Pattern Recognition Vol. 2: The Evolving Architecture of the Underground
In the second edition of his monthly column for EB, Adam Harper—the Rouge’s Foam blogger and author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making—examines the current structure of the new music underground in the digital age. Illustration by Inka Gerbert.
Why keep up with the frontline of new music? People are rightly cynical about the social pressure to ‘stay relevant’, but it’s about so much more than that. New music is about living in the present, watching cultural history unfold in front of you and studying its ways, seeing it adapt to and reflect a changing world. Understanding new music as it arrives every month, delivered straight from the most inventive, passionate, and least commercially-motivated musicians out there, is a profound form of stimulation and exercise for the ear, mind, intellect, and emotions. Following—and participating in—new music culture has been appreciated by its supporters as everything from a hobby to a professional concern to something approaching the meaning of life.
We already know that the ways new music is released, distributed, and talked about have changed radically in the past decade of moving online, but the full extent of the shift in how and where new music can emerge is only just beginning to dawn. Today, underground music fans can reach emerging artists and their work online long before traditional magazines and record labels do, meaning that the frontline of new music is richer, stranger, more diverse, more unpredictable and more fun than ever. It takes work and imagination to engage with fresh and different sounds at their very source like this, but the reward is in learning new methods of listening and thinking.
It requires maintaining a connection to what we could call the ‘new music underground’. The term ‘underground’ refers to any sector of culture not well known by the general public or represented by the main media outlets. But a differentiation needs to be made between the new music underground and what you might call subcultural music undergrounds, of which there are many—the jazz community, the folk community, the punk community, the metal community, the drum ‘n’ bass community, the trance community, and so on. The new music underground is where these subcultures first originate, but at some point subcultures begin to ‘bud off’ from it somewhere along the line and become more independent entities with their own magazines, shops, websites, cash flow, and specific taste. On the whole, subcultures celebrate a single, more or less firmly delineated identity or genre and as such remain relatively fixed, experiencing comparatively little development, and so only warrant being considered ‘new’ to a limited extent. Though these subcultures can certainly be described as ‘underground’, the new music underground is more open, eclectic and changeable. Subcultures can come back into a closer relationship with the new music underground, either entirely or in mutated or fragmented form, whereas hypothetically at least, the new music underground is in constant change, mutation and development itself.
The new music underground is an ongoing debate about the possibilities of music, typically conducted at some remove from big commerce. Ideally, it represents an infinite space of possibilities and developments with a coherent, roaming, collective focus acting upon it, like a democratically organized nomadic tribe made up of artists, scientists, and philosophers constantly wandering the universe with disaffected and infinitely open minds, always learning but never settling or capitalizing. In reality, the new music underground is a messy semi-anarchy of interests that make up the rules as they go along, don’t communicate with great efficiency, or move as one. Tribe members often settle and farm the land for a while, form little sub-groups or even subcultures, ignore each other, or go back home. Sometimes companies and corporations arrive to buy up land and mine resources. Sometimes huge numbers of tourists start arriving in certain territories, and though the original tribe may complain, no one can say that they weren’t also tourists at the beginning. And rather than just the tribe’s focus of attention changing, it’s the ground beneath everyone’s feet that’s changing. The geology is fast and unpredictable—the magma of new artists is constantly bubbling up from the underground depths and cooling into new territory, islands and continents break off and collide with each other, soil becomes barren and fertile again over time. News of the latest sights and sounds is not reported evenly, and maps need to be constantly updated.
In the late 20th century, following new underground music (more often called ‘indie’, ‘alternative’, or ‘non-commercial’ back then) was a more-or-less simple case of subscribing to magazine X, listening to radio show Y, and hanging out in record shop or venue Z. Today’s world is much more fluid, a continuum of ‘undergroundness’ that can be entered at any level. You can imagine this continuum having three main layers. The third layer is music and media you come across without particularly trying—it’s on mainstream radio and is advertised everywhere, backed by big corporations. The underground begins at the top of the second layer, where magazines and websites are read by many thousands of fans and musicians have substantial record contracts, but are not universally known. As the second layer deepens towards the first, musicians and media are more and more unknown, and hopefully stranger and stranger. The first layer is the emerging musicians themselves, perhaps with no more than a few dozen fans, who have uploaded their work in some form. You might expect musicians to typically rise up the layers as they become famous and this sometimes happens, but it’s more usual that shortcuts are made along the way as talent-spotters offer a leg-up.
Today, to follow underground music from the second layer down, you’ll need to start subscribing to and following lots of things online. You can do perfectly fine on Twitter and/or Facebook by keeping an active eye on who and what to follow and ‘like’, but the most substantial tool to have is an RSS feed reader (such as Feedly), which organizes posts from blogs and websites you want to follow into a chronological feed—meaning you don’t have to keep visiting those sites to see if there’s anything new. There are dozens of magazines and websites (this one, for example) that cater more to the new music underground than to particular subcultures, and subscribing to them is a big part of following where the tribe is at.
But with the frontline of new underground music (and the subcultures) potentially shifting onto places like Soundcloud and Bandcamp, some magazines are getting left behind by their near-total reliance on older industry structures such as press releases and PR contacts, and you won’t automatically be able to tell that this has happened while following them. Nowadays many of the most exciting new artists don’t bother trying to attract conventional record labels, they just upload their tracks to the internet as soon as they like. With Bandcamp, they can even make a little money that way. They might go about attracting listeners (if they even care about that) in any number of ways, but with so many magazines simply not registering these artists when they quietly hoist their flags, or even when they’ve subsequently attracted hundreds of followers and likes, you’ll have to do some of the seeking out yourself much of the time.
Similarly, just like traditional magazines don’t always follow much of the online first layer, following shops and websites that sell music exclusively can be a great way to miss an amazing free release or mixtape. Some of the greatest, freshest-sounding mixtapes of the past few years—A$AP Rocky, Le1f, Mykki Blanco, Clams Casino, James Ferraro, 18+, Evian Christ—were free downloads you would have missed had you only been watching shops for new music. Now that even paying for music can be done straight at the artists’ online front door, physical and online shops risk getting increasingly bypassed.
Within sight of the borderline of the second and first layers are mp3 blogs, constantly and nimbly dipping into the third layer to find something interesting. (A few I’d recommend the most are Rose Quartz, No Fear of Pop, Non-Reality, and Fokkawolfe.) Mp3 blogs typically feature a single stream of posts put up by a handful of people at the most, each one offering a single track or video with a few lines of context and links. They used to offer mp3s and even whole albums to download, but nowadays—probably for legal and ethical reasons—they tend to stick to Soundcloud, Bandcamp, or YouTube for streaming, and often the track is downloadable after clicking through. Very popular and numerous a few years back, the mp3 blog format is at best plateauing and at worst in decline today. The right mp3 blogs are the very best sources for emerging music, but they face competition from both sides, with bigger websites increasingly offering a stream of one-track news posts and Tumblr providing a broader, more flexibly multimedia platform for sharing interesting stuff without the onus to write an introduction.
The shift from the second layer to the first layer is a drop-off of the curatorial process. Operating in the first layer, you no longer rely on someone else to do the choosing or framing for you. But this is just as much a liberation as it is a drawback—here, you’re connecting directly to new sounds. The first layer is as accessible, broad, and inviting as ever: in earlier times, it required mail order catalogues, cassette clubs, special websites, and personally knowing the musicians, but today, platforms like Bandcamp, Soundcloud, YouTube, LastFM, and even simply MediaFire are allowing more musicians to bring their music straight to you more easily, even with some financial return (on Bandcamp and with platforms like Big Cartel). But this is why the first layer is so messy, disorganized and chaotic. Every musician seems to have a different way of maintaining their online presence across a number of different sites, and you kind of have to be prepared for all of them if you don’t want to miss a new act and its subsequent development.
Whether uploading straight-up subcultural music or something newer and stranger, the modern first-layer musician or label typically has either a Soundcloud page or a Bandcamp page or both. In order to follow new releases through these pages, both sites require you to sign up and create an account, like it or not. After this, the sites function like basic social networks. On Soundcloud you have a feed of new tracks, which seems to fill up a lot more slowly than RSS, Tumblr, or Twitter feeds do, so you can check it less often. Bandcamp have just put in a feature allowing you to follow not only artists but other users of the site, who have pages where you can see what they’ve bought. It’s a little weird, but it’s worth playing ball; it’s a useful way to find things you might like—the only problem is that albums downloaded for free don’t show up on these user pages, and since free albums are both very common and are regularly among the best releases, this feels like a petty money-grab on Bandcamp’s part. They’ll also send you emails about releases you might like, but again, not if they’re free.
Rarely, however, can you get by on Bandcamp and Soundcloud alone. The artists and labels of the first layer also tend to maintain a presence on any number of other sites, namely Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, YouTube, and/or LastFM. You often get a little list of links to these on the Bandcamp or Soundcloud pages, and further links may or may not be found between any of the sites. Since you never quite know how announcements of new releases are going to trickle out, the only thing for it is to follow the artists and labels on all of them. Facebook in particular is coming into its own as a primary networking zone for first-layer artists and labels and their listeners. When ‘liking’ them, you can choose to see their updates in your feed, ‘add them to interest lists’ and even ‘get notifications’. And not just first-layer—more and more of everything is happening on Facebook; it’s beginning to rival RSS feeds and Twitter for keeping up to date with cultural life.
You can most often find a first-layer artist or band to follow through a second-layer post such as on an mp3 blog or Tumblr. After this there are a number of ways of finding further artists. Clicking on Bandcamp or Soundcloud genre or location tags can sometimes work, but tag searches put the most popular tracks and releases on the site at the top of the list, and often this stuff is pretty conventional or subcultural, so it can take some digging down the list before interesting things crop up. It’s also problematic because intriguing emerging artists rarely like to genre-fy themselves specifically in tags, and on Soundcloud, putting something artily sarcastic or just plain weird in the genre box is something of a tradition. One of the better methods is looking at how artists and labels relate to each other, for example, seeing what else is on their labels, seeing who they’re talking to or liking on Facebook, Soundcloud, Tumblr, and Twitter. The more interesting first-layer artists are rarely completely isolated from like-minded artists, labels, and second-layer sources on social media for long, and tracing their networks can give you a great sense of what’s going on. Also, first-layer netlabels love to put out free or inexpensive compilations of tracks by their artists and their friends, so watch out for those.
And while listening to new artists, try not to simply look for music that’s ‘good’, because if you do you’ll only register the ‘good’ music of today and yesterday rather than learn the ‘good’ music of tomorrow. The whole idea is that new artists will teach you ways of listening and appreciating a unique control of musical possibilities (i.e. their ‘goodness’) that was unimaginable to you before you encountered them. So perhaps the first priority is to find something strange or surprising, something you don’t quite understand—most of all, something unforgettable. This is how I’ve found some of the artists I came to cherish the most—people like John Maus, E+E, and RAP/RAP/RAP (now called END 1, by the way), who left me almost entirely non-plussed and even a little frustrated at first.
One of the key points to remember about first-layer musicians is that they’re likely to put their very earliest, most embryonic work online—a much greater proportion of their development phase is on show. Artists signed to traditional record labels have either already hit their stride or will do soon, but I’ve seen so many Bandcamp artists who’ve released several albums or EPs before they’re really sounding great and unique. This means it’s less appropriate to write off an online first-layer artist after just one or two albums. Try again in six months, and they’re likely to be surer on their feet.
Most of the time, first-layer musicians are regular people—no longer are you alienated from them by big music-industrial structures—and they really appreciate the attention their music gets. They’re putting themselves out there, and if they’re met with mostly silence and indifference, they can get discouraged, take down their tracks and throw in the towel. Anything you can do to reward their efforts and encourage them to keep going, you should consider doing. If Bandcamp releases are marked “Name your price” and have no minimum fee, chuck in a few dollars or whatever you can afford—the benefits to the artist are psychological as well as financial. On Soundcloud, write a comment. If you really liked something, email or message the artist to tell them about it and thank them. These reciprocations bind together the underground socially and give musicians the confidence they need and deserve to keep releasing material that’s better and more inventive. In the same way, sharing and spreading the word is what drives the underground. Don’t just be a passive consumer, be an active member of the community—share, retweet, reblog anything you like or that’s plain weird, as this reinforcement drives the growth and evolution of the music.
A particular focus of anxiety about the new forms of music distribution is how good listening practice is possible in the face of the online and computerized world. The worry goes that there’s too much stuff out there, it’s too easily accessible, and your choice and attention is stretched past breaking point, leaving you floundering in a meaningless chaos of ones and zeroes. It’s mostly unfounded, I think. My feeling is that underground music, especially at the controlled second layer, is actually not that much of a bigger field in terms of artists, articles, and sheer information than it was in the decades before everything went online. Some are thrown off by the greater ease with which they can hear and possess something than they could before—if you weren’t born into it, it might take some getting used to.
Alongside this is the common complaint that not buying something physically and/or waiting for it to arrive significantly removes meaning from listening to a release. Before things became quicker and more casual online, buying a CD or a record was a bit more like a marriage, sometimes one arranged by a review in a magazine—it was a serious and expensive commitment and you had an investment in making the relationship work. Today you’re a lot less wedded to what you find, even if you download and/or buy an album. Buying an album for a few dollars (or getting a free one) and putting it on an mp3 player is not a watershed moment of great commitment, and the first listen is not the wedding night but one small step along a continuum of getting to know and like something. Broadband music-hunting permits a wider search, but it doesn’t mean that the value of the findings are ultimately diluted.
But if you are going to download several albums a week or more—and there’s certainly nothing shameful about promiscuity like that—it’s probably a good idea to keep track of what you’ve listened to and what you thought. A list of everything you’ve downloaded can be checked off one by one as you listen, and then it also serves as a handy reminder of what you’ve been hearing recently and what might deserve another go. On some mp3 players you can create ‘smart playlists’ that list everything with a play count of 0, which is a good way of assembling everything you haven’t listened to yet.
Following new underground music, even at the deepest levels, is not a difficult or mysterious process, nor should it be left to other people. Ultimately, it’s not just a passive process of witnessing the present and the future of music as it unfolds, but one you play a part in and create yourself. It’s your culture.~
You can read the first volume of Pattern Recognition here.
Published June 13, 2013. Words by Adam Harper.