Over the past few months, we have been sharing a new series of articles based on excerpts from our Production Analysis module, a part of our BA (Hons) Music Production & Sound Engineering Degree. Our journey thus far has taken us from the roots of dance, tracking movements like Disco and Dub, through Punk and DIY culture to the UK’s urban scene and sample culture. As we continue the series, we’ll be taking a look at more of the most pivotal cultural movements in music history, as well as their effect on the music industry as we know it today. This time, we examine Popular music and the transition from the underground to the mainstream, discussing how some acts have managed to maintain their credibility despite becoming commercially successful, as well as how underground styles can be adapted by the mainstream.
Obviously, most musicians aren’t opposed to becoming a mainstream hit, the allure of money and worldwide success can be incredible motivation for many. However, there are also many reasons why an artist would want to avoid becoming too commercial. One of the most fundamental reasons for independence is kicking back against the industry and retaining 100% of the artistic license. Being ‘mainstream’ implies that an artist or track has backing from a major record label perhaps, with tools like PR and distribution readily available. However, this is usually at the expense of a certain degree of artistic freedom and control. Being ‘underground’ traditionally means something has no such backing and therefore no exterior expectations to meet other than the artist’s own. There’s an implication that mainstream success makes money for a lot of peripheral people and interests and therefore loses integrity. Working independently keeps the idea of authenticity – there are no big budget individuals or companies behind the project. Artistically speaking, without the restrictions and expectations that might come along with big commercial success, underground artists might be freer to explore and experiment – the product won’t be tamed or tarnished by commercial restraints.
However, while it may be true that mainstream musicians have more resources readily available to them and are generally required to meet certain expectations imposed by their labels, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have to compromise their integrity. Bands like Radiohead, Portishead, Bjork or Massive Attack have all been signed to major labels whilst still retaining both their artistic integrity and their cult following. At the same time, being underground doesn’t necessarily mean an artist cannot enjoy success. Artists like Skepta or Little Simz have required solely on their underground followings to achieve great success, having released material on their own self-made labels without major backing. This is something that has become increasingly easy with the advent of internet platforms such as Soundcloud or Bandcamp and the power of marketing over social media.
One of the main reasons for championing an underground genre is the sense of individuality it can bring. People often identify with the music they listen to and usually what starts as an underground genre can blossom into a full-blown subculture, represented in fashion, music and art. In fact, almost all of the major musical movements from Rock’n’Roll, Reggae and Punk to Hip-Hop, Grime and Dance music began as underground genres. However over time, as the community following a sound grows, it is inevitable that the music will gain some perhaps unwanted attention. Discovering a new artist can be a very proud moment for many and keeping a new discovery secret can add real value to it for its first fans, value that people don’t want to jeopardise and understandably there can be a fear that the ‘wrong’ kind of people may start liking it or appropriating it. However, it is easy to forget that a lot of underground genres have been born out of appropriating mainstream music, music that millions of people may identify with, and if an underground track becomes a commercial success it just shows that its discoverers were right in liking it in the first place.
Often, musicians can achieve commercial success and retain their integrity by ‘genre-hopping’ over a period of time. Joy division, for example, started out as pioneers of the post-punk scene. After the self-release of their first EP they garnered the attention of Factory Records’ Tony Wilson, going on to release their debut album in 1979. The band’s popularity grew and after lead singer Ian Curtis’ death they morphed into the indubitably ‘commercial’ New Order, going on to record the biggest selling dance 12″ of all time: Blue Monday. Despite this commercial success and evolution of sound, the band still retained its die-hard following. Another good example is dance music producer Jonny
Another good example is dance music producer Jonny Lisners, or Jonny L. Jonny L first gained attention with his 1990 hardcore rave tune ‘Hurt You So’. Hurt You So became an underground hit and as the 90s progressed so did Jonny L’s musical direction. By the mid-90s he was producing minimal Drum and Bass and, after The Fabulous Baker Boys reworked ‘Hurt You So’ into a 2-Step/Speed Garage tune in 1997, Jonny L was prompted to once again change direction and start making 2-Step with fellow hardcore producer Andy Lysandrou under the moniker Truesteppers. Truesteppers went on to produce UK chart hit ‘Out Of Your Mind’ by Victoria Beckham and Dane Bowers, with the track being a great example of a relatively underground producer working with a pop star and still retaining his underground credibility.
A genre becoming mainstream is usually determined by a combination of factors including sales, chart positions and press coverage. To become a commercial success, artists should be prepared to sacrifice a degree of creative freedom in order to accommodate labels, as well as to make their music acceptable for television and radio. Being A-Listed on a major radio station or having a track featured in a commercial can seriously drive up exposure and can solidify your sound into the mainstream. Remember, it is possible to achieve great success as an underground artist and it may feel more rewarding, however, it takes a lot more work even if it is getting easier.
To really learn the way the industry works on a commercial level and to understand the more underground process of self-release and self-promotion, the music industry module on our BA (Hons) Music Production & Sound Engineering Degree covers all of this and more, setting you in good stead to tackle the fast-paced and innovative world of the music business. For a virtual tour of our facilities, click here. For further information on our degree course or any of our courses, contact our Course Advisors here.
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