in music from pre-history to today have always come up from the underground, subverting the status quo, then becoming the new status quo which will inevitably be subverted by something new.
Underground music, the stuff at the margins, is vital to the health and longevity of future music. It almost exactly follows the rhythms of human life, with one generation giving birth to and raising the generation that follows and will replace its parents, again and again and again. The parents are the status quo, the children are the avant-garde who then become, through sheer spread and longevity, the new status quo—thirty years ago, free improvisation was a niche in American music, and now it’s a genre unto itself. There are metaphorical musical parents and children—that’s what influence fundamentally is—and beyond that there’s the larger metaphorical movement of peoples and cultures, of one set of ideas and values mixing with another, and creating new conglomerations and hybrids. Examples of that include the origins of the guitar in Middle Eastern stringed instruments, the mix of blues, French, Spanish, and Afro-Cuban music in New Orleans that melded to make jazz, and heavy metal spreading throughout the world and fueling groups like Senyawa.
But what is the underground today, in the second decade of this century, and where is it? What it is, what it should be, is a set of values and a commitment to the possibilities of both process and constructive failure; it should occupy the same space vis-a-vis mainstream music (pop, jazz, hip hop, classical, etc.) that horror does to the world of MFA-based literature and filmed narrative drama—a place for innovation and synthesis. Where is it is trickier—but it’s always been in private spaces where musicians experiment and work things out, alone or in groups, and then bring to some kind of public performance or a recording platform. But all this stuff is underground, and therefore subversive and useful, as long as it’s underground, sub rosa, something that you might hear about but not immediately hear, something that’s hard to find.
With an all-encompassing World Wide Web, where is there an underground space? With the digitization of music and the first two iterations of the web, the underground was both very real and everywhere, or at least easy to access from anywhere, as long as you were interested in looking. There were music blogs and Tumblr sites where people posted all sorts of niche music, both old and new. There were net-based labels for digital music that gave it all away for free, there were others that were either free or charged a small amount for a digital album, but made that album a limited run, i.e. they would sell thirtyor fifty downloads then remove the album from the internet. This wasn’t an attempt to create artificial scarcity—impossible with digital media—but that this music was so truly niche, underground, meant a community of listeners so small as to be the human equivalent of the lowercase music movement (itself an underground) that there was no need to maintain the administrative effort to make it available and accessible in (digital) perpetuity.
By nature, this stuff was small scale and would only be heard by an infinitesimal percentage of the global population. But that would be a committed group of listeners and other musicians, the kind who would track the Anti-Gravity Bunny podcast, follow the links from one blog or label to another and another. And learn! That was the early promise and strength of the web, that the underground would no longer be confined by location (what’s happening in Utica? What’s happening in Brno? In Bangassou?) but it would still be underground, still have the freedom and the oppositional authority to subvert the status quo, to offer an idea you never knew existed. Not that it was easy to have both a web presence and remain underground, but it was possible.
Now the aboveground has swamped the underground with the supposed innovations of Web 3.0, which are of course nothing but money, new ways to take money from people and give them back nothing but a line-item entry in a database that connects to a (fungible) digital asset (right-click and save!), or convert it into some kind of digital asset that, having no worth other than what users believe it has, disappears faster than Peter Pan when everyone stops clapping. Underground, off-the-books commerce now advertises on TV and radio and via sporting events, and Mayor Adams, the least underground human on the planet, has taken part of his salary in cryptocurrency. The underground music sites weren’t bought out, they disappeared, buried under illusory credits and wire transfers.
There are remnants, many of them based at the Internet Archive, which hosts both niche netlabels and podcasts about them. The Archive, though, is under constant threat from corporate copyright holders. Soundcloud is still around, but it’s become heavily monetized, and a place where it was always difficult to find coherent things at random is now about finding customers. There are still low-key but dedicated sites like The Heat Warps, which has been posting amazing bootlegs of live concerts from Miles Davis’s 1970s electric bands, but that’s a rarity.
The weirdness, the subversiveness seems to be gone. Even Bandcamp, as much as I love it as a place to find great music (and yes, as a place that takes my freelance contributions to the Bandcamp Daily), has squeezed out a lot of the weirdness. There is plenty of experimental and amateurish (in a good way) music at the site, but by consolidating so many artists under one roof it has taken away spaces from the bedroom labels that used to be on the web. There’s also a byproduct that Bandcamp, and any other large, centralized place for music, like a city of a conservatory, produces, which is that the people making music there eventually gravitate toward a consensus, outliers disappear, and everything, no matter how high the quality, hews to the safety of the crowd. Once something experimental or underground becomes a scene, it’s no longer experimental nor underground, and not only do we now have a proliferation of scenes, but everything seems above ground, jockeying for attention. The weirdos are out there, somewhere, doing their thing. Maybe we have to wait for the rest of the world to collapse before we can see and hear them again.