Underground music in the U.K has had a pride of place for being one of the darkest, hardest and most innovative sounds out there, and it’s been bred out of a neccessity to build an alternative to the mainstream industry gatekeepers and create something no one else had the vision for.
Lets be straight, the British underground culture has spanned a number of decades as a powerhouse run by no illuminati but different groups of self-appointed innovators pushing through against the grain by injecting creativity into the music scene. The underground is credited with multiple genres to its name – Jungle, Acid-House, Trip-Hop, Asian Underground, Drum ‘n Bass, Garage, Dubstep and Grime. These innovators weren’t just some corner sub-cultures they were an industry in their own right with a hardcore energy that drove those scenes forward and inspired countless musicians and artists to enter the mainstream worldwide.
A critically acclaimed catalogue of artists who ‘broke’ the mainstream in the U.K didn’t just draw from one genre but threaded multiple British music genres together to build an even bigger sound. Transitioning to a bigger labels – Soul 2 Soul, The Prodigy, Goldie, Portishead, Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx, Roni Size Represent, Faithless, Leftfield, Dizzie Rascal, The Streets, Craig David, M.I.A and Ed Sheeran – took their roots out of the underground scene and into the mainstream with their credibility intact – while some others didn’t and ‘fell from grace’.
The difference back then from today, is that the independent artists coming out of the underground scenes before the millennium, didn’t rely on existing distribution platforms, they’d created their own parallel platforms, their own networks, their own labels, their own raves, their own dances, their own tours, their own audience and their own distribution channels. Dubplate to DJs to White Labels to Pirate Radio to Record Shops to Clubs, from the U.K to Ibiza, Ayia Napa and beyond – music could still be controlled and run by people within the underground scene and turn a profit – until it didn’t.
It goes back to the kinds of networks that built up from the underground house-parties and sound-systems of the 80’s, to the illegal raves of the 90’s that led to the superclub culture, and then into the niche club scene of the 00’s peaking in 2005 with 3,144 clubs across the UK compared to the 1,733 today. Even though the sound always emerged from the fringes and under the radar – in time it got taken up by the mainstream, only to dissipate until a new scene rose in its place.
In the past decade music has been in a state of transition, each time someone wants to ring the death toll on the U.K underground scene, it either keeps grafting on or transcends itself. Grime has survived over 10 years deep in the game, but the scene isn’t going back to the old ways, the underground is just operating in a different way and its still figuring itself out.
The emergence of a generation of so-called ‘DIY’ artists over the past decade has come out of the digital network age but for them it’s a different game altogether – true anyone can jump on their laptop, drop a tune on SoundCloud and push it out on Twitter, but to cut through, independent artists are now having to manage multiple platforms, networks, mediums and somehow create a cohesive identity.
Establishing a presence online and offline means navigating the internet, social media, live circuit, fashion scene and media but it all works better when its loosely jelled together in a constantly experimental way. Why? Because everything is still in a state of flux and the changing paradigms of each digital platform – from free to subscription, ad free to algorithmically personalised feeds like Facebook – affect what your fans see, when, how and if they see it.
Many artists today don’t trust that the record labels will let them survive let alone thrive – and taking back the ownership of their body of work and having complete control makes sense right now, but don’t get it twisted these days distribution is in the hands of another industry. The internet may look like it gives artists complete control over the end to end delivery of their music, but its another kind of illuminati in the making.
DIY artists may have the mental capacity to do it themselves, and they also have a feedback loop with their own crowd right now that keeps them ahead and completely in charge. Forget data and analytics – it’s all happening in real time – but for how long?
Right now its no longer just about the U.K underground its about the independent movement globally. Artists like the Social Experiment have also thrown out the old rulebook and are taking big bets. Music itself isn’t monetizable like it was before and so rather than battle against the tide, many artists are giving away their music for free, in exchange for their loyalty. Even certain pop stars are getting in on that cloud but building a network effect by breeding bigger audiences has to keep paying off bigger and better. Knowing where your audience is moving to and keeping up with their moves makes more sense now. Maybe you need to be following your fans too?
Form 696 in the U.K, might be blamed for singlehandedly leading to the closure of many underground club nights but maybe the fans just moved on. A recent article in Rolling Stone has noticed how festivals across the world are seeing a multiplier effect “YouTube, Spotify and social-media word of mouth has more than made up for the reeling record business’ inability to develop as many new artists as it did in the CD era”. Reading Festival 2015 was all about Grime and U.K rap and the crowds went wild for it – but did the underground come overground or had the audience just shape shifted?
The network effect of social media may have created a new wave of urgency and speed around content but real networks aren’t built around speed they’re built around the grind and getting the message and music out and connecting with fans in every way possible – and keeping them close.
Artists are growing and developing right in the gaze of their fans, making mistakes, striving through failures and successes much like any other living breathing start-up company. In reality its just as much of a business as it was in the days of the U.K underground but this time its globally networked and its moving faster and harder then its ever done before. Building your own database is the key to moving ahead of the wave. Having 1000’s of followers spread across different digital platforms in reality means that a few tech companies own your database – they’re not giving artists control over their database – because your audience is theirs to control.
Major labels may not be nurturing and investing in the startup cycle of an artist any longer but just because they’re not investing in you and taking that risk on as they did before – who is?
Associating with a tight local scene is breeding a different kind of homegrown network effect. Today the local music scenes in London, Toronto, Atlanta, Chicago and L.A are all bringing through a multi-disciplinary and highly disciplined focus to creating new music.
The mental capacity needed to survive, means grinding hard, building collaborations not just locally but globally. Nothing now is out of reach or out of the realms of possibility – the audacity to dream also requires the audacity to race ahead and access everything and everyone technology has to offer.
Technology is giving artists the ability to move to another distributor but are artists really doing distribution themselves – the real revolution would be in DDY – doing distribution yourself. If you keep thinking about your distribution, you might just be ready for the next wave of changes that will inevitably come again.