by Mike Vinti
The lines between the underground and mainstream music worlds have been blurring for a while now. As with the majority of issues facing the music industry these days, this is largely because of the internet. While it’s been an undeniably positive force on music itself, allowing fans and artists to connect more easily as well as opening whole new worlds of music to potential fans, it’s also made underground music more marketable.
This may not sound like a bad thing, and to a large extent it isn’t. While it would be great if musicians could live off credibility alone, in the ruthless world of capitalism in which we live, you need to be stacking that P if you want to survive. Where this increased marketability becomes less positive however is when corporations start getting involved.
companies have started to realise there’s an untapped well of potential customers: the underground music fan
This has been one of the major trends in the music industry over the past decade or so. Big brands and corporations have always attempted to court the legions of fans musicians can command through sponsorships or endorsements; since the dawn of the industry pop and promotion have gone hand in hand. However, what’s started to change is that where before only major pop artists would be deemed worthy of the corporate world’s attention, savvier companies have started to realise there’s an untapped well of potential customers: the underground music fan.
For years now, brands like Red Bull, Relentless and Converse have been working alongside highly credible musicians, involving them in ad campaigns, releasing exclusive music and putting on free shows. Surprisingly, they’ve gotten pretty good at it as well; Red Bull’s Music Academy is well ahead of the charts, and even the likes of Radio 1 in its promotion of emerging talent, Relentless have been working with the likes of grime producer Rude Kid, and – having attended a number of them at this point – I can personally attest that Converse know how to put on a show. The formula is pretty clear at this point: the brand earns a little more credibility in the eyes of the respective artists’ fans, the artist gets a decent sized cheque, and the fans are happy because thanks to the size of the companies involved, the vast majority of these partnerships are free, and who’s going to complain about seeing a free gig?
As it turns out, I am. While corporate involvement in the underground music world certainly has its benefits, I can’t help but shake off the nagging sense that something isn’t quite right. As other companies wake up to the success of the likes of Red Bull and co., they’re going to want in as well, and, as is becoming increasingly clear, this will start to impact the music and artists themselves. Take for example Mass Appeal, the online hip hop magazine and label which started as a fanzine in 1996. For years they’ve been running ‘Rhythm Roulette’, a series on their YouTube channel in which they invite hip hop producers to make a beat from three randomly selected records. It’s a highly popular series that showcased the talent of both well known and emerging producers – then Sprite got involved.
For a few months the channel stopped upload any Rhythm Roulette videos, leaving fans of the series puzzled. Then one day last year a new video appeared, titled ‘Rhythm Roulette Live From Sprite Corner.’ Gone was the show’s original format of the producer picking records from a local record shop and making the beat in their own studio; in its place was a live audience, a couple of samplers and Sprite logos on everything. Unsurprisingly, the fans of the series hated it and the views plummeted, along with people’s respect for Mass Appeal. While they quickly realised their mistake and pushed out the remaining Sprite sponsored content with little fanfare before reverting to the show’s original format, it’s a good example of what can happen to the underground when it starts to get too comfortable with corporate involvement.
As other companies wake up to the success of the likes of Red Bull and co., they’re going to want in as well
However, those in the underground aren’t necessarily the ones to blame. One of the major reasons underground culture is ‘underground’ is that it rejects the mass market. It favours credibility and niche interest, over wealth and chart position; as many of the artists in the Radical’s Music that Matters series will attest, you don’t start a punk band to become fabulously wealthy. Yet, as global capital becomes ever more pervasive, it’s becoming harder and harder for those who would otherwise reject the involvement of companies like Sprite to do so.
Rent in major cities is rising so fast, only brands like O2 can afford to open or maintain gig venues. This means that the live circuits underground and emerging artists would traditional play are shrinking, and increasingly controlled by large corporations. Publishing is a husk of the industry it once was, meaning there are fewer independent voices to champion underground culture, the most depressing example of which is the transformation of the NME from a radical magazine to a free tabloid. On top of this, the music industry itself is more competitive than ever before, so getting involved in a project like Converse’s Rubber Tracks studio sessions or doing a track for Red Bull is increasingly appealing to hungry artists trying to make some money.
It’s not hard to see how this might limit creative freedom and expression. If we get to the point where emerging artists have to appeal to corporations and major brands to even start in the underground, let alone the mainstream, then any radical tendencies they might have, politically or sonically, will be pushed out in favour of a more marketable sound or platform. Perhaps even worse: those radical, political messages could be adopted by major companies, and used yet another marketing tool, fetishised and removed of any power they may hold, their introduction to the world entirely managed by for-profit organisations. It’s not uncommon for underground musicians to ‘sell-out’, but what happens if companies start to ‘buy-in’?
Featured image © Red Bull Music Academy