There’s always been a huge divide between the music underground and the mainstream, but thanks to the horrendous state of the music industry and the advent of myspace, that line is becoming increasingly blurred. For underground bands, the best case scenario is to graduate from the showhouses and independent art spaces to the legitimate stages and crowds, but if it happens too quickly, it can lead to self-destruction. I feel like this is something that happens in cycles.
Let’s first look back at the 90s. I feel like that’s the last time that the state of music was in the position that it is now. Coming out of the 80s, an underground was just developing that included bands like Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers and the like that pretty much ended with Nirvana. All these bands were wholly responsible for creating their own scene and their own crowd, and in all of their cases they ended up in the mainstream in one way or another. For these bands and many others like them, the increase in fame brought about either a break up or a decrease in the quality of their music, in some cases both.
Even No Doubt were around for ten years before they hit the mainstream and they started out touring with empty show after empty show. I’m not particularly interested in the music that they’ve made, but to me it seems like it became more pop-oriented the more popular they got.
Fugazi was probably the best example, though, of a hard working band that cultivated a scene out of their house in D.C. and turned it into a national audience. They’re still around and making better music than any of the previously-mentioned artists and I feel like their crowd is much more dedicated to them. The same can be said of Sonic Youth.
Skip to today, and now we’re seeing the music industry in shambles, causing more and more bands to start cultivating scenes on their own without even trying to get help from labels, producers and the hype machine. For the most part I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of the people doing this right now aren’t the same teenagers from the early 90s that ended up being the consumers who bought the underground when it came to the mainstream.
Now, I live in a house that, for the past couple years, has been throwing shows that have been very well-received both crowd- and press-wise in Philadelphia. The house is called Danger! Danger! We’re currently not throwing shows due to an article that was published that included details of underage drinking and fire code violations. That aside, however, we’ve had a lot of good artists come through, some of which have started to creep into the mainstream. Dan Deacon is probably the best example of that, as he’s played at our house twice and has hit other similar venues around our city when he comes through, and just last week he had a big picture on the New York Times website. In a couple of months he’ll be playing at the Pitchfork Music Festival.
I’m also in a band called Red Rocket and we have toured around the U.S. (southern, eastern and midwestern, hopefully the West Coast this fall) and a bit in Canada. We always end up playing a wide array of venues, from clubs to houses, and the independent spaces are usually the better shows. That’s not to say that all independent spaces are necessarily great, though. We’ve definitely had our fair share of empty shows at places that seemed like they’d be cool. So far I’d say we’ve consistently had the best shows in Chicago.
In both situations we encounter bands that have no backing, they’re just out there doing everything themselves, and bands that have some sort of support behind them. There’s definitely a difference in attitude between the two factions. The bands with publicists and labels seem to get the same shows, but expect more. This isn’t always the case, it’s just more common. I’ve seen bands that draw no one demand all the money at a show they cleared out, and I’ve also seen bands draw a ton of people and not ask for a dime.
So what’s my whole point of all this? Well, I think that at this point in time there are a lot of bands out there that are rising to the top of the underground with and without the help of the industry, and some of them are starting to work their way onto the surface. For all of these bands, there’s a risk that they’ll end up blowing up too quickly and they won’t last. The ones with the best chance at survival will most likely break into the mainstream bit by bit, possibly achieving a steady following well into their career.