by Todd Urick
As a former DJ on a freeform college radio station mid-90s - 00s, and collector of records and junk, there is a litany of “old-guy” gripes I have about the modern age. As a Gen X’er, I had lived at the tail-end of an age of mystery/discover not yet corrupted by online shopping, Yelp, Google street maps, or Top 10 Best lists -- you know, weird record-hoarder basements, old run down chinese restaurants, electronics stores, filthy thrift outlets, vendors left over from the 50s in seedy parts of town, businesses with worn neon and Signtronix plastic signs -- the analog world. I can tromp through a hackneyed homage to classic vinyl and film here, but I digress. What I lament is the loss of culture -- the sentimental memories we collectively or vicariously share that were a product individual passions/art that steeped to become trends in mainstream culture. Within eulogizing yesteryear, it is understood the latter half of the twentieth century’s cultural gems were a corporate product: Atari video games, CHiPs, Michael Jackson Thriller, the Pepsi Generation, and malls were the full extent of conglomerate fabrication and marketing. But late-stage capitalism of present-day is stripped-down consumption: People buying pre-faded Rolling Stones-graphic sweatshop-made T-shirts and jeans off pallets in a warehouse-dacored Walmart. McDonald’s is a stucco box with Ikea-like furniture. Even the old parts of town are re-facaded to look like a Disneyland rendering of downtown, complete with fake old street lights and faux brick crosswalks. Everything has reached peak cliche and homogenization. This is true when it comes to mainstream music.
Record labels and radio DJs used to have a knack promoting artists that had unique sounds or made catchy songs. Somewhere along the way that disappeared in the mainstream, with the last hurrah of creativity being “alternative” music. After alternative became co-opted, the mainstream just went its own direction concocting attractive-looking people singing over computer music.
In the late 90’s/00’s we began to see segregation of subgenre music listening. A person might not fancy breakbeat, pop-punk, or electro-industrial but would be into something closely associated like IDM, bubblegum punk, or power noise. Then somewhere along the last decade, the broad music anchor of “college rock” divaricated into 100 scenes (indie pop, indie rock, boogie funk revival, soul reissues then revival, vaporwave, any of thirty 80s retro-recreated subgenres, etc). There is probably a niche scene somewhere of bands re-creating the 90s Amphetamine Reptile Records sound -- 80% of those bands are probably generic, 15% pinning the sound perfectly, and 5% that are probably amazing -- but we would never know. Do I have time to sort through that 95% to get to that 5%? There is no central forum for the best stuff from multiple niches to percolate to the surface. CMJ doesn’t even publish a chart anymore. Most artists may not even send CDs or records to college stations anymore, so the metric is outdated. For people that are not sub-niche anoraks, the entry point for a normal music listener getting into new independent music becomes exceedingly difficult without being friends with a DJ, being immersed within a scene already, or encountering something by mistake.
I often ask friends of mine, who are record collectors “where to you hear about new music?” I get this hodge podge of answers like “blogs”, “this one podcast I listen to”, “I just hear about stuff”, “ah WFMU?”, “Spotify discovery”, “from other people”, “whatever comes out on XXX record label”, or “from the records I sort through”. If I can’t get definitive answers from people who collect records, what do normal people do? I suspect normal people discover new music in college, and follow the same genre or artists for the rest of their life.
It is great deal of work to follow what is “good” across the multiple subgenres. Many radio shows or blogs specialize in their niches. To find “the best” of each you have to either follow several discrete sources, sifting through the marginal material, and try listening to streaming, or college radio stations, where it is difficult to track what the DJ is playing due to poor back-wrap skills. Or even following something general like Pitchfork provides an exceedingly watered-down view of what is “good.”
And that’s the problem right there. The best of underground music is suffering because there are few critical mass nexus points for artist exposure created by people who really know music to precipitate to a wider audience. Because of that, the music industry instead invents someone like Cardi B, hires a streaming farm to inflate listening numbers, and barters with commercial radio to turn them into a star.
While there are countless meritable music bloggers and small streaming stations, a lot of these sites are followed by people already into a music scene. These sources are eclipsed by larger pervasive, money-backed streaming sites.
Admittedly, the bulk of music comprising any underground sub-genre is not the pinnacle of music that is out there; the best music is scattered across many genres. What we need are more general entry point music services amassing the best of what is new across many subgenres -- the one-song nuggets scattered here and there through the ages that never reach wide reception -- from a crack team of underground tastemakers. The critical leaping point -- what is different than how underground music is consumed via current venues -- is retooling the forum to resonate with how listeners consume media nowadays, reaching out to regular people.