Notes from above – The Brooklyn Rail

The music comes from the basement. Running away from any form of rigor for the moment is something we have always known, deep within us. Tens of thousands of years (or more) ago, someone sang something, or beat a rhythm, or blew a column of air through a branch or a hollow bone. Someone else liked it and started doing the same thing, or maybe something a little different that matched. And so the music began, with improvisation and social activity, and the music released by others who listened to it and joined it, thus beginning the unbroken oral musical tradition (and whenever a child chooses a melody he has heard on the piano or on the guitar, oral music the tradition continues).


But here in the 21st century, we have to have some kind of documented proof of this thing that we already know and have known. Nothing is real if there is no quote. It infected the culture as a whole, seeping into academia – all those historians who refused to believe that Thomas Jefferson fathered children with Sally Hemings because it was just a “story” black people were telling to their families – and in social media, where users obnoxiously demand citations for facts they find objectionable to their worldview (there is a whole subgenre of Twitter feeds where User A states a fact, answer person B condescendingly replies “quote?!?”, and user A points out that it is their own work that is a standard of research). So, for proof, get yourself a copy of Ted Gioia Music: a subversive historyin which he shows how, again and again, changes and advances in music from prehistory to today have always come out of the underground, subverting the status quo, and then becoming the new status quo that will inevitably be subverted by something something new.


Underground music, fringe music, is vital to the health and longevity of future music. It almost exactly follows the rhythms of human life, one generation giving birth and raising the generation that follows and will replace its parents, again and again and again. Parents are the status quo, children are the vanguard which then becomes, through propagation and longevity, the new status quo – thirty years ago, free improvisation was a niche in American music, and now it’s a genre in its own right. There are metaphorical musical parents and children – that is what influence is fundamentally – and beyond that there is the larger metaphorical movement of peoples and cultures, of a set of ideas and of values ​​mixing with one another, and creating new conglomerates and hybrids. Examples of this include the guitar’s origins in Middle Eastern string instruments, the blend of blues, French, Spanish, and Afro-Cuban music in New Orleans that coalesced to make jazz, and heavy metal that has spread around the world and fueled bands 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 failure in both process and construction; it should occupy the same space vis-à-vis mainstream music (pop, jazz, hip hop, classical, etc.) that horror grants to the world of MFA-based literature and filmed narrative drama – a place of innovation and synthesis. Where is he is trickier, but it’s always been in private spaces where musicians experiment and craft things, alone or in groups, and then bring them to some sort of public performance or recording platform. But all of that stuff is underground, and therefore subversive and useful, as long as it’s underground, sub rosa, something you might hear about but not immediately hear, something that’s hard to find.

With an all-encompassing World Wide Web, where is there any space underground? With the digitization of music and the first two iterations of the web, the underground was both real and everywhere, or at least easily accessible from anywhere, provided you searched. There were music blogs and Tumblr sites where people posted all kinds of niche music, old and new. There were net-based digital music labels that gave away everything 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, that’s i.e. they would sell thirty or fifty downloads then remove the album from the internet. It was not an attempt to create an artificial scarcity – impossible with digital media – but that this music was so truly niche, underground, meant a community of listeners so small that it was the human equivalent of the movement of tiny music (itself a metro) that there was no need to maintain the administrative effort to make it available and accessible in perpetuity (digital).

By nature, this stuff was small-scale and would only be heard by an infinitesimal percentage of the world’s population. But it would be a group of listeners and other committed musicians, the kind who follow the Anti-Gravity Bunny podcast, follow links from one blog or label to another and to another. And learn! It was the first promise and the strength of the web, that the underground would no longer be confined by place (what is happening in Utica? What is happening in Brno? In Bangassou?) but it would be still underground, would still have the freedom and power to subvert the status quo, to come up with an idea you didn’t know existed. Not that it was easy to both have a web presence and stay underground, but it was possible.

Now the overground has overwhelmed the underground with the supposed innovations of Web 3.0, which of course is all about 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 to some sort of digital asset that, having no value other than what users think it has, disappears faster than Peter Pan when everyone stops applauding. The underground, underground trade now advertises on TV, radio, and through sporting events, and Mayor Adams, the least underground human on the planet, took part of his salary in cryptocurrency. Underground music sites weren’t bought out, they disappeared, buried under illusory credits and transfers.

There are remnants, many of them based on the Internet Archive, which hosts both niche netlabels and podcasts about them. The Archive, however, is under constant threat from copyright holders. Soundcloud is still around, but it’s become heavily monetized, and one place where it was always hard to find consistent random stuff is now finding customers. There are still low-key but dedicated sites like The Heat Warps, which published incredible live concert bootlegs of Miles Davis’ 1970s electric bands, but that’s a rarity.

The strangeness, the subversity seem to have disappeared. Even Bandcamp, although I like it as a place to find great music (and yes, as a place that makes my independent contributions to the Daily Bandcamp), removed much of the weirdness. There’s a lot of experimental and amateur music (in a good way) on the site, but bringing so many artists together under one roof has taken space away from the chamber labels that used to be on the web. There’s also a by-product that Bandcamp, and any other big centralized place for music, like a conservatory town, produces is that the people who make music there eventually gravitate towards a consensus, the outliers disappear, and everything, no matter how good the quality, size to crowd safety. Once something experimental or underground becomes a scene, it’s no longer experimental or underground, and not only do we now have a proliferation of scenes, but everything seems above ground, jockeying for attention Warning. The crackpots are out there somewhere doing their thing. Maybe we have to wait for the rest of the world to crumble before we can see and hear them again.

Comments are closed.