The modern music scene is incredibly diverse and contains art made by people with different musical leanings and backgrounds. If you are a music enthusiast, or someone that is part of the music scene, you may have heard the term “underground music” at some point.
Today we will be examining “what is underground music”, and the differences between underground and indie music.
What is Underground Music?
The term “underground music” may have different definitions depending on who you ask. Some people believe that the term refers to any music that isn’t popular on music charts. Others believe it is music that is designed to go against the grain, or serves as a “counter-culture” to popular music.
Is Underground Music the Same as Indie Music?
Many people would consider underground music to be the same as indie music. This is because underground and indie artists are usually signed to independent music labels, or release music themselves.
Others would prefer to make a distinction between indie and underground music. This is because many “indie” artists are just up-and-coming artists who hope to gain mainstream popularity at some point. In this context, an “underground” artist is someone who maintains a specific type of “unfriendly” sound, and is satisfied with having a small cult following of listeners.
The History of Underground Music
Underground music has existed independently in different countries around the globe. Therefore it is difficult to come up with a shared history that describes the origins of underground music as a whole. For the sake of simplicity, our examination of underground music’s origins will be confined to North America and the UK.
So where did underground music come from, and who were prominent artists in the early underground music scene? Many would say that “underground music” in North America originated in the 1960s.
This was the era where many artists with a non-mainstream sound developed cult followings. This included artists who were part of the hippie-counterculture movements of the 1960s. Such artists were known to create music that covered socially taboo topics such as drugs, promiscuity, and opposition to war.
Some prominent “underground” acts from this era included The Velvet Underground, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, and Frank Zappa. Such artists may not have sold the most records, but their influence on future generations is undeniable.
So what made these artists stand out from the popular mainstream ones of their era? Well, many would say their backgrounds had something to do with it. A good chunk of the aforementioned artists were from wealthy or middle-class backgrounds, had dropped out of college, and began living carefree lives in hippie communes. They often spent some time freely floating from one place to the next, being guided only by their music.
Some underground artists primarily made a living through street busking, while others were eventually signed to independent music labels and began releasing music professionally. Many of them performed at small venues or participated in DIY “guerilla concerts”.
The British underground music scene is also believed to have developed in the 1960s. It was linked to the American hippie culture of the time, and drew inspiration from Beatnik era writers such as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Many artists from the UK underground scene were also inspired by experimental psychologist Timothy Leary and began taking psychedelic drugs to enhance their musical compositional abilities.
Early British underground bands included Hawkwind, The Soft Machine, T. Rex, and Pink Floyd. Many of these artists would later tour the United States and develop a global reputation.
British disc jockey John Peel was another key driver of underground music in the UK. Peel had been hired by the BBC to run a regular program on their Radio 1 station in the 1960s. The young disc jockey stood out from the others on the network due to his fondness for challenging-sounding music.
Peel often played music from art rock, noise rock, and punk bands from across the globe in his broadcasts. This meant anyone in the UK with a functioning radio could be exposed to then-unknown artists such as The Smiths, Joy Division, This Heat, and Cocteau Twins.
Peel’s music broadcasts played a pivotal role in shaping the music sensibilities of many young people in the UK. Many of these individuals would later go on to form their own bands and send their demo tapes to Peel. This included big name acts such as Pulp and The White Stripes.
Does Modern Underground Music Exist?
The music scene has become far more diverse in the modern era thanks to the advent of the internet. This has led to an explosion of small artists making novel sounding music, or music that serves in opposition to mainstream releases. However, this has also resulted in a form of “mainstreaming” of underground artists.
For example, if you wanted to discover underground artists in the 80s, you would need to visit record stores and ask the clerks about any notable underground acts they wished to recommend to listeners of a particular music genre. This created a form of exclusivity in which you would be familiar with a certain artist only if you sought them out.
The modern underground scene, if it even exists, operates a bit differently. You can find hundreds of “underground” artists from a single genre by simply visiting Bandcamp. This platform has helped independent artists flourish as they can share their music with the world without having to be signed to a label.
This means you could create music with a niche appeal and still get it out to the general public without worrying about finding a distributor or a label. This approach removes many of the barriers that held back underground artists of earlier generations.
Is There Any Value in Being a Modern Underground Artist?
If you are reading this article, there’s a good chance you were wondering if there is any value in being an underground artist in the modern era. The truth is that just about every up-and-coming artist wants to achieve mainstream success at some point. After all, creating music with a wide appeal is likely to get you more sales and establish your name on major music charts. However, this often comes at the expense of having to alter your sound to be more friendly to mainstream audiences.
The good news is that it is still possible to gain some level of fame in the digital era without sacrificing your sound. A bit of stumbling through Spotify reveals that there is no shortage of weird or eccentric sounding artists that manage to create a few hits that have garnered millions of views. Such examples should give confidence to artists who wish to make a livable wage while creating music that is true to them.
What is the Future of Underground Music?
No one really knows what the future of “underground” music will be. This outsider music may gain more mainstream acceptance due to exposure via the internet. Similarly, it wouldn’t be surprising if mainstream artists began incorporating elements of the underground sound in their own music.
The music landscape is constantly evolving in the digital era, so your favorite underground artist may surprise you by dropping a single that elevates them to the top of the music charts some day. For now, we can enjoy listening to them on our favorite streaming platforms or on physical formats.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.