Dance culture plays havoc with notions of exclusivity. You shouldn't search
for "underground"ness in small labels, as they can turn up and
be played at the most un-underground places ever. Also the size of the label
is entirely independent from the quality of the music. Neither does undergroundness
depend on genre as even outrÇ stuff like gabba and weird "intelligent"
stuff has large commercial followings. The problem is partly that dance
already is deeply different to all other previous Western music, and there's
been a massive response to it from people who wouldn't have any interest
in earlier types of "experimental" stuff. These are people who
only used to listen to pop, but who now, due to that different something
about dance, gladly explore intensely original areas of sonic exploration.
The main problem appears to be that there is no type of dance music that
is in itself "radical", because no matter how extreme the music,
there will be plenty of labels churning it out, and large commercial raves
playing it. Talking about any genre of dance as being inherently politically
"radical" or "reactionary" doesn't really mean much,
therefore (Alien Underground please note). The government is happily clamping
down on illegal house, trance, acid, and gabba parties without sitting down
to work out which ones are most "radical" first (Dead By Dawn
please note). Furthermore, just because a party organisation is small doesn't
always mean that people aren't in it for money and ego reasons (oh come
on isn't that obvious?). So smallness per se isn't quite where it's automatically
But we feel that it is possible to make a useful definition of "underground",
without getting too lost in the mazes of the subjectivity/objectivity antinomian
As an experiment, treat "underground" and "mainstream"
as concepts, and assume that they can be found anywhere. "Underground"
is to do with high quality work, the sort of stuff you find under the heading
"specialist". You've got your standard MOT garages, but also specialist
rare and unusual collector's car workshops, which are inevitably tiny little
operations. The underground must have character, unexpected twists and turns,
in order to work. These twists and turns tend to get ironed out when dealing
with large record companies (or with the separate concept of "the mainstream")
as they are risky and must therefore be compromised.
"Mainstream" is a separate concept because there are always any
number of small labels and acts trying to compete with larger ones. Although
they're small labels they're mainstream in character. It's obvious to pretty
much everybody that when people get access to the means of production they're
more likely to turn out low quality crap than anything of much interest.
This can be seen with the regrettably common phenomenon of small labels
bringing out dull music that's designed to be picked up on my larger companies.
Or just bringing out music that isn't bad, but not really as well- developed,
as well-produced, as big label stuff. It's chancers who've blagged a bit
of money/studio time and want to make "A Record". The problem
is, at the moment there's quite a bit of high quality music coming out on
larger labels, and this is leaving those who slag things off just for being
"commercial" without much intellectual clout.
To paraphrase Drexciya, people don't stop to check what company has produced
the vinyl being presently spun, and then stop dancing if it's on a major
label. There's this bad, unhelpful myth going round that somehow if something's
on a big label then the largeness of the label in itself somehow makes the
music sound bad. The reason the myth is unhelpful is because it's making
people look in the wrong places for their concept of "underground"ness.
In fact, most small labels are turning out similar stuff to the majors,
just not as well done.
"Mainstream" isn't anything to do with size, it's where people
copy genres first, and think second - this can happen on the smallest labels.
Mainstream is where people don't put enough of their inner selves into the
music. Mainstream is where people try to be merely cool, and perhaps coolness
is a shortcut to looking experienced through trickery, through manipulation
of surface grammar. This is why trendy, cool records, far from being the
best music, always date most quickly, and have the highest "what the
hell did I see in that?" factor a couple of years after their release.
"Quality" is subjective, but if people have stimulated their neurons
often enough they will tend to want more complex music (though complexity
here means complexity of allusion and nuance, psychological complexity,
rather than notes-per-square-centimetre).
Mass-produced music (and remember it can be mass produced sounding even
if it's on a small label) has got filled in bits, smooth surfaces, where
you might expect to find roughness or grain, or an extra piece of well-carved
decoration. Instead of carefully crafted joins, it's got plastic mould marks.
But lots of people feel more in touch with more "handmade" feeling
stuff. An amusing example of this was the 80s phenomenon of peasant food
(sundried tomatoes, hand pressed olive oil, exotic bread, etc) being sold
at seriously elevated prices to people who wanted simple but subtle, and
distinctly non mass produced food. It's very interesting to note that food
produced with no chemicals in costs loads more. The cheaper food gets, the
greater the list of ingredients, the longer the list of chemical additives
in it. And it's like that with music. The tackier the music, the greater
the amount of substitute, artificial musicality in there. Although here,
the "preservatives" have the opposite effect, and in fact kill
the music off quickly instead of making it last longer.
What's really underground is that which is startlingly intense in character,
and not produced primarily to impress friends or to be surface-grammar cool.
The twist is that this sort of stuff will tend to be found either on small,
unusual, single-minded labels (like Trans'Pact), or will in fact turn up
on depressingly untrendy large labels. It's in large labels' interest to
produce trendy music and this will on occasion result in high quality music
being pushed, probably more by accident than design. Also as more people
hear high quality tunes, demand will eventually gradually grow for big labels
to put out good stuff, or else face annihiliation in a trendy market.
Everyone is sold on the idea of exclusivity, defined either as mainstream
fashion coolness or "underground" leftfield strangeness. But "everyone"
and exclusivity don't go together very easily. Any cultural material made
in any large numbers is automatically slagged off something rotten by anarcho-intellectuals,
but alas, there are a lot of people out there and devolving things into
small communities would prevent access to useful technologies and knowledge
(medicines, e.g.) that are better off shared. The access would be blocked
because once anything is made large-scale, it's somehow viewed as automatically
sinister and to be avoided, and one wonders how much supposed anarchism
is really just plain old elitism in disguise?
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