What Does It Mean To Be ‘Underground’ In 2019? 🤔

Words: Jesse Bernard

Nearly a decade ago, on a bleak winter night at Hull University’s student union, a particular ACS event took place, which saw various societies in universities across the UK venture up North to the East Riding of Yorkshire. The event itself, Roadblock, was the type of rave that gave the black population of universities the opportunity to taste what was considered to be a special affair. On this particular night, Roadblock had invited Skepta and Giggs to perform back to back.

Individually, both artists have reached immense heights in their careers, now rubbing shoulders with music’s most popular artists. At the time, however, Giggs was still very much an underground road rapper, while Skepta was building his own profile separate from his Boy Better Know cohorts. Walk In Da Park had been released a year prior, which would later go on to shift UK rap due to Giggs’ innovative, ominously infectious sound. He already had a hood anthem banging in every house party and rave in the form of his breakout hit “Talkin’ Da Hardest”. Skepta, on the other hand, released Microphone Champion, a follow-up to 2007’s Greatest Hits. The pair linked up to record “Look Out”, a street anthem that appeared on Microphone Champion, and even back then their star potential was evident.

What made this moment special and memorable a decade later wasn’t the fact that they would become stars; at the time, few anticipated that both would be nominated for the Mercury Prize, with Skepta going on to win one in 2016 for Konnichiwa, and Alexandra Palace and Brixton Academy are far from the student unions with sticky floors. But what is clear was the artist development required in order to transcend the underground.

To be precise, the underground isn’t always synonymous with being an up-and-coming artist or musician. Historically, for an artist and music to be ‘underground’, it’s not considered to be legally commercialised while existing beyond the reach of the mainstream. Take Jorja Smith, for example: she found herself tasting stardom a year following the release of her first single, “Blue Lights”, in early 2016. Her style was very much modern R&B and, compared to her predecessors, Smith managed to breakthrough with much ease. Octavian, who sees Skepta as an influence, experienced a similar scenario: it wasn’t long after the release of his first single, “Party Here”, that he found himself signed to Black Butter in 2017, releasing his debut project the following year. There wasn’t much room for him to build a base in the underground, however the shift in the music economy meant that Octavian was able to find his audience with relative ease; largely hypebeasts who have bought into hypervisible brand culture.

Not only does brand involvement at the grassroots level create a lottery-like system regarding who gets to be booked for a gig, but with booking agents now observing social media metrics to determine an artist’s level of buzz, those without an active presence online can find themselves at a disadvantage. On the other hand, brands have had to fill a hole that government cuts in the arts in recent years has left. That’s not to say the underground doesn’t exist—far from it, in fact. Since media became fragmented and increasingly digital, the underground in the modern landscape relies on digital platforms such as GRM Daily and Link Up TV. However, the gap between those platforms and the luxury of finding yourself with a booking agent is far and wide.

At the height of their popularity, Channel U and SBTV provided artists with the visibility and niche audience, while allowing them to maintain a presence in the underground scene. Many of the most memorable moments such as SLK and Mr. Wong videos, and infamous yet cult classic F64’s like Terminator’s read like a who’s who of yesterday’s underground scene. Then there were the club nights such as Bump, YoYo! and Pitched Up, which are now nostalgic memories from a time where the exclusivity that exists with Boiler Room events was nonexistent. Many of those artists are no longer around but they represent a time where play counts, likes and followers were nonexistent barometers of success.

The existence of brands such as Red Bull Music Academy remarkably struck a fine balance where the platform was committed to the cultivation of underground music. Artists such as Little Simz have benefitted from the existence of Red Bull, which provided a space for her to record and launch her debut album, A Curious Tale of Trials + Person. Even with the brand’s backing, Simz was still on the fringes of mainstream culture. RBMA’s co-founder, Many Ameri, told The Guardian in 2017, “Red Bull is not in the world of music to make money off music. We are entering this with no need to make everything work financially—we can focus on presenting things that are interesting and use that freedom.” While that’s true, more recent platforms such as COLORS and NTS have had to rely on brand partnerships in order to survive, with the former changing direction from showcasing rising artists such as Kadiata and Jay Prince to the likes of more recent guests Skepta and ScHoolboy Q.

This shift has had a significant impact on artist development, with venues becoming increasingly difficult to book in cities such as London—only a small minority ever really get the opportunity to build and hone their skills in a live setting. But there is still a geographical imbalance with the UK music economy heavily centralised to London, meaning that in regions such as the North and South West, the underground is very much alive and kicking.

Elsewhere in the world, particularly in non-Anglophone countries, the underground is a much more sustainable environment to make a living. AfroJazz, a local jazz group based in Rio de Janeiro who have previously been showcased by Jazz Refreshed (one of the last remaining bastions of underground music), prefer to exist in Brazil’s underground where nightlife and live music is fundamental—largely because the country relies so much on tourism. “We want to be able to see, feel and hear our audience. There are 200 million people living in Brazil and maybe 20% are interested in a culture so 40 million people are our market,” said the band’s leader Eduardo. In a country where samba and baile funk reign supreme, Brasil Grime Show—an online platform not too dissimilar to platforms such as NTS and Boiler Room—find themselves with a humble 3,000 subscribers. It will take years for the grime scene there to blossom and bloom, but it’s a risk the MCs are willing to take.

The independent music economy has shifted significantly in the past decade, with many artists and consumers leaning towards festival-based music. In the eyes of the consumer, it’s much more economically viable to attend a number of festivals as opposed to paying to see individual artists. However, according to Eventbrite’s 2018 Event Industry Pulse Report, festivals and cultural events worth £1.1 billion and music events worth £1.3 billion within the wider British events sector. Additionally, British music events were attended by a staggering 27.7 million people in 2015. With 15% of UK festival-goers spending over £250 while at the event, further suggesting that the future of live music is in outdoor festivals.

Consumers are buying less music in the wake of the rise of streaming platforms, which has forced artists to become increasingly self-funded and seek other revenue streams such as brand partnerships. The signs weren’t as clear even when digital downloads became popular in the early 2000s, but it now means that advertising spend is now shaping the world of music. That’s not to say brands are responsible and guilty of changing the music landscape—much of that is due to consumer trends shifting from downloads to streaming, a trend that was thrust upon consumers that we had no choice but to buy into.

A decade on since that night at Roadblock in Hull, those types of music nights are few and far between. They may not have had the backing of major brands and had to rely heavily on word of mouth and ticket sales, but those events and raves represented a time where the environment was very much DIY. The future of live music in respect to underground music remains murky, but for the time being, brands appear to be a necessary plaster over a gaping wound.

Posted on July 08, 2019