What do “underground” and “independent” mean now any way?
In the old days it was pretty easy to tell what was truly outside the mainstream or “underground”. I used to simply describe this type of music as being unavailable in the music stores. But now, most record stores don't even exist even though the press is quick to point out Record Store Day or the resurgence of vinyl. Evidently, vinyl is what’s keeping many local shops going now. That’s fine. I’m a record lover and have been for over 50 years when I bought my first 45, “Twist And Shout” by The Beatles.
In the early days of my “No Pigeonholes” radio show (circa 1984-5) getting all these weird and wild tapes from all over was fun, exciting and distinctly underground. There wasn't much delusion about “making it” (whatever that means) from a one off (or maybe a few dozen) cassette with hand printed or badly xeroxed cover images. Some artists featured better graphics and sound such as Carl Howard’s audiofile Tapes label (and others) but even then the music set itself apart as bizarre and experimental forays into the unknown and commercially inaccessible.
I did receive the odd tape from artists who seemed to think their band or home taping project was their key to a better life or music career. I often referred them them as the “shrink wrapped” mentality because they would have their tapes professionally duplicated (like at Discmasters) and cellophane enclosed. And instead of a hand written letter with tons of crazy compilation invites or strange nonsensical art it would have the dreaded “one sheet”…a promo tool used to describe their music and with comparisons to somebody famous. “Head Shots”, glossy paper, glowing reviews from semi famous friends, that sort of thing.
I cannot tell you how many of these I get every single day now but fortunately most of them are in email form so it is easy to wipe them off my computer. The amount of money spent by bands and musical artists on promotion is ridiculous now. Everyone is looking for an angle to “cut through the static” of too much information.
So, as I outlined in one of my earlier posts, things started to get gray and fuzzy around the turn of the 21st century. The trading scene had all but dried up and people were getting more serious, or so it seemed to me. Oh, a few people hung on to the trading ethic and I would still receive some odd material and little announcements of compilations, collaborations and so forth.
At the same time the Major Record Companies started complaining about illegal downloading and the possible death of their profits from the internet. Spotify, Pandora and iTunes did not exist in any great degree yet but they were coming. Who knew then that the real death was of ANY physical product?
So, about then, the word “indie” started to get used a lot. I mean, it was used before but now it was used as a term of endearment, a way to “pigeonhole” bands to make them more fashionable and trendy. Instead of it being a high flying flag of weirdness and individuality it was a decree of some short term fad.
So, the terms “underground” and Independent” really lost all meaning, or became just more adjectives for promotion.
To be honest, I have used these words to describe my own show. And, also to be honest, I am now playing bands that might have been too slick or mainstream in the old days. But, I decided long ago that I would not simply be stuck in the past and try to remain open to the new trends and statements of younger musicians. Plus, I was no longer getting hundreds of tapes (or even CDs/files) from home tapers and outsiders.
So, has my show simply become a mouthpiece for an industry I cannot stand? And, if so, why do I do it?
The reason to me is simple. Most of the artists I now play on “No Pigeonholes” are actually “indie” in the sense they are regional, or low profile groups/artists, who sometimes play live and record in small studios. There are plenty of “home tapers” but that has a whole different sense now too.
I do still refuse to play big time names or Major Label artists but heck, they hardly exist anyway. I look for the ever elusive “independent attitude”, whatever that is.
I must admit that I don’t even like all the groups I play now. But I am lucky because I have a wide taste in styles/genres and my goal is to be as inclusive and open as possible. I try to give everyone a shot although there is stuff I just cannot stomach and get rid of.
I am lucky because I have four separate radio shows. Three of them are called “No Pigeonholes” and on two of them I feature todays “indie” scene from rock, hip hop, singer-songwriter, instrumental, new age, experimental and more. One the fourth show called “No Pigeonholes EXP” I stick to challenging and experimental works from free jazz, dub techno, improv, noise, sound collage, drone, etc. One other DJ called it “sounds, not songs”. I think think that’s apt.
On one of the “No Pigeonholes” shows on Radio On in Berlin I have been featuring Cassette Culture material and even more recently actual radio tapes from back in the day with home tapes I had received then. (Link at my doncampau.com website )
So, many years ago I made the call. I would move forward the best I could. Sure, I prefer getting home tapes and original, strange expression. But, now a lot of what I am offered is from agents, managers, PR people, small labels and musicians who have an obvious intent to climb the ladder.
But, that’s OK. It is not my place to judge someone’s intent. No, I do not have to be a shill for the music industry although I do seem to be participating to some degree. I make it clear to people who submit that I won't be giving them “heavy rotation” or sending my playlists to CMJ or charting websites. I do try to still keep it personal and make sure each artist is aware that they got radio play and offer them links to the subsequent podcast (always free for downloading/streaming).
Why does any of this matter? Why do I bring it up at all?
Well, I think it needs to be spoken that I (and other former underground DJs) am aware of the evolution and change regarding my own program and the landscape that now exists. I need to look in the mirror and admit something. Like it or not, I am part of the problem, the sickness.
Basically, even though I still use them, the terms “underground” and “independent” are shallow at best. They still have meaning but have been warped, degraded and kidnapped until their former meaning is all but forgotten.
My name is Don Campau and I have been involved in underground and non mainstream music and radio since 1969. I continue to be an active home taper and Cassette Culture archivist with my own site, The Living Archive.