Is electronic music still underground? | Features | MN2S

Being ‘underground’ has been a large part of electronic music history and culture, but with the genre’s rise in popularity, is it really correct to use this term?

Last week, Magneticmag ran an article called ‘The Underground Myth: Why This Term No Longer Applies To Electronic Music Culture’. Writer David Ireland argued that electronic music’s commercial success in the “last five or six years” means it can no longer be deemed ‘underground’ in the way it once was. Is he right?

Original underground music

There is no doubt to the accuracy of the term ‘underground’ when discussing electronic music culture in its early years. As our recent interviews with Screamin’ Rachael Cain and our pieces on the history of techno and the history of acid house show, much of electronic music culture took place absolutely underground.

Often spearheaded by oppressed minorities such as the black and LGBT communities, electronic music took place away from the mainstream, in venues most people would never visit, and with sounds most people would never hear or understand.

It makes sense to call this music underground because that’s exactly what it was. Illegal raves and club nights had to be underground or the police would shut them down. Yes there were a few breakthrough house hits, but by and large electronic music remained in the clubs.

Electronic music goes mainstream

Despite its underground beginnings, there is no doubt that electronic music has permeated the mainstream in a way many thought impossible. Trax Records founder Screamin’ Rachael herself told us of her struggle to be taken seriously as a musician because many of her peers did not consider house music to be ‘real music’, but she has witnessed a huge turnaround in this attitude.

Now, all music is about dance. Turn on the radio, and you will hear countless chart hits that are undeniably influenced, at least in part, by electronic music composition and trends. Justin Bieber, the archetypal mainstream child star, has enlisted electronic cool kid Skrillex for some of his most popular hit tracks. Chicago native Kanye West sampled fellow Chicagoan Larry Heard for the recent track ‘Fade’.

Several of the biggest artists of the moment, in fact, are DJ-producers. Calvin Harris, David Guetta, Avicii, deadmau5, Diplo. These artists are selling out arenas with their brand of electronic dance music. But that’s where the problem comes in. Because as these artists, whose music is undeniably based on electronica, are referred to as EDM artists. And especially in recent years, the term EDM has become somewhat of a dirty word in the ‘real’ electronic music community.

Going back underground

To differentiate house music that continues in the vein of house, techno and rave’s original pioneers, rather than bends to the whims of public fancy, electronic fans have taken to using the term ‘underground’ to define themselves once again.

But is this still accurate?

A lot of the time it is not. Naming no names, certain ‘Top 10 Underground DJ’ lists on the internet can be found to include anyone from Carl Cox to Little Louie Vega, and even artists like DJ Spen, Joey Negro and Paul Oakenfold. Sure, you wouldn’t mistake their music for the new Calvin Harris single, but with fan bases the size of small countries, these DJs are by no means ‘underground’ in the original sense of the word.

The truth is, it is hard to call anyone underground in the modern music landscape. With the internet and increasingly specifically-themed club nights, there is ample opportunity for any artist to build a loyal following no matter what kind of electronic music they produce.

They may not be climbing the mainstream charts, and they more often than not will be putting out music on their own independent record labels, but these artists are still pulling huge loyal audiences at clubs and festivals around the world. If that falls under your definition of underground, then yes, electronic music is still underground.

There is, perhaps, another way of looking at this whole thing. This is a quote attributed to Frank Zappa: “The mainstream comes to you. But you have to go to the underground.” For many electronic music fans, this will ring true. Yes, Joey Negro or Louie Vega might have millions of fans around the globe, but to hear their music, you have to seek it out. You have to make the decision to be a fan. You won’t hear it in the background unless you know where to find it. That, for many, makes electronic music still underground.

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