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OK, recognize this situation? You hear/see a good song on radio/TV, go out and buy the entire CD and then discover that there are maybe one or two good songs (one of which being the song you heard), but the rest pretty much sucks?

Maybe the rest of the CD even sounds different from the song you heard on MTV? Or the songs just aren't as memorable as the single?

If so, you've just been exposed to a typical phenomenon in commerical music.

So why doesn't this affect underground music (or independent music) in the same way? Simply because underground music doesn't sell through exposure in radio or TV. People buy underground music because a friend recommends a certain CD, or because they've read about it in a magazine or fanzine they trust. Or maybe they downloaded some MP3s from Napster or an FTP site and realized that there was more than just one good song on the album.

If there is only one good song on an album, people will know about it when they get to hear about it... Because underground music is exposed in a perspective - the entire album is rated and reviewed, and people aren't left to judge from just one song that someone else chose.

With lots of money the record labels can buy lots of exposure for the artists and simply fool people into thinking that the music they hear ten times a day is actually good. You can sell anything through heavy marketing, but without marketing, only quality stuff will survive.

In the long run, internet and MP3s (and future similar technologies) will probably make it harder for commercial artists to survive by releasing weak albums with heavy single-promotion - simply because most people will download the songs they care about from the 'net and ignore the rest of the album.

I'm gonna disagree with you a bit here. It takes a broad brush to paint the entire commercial music industry as single heavy filler filled album creators. What of the truly great artists that transcend such labels? The Beatles certainly weren't underground, yet I challenge you to name a filler filled album they released. Typecasting musicians as commercial/underground/alternative(to what) is pointless. Granted, unless you're an eleven year old girl, Britney Spears album is gonna suck to you, but that eleven year old is also gonna tell me the incredible Ivan Boogaloo Joe Jones guitar solo I'm listening to sucks. Britney's pretty obviously a commercial creation (sell out for all your worth girl). Ivan literally sold 2500 albums in the sixties, and has been brought back by rare groovers -- that's pretty far underground. There are two kinds of music, music I like and music I don't like. Play what you got, I'll classify for ya.

What I'm saying here (the long way round) is beware the popularity trap -- i.e. it sucks because everyone likes it. Some things sell a lot because they are good. Remember that the Beastie Boys had more in common with the Backstreet Boys when they broke out than with the highest pantheon of hip hop which they are know a part of. Eminem can rap his ass off better than all but a handful of MC's, and he's a "pop" music sensation. Does that make him less skillful on the mic?

Aw to heck with it... Judge artists individually. Don't shoot them because of their messenger.

In general, underground music exists as a "pure" form of musical art. Not all underground music is necessarily better that Major Label music. It depends on what a listener is looking for. If you're looking for the best cheezy Corporate rock, or Boy band pop, you'll only find the best in band like the Backstreet Boys, or Journey. Furthermore, just because a band is "underground," by being that, it's not going to make that band good.

There are, however, very good bands and music that are created in the indie world. Bands that subsist in the underworld have credibility to create music that means something to them, rather than creating music that fulfills the bottom line as most Major Label acts must do in order to remain on the Major level.

I'd argue both ways on this issue. It's a gray matter, not a black or white one. On one hand, indie bands maintain creative control. They are not necessarily guided to create radio-friendly hits. However, limited by indie budgets, sometimes recording do not have the proper resources to present a good band in the best light, nor do they get a chance to be heard. Major Labels, on the other, afford some positive elements - distribution, and time to record. Bands have time to put more experimentation and creativity while on larger budgets, which may allow better possible records (if the label applies a "hands-off" approach to production). A lot of indie and punk bands have to run into the studio, crank out their best effort in the shortest amount of time. Sometimes the rush is good, pushing the live and more energetic elements of a band. But sometimes, it rushes the production of what just needs good old time to make happen.

What I do believe, however, is that you'll often find music that has more heart and truth to it in the underground, because it is often made in the raw spirit of haste (ie. you'd better be a good band to make a good indie record, you can't fix (punch-in/punch-out) all the mistakes and over-produce records like the Majors can, which may allow for a "perfect" record of an inferior artist.

Why underground music is "better" than commercial music

Note: This write-up was penned in a period in which pop music groups came in packs of clones, Total Request Live! (on which fans interrupt videos to shout out messily in 2 seconds or less why this song is particularly interesting) ruled MTV, and Britney Spears included in her catalogue songs about Pepsi and still claimed artistic integrity.

Note #2: These are not rules. They are not universal truths. They are simply my personal reasons for prefering underground music to the commercial. There are violations of the following statements. And finally, these statements are made in direct response to the tripe which is put out as music at this point in time. 8 years ago, at Lollapalooza, the line-up was A Tribe Called Quest, the Breeders, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, L7, George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars, Green Day, the Boredoms, Stereolab, Guided by Voices, Luscious Jackson, the Beastie Boys, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Courtney Love. That line-up is amazing, and the concert was a huge event, musically. The 60s featured perhaps the greatest bands of all time, who coincidentally, were ultra-popular. Today this is not the state of music. It is all marketing.

Addendums are in response to Patrick Bateman

1. No pressure to homogeonize one's sound.

Commercial music is about trends and popularity. This means that the big record labels, whose purpose is profit, will only "find" those artists whose sound matches one of the most recent hits. Unfound bands, therefore, may mimic popular style. Other bands, already basking in a fleeting popularity, may alter their style to continue their success (for example, compare No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom with Rock Steady). Any way it happens, the result is a homogenous muck-filled pool of nothingness.

2. Music evaluated for its own merit, not its visibility.

With commercial music, the most popular song is considered the best; the hottest; the most worthwhile. In the world of the underground, bands with the best sound are deemed the greatest; and what exactly does "best" mean? Well, that's a very subjective idea, which leads me to my next point.

3. You control the music you're listening to, not the majority.

In underground music, all underground music is appreciated to some degree. The fact that the movement's members stray from the often mind-numbingly unoriginal music of pure pop is a matter of genuine appreciation (among those I've met, at least; excluding the snobs, of course). This allows for the individual to have whatever level of control over their music as they wish. Whether this be enjoying the big names of indie rock (er, *cough*, underground), or exploring ever deeper and deeper.

Addendum: If you only pay attention to MTV and your local pop station, you do not control what you listen to. You only hear certain groups. Personally, with the exception of They Might Be Giants, Green Day, Beastie Boys and Devo I heard about all of these songs by word of mouth or underground web sites. That's also the way I heard of a great deal of the bands I enjoy.

4. Artistic integrity.

Underground musicians write their own songs! An amazing concept as it stands, but this often also entails sound and style exploration. Artists are interested in making interesting songs, which pull the listener in, and, if not surprise them, then at least make an honest connection of some kind. This might be a melancholy emptahy a la emocore (Dashboard Confessionals, Mates of State), immersing the listener in a visceral tale of grit and blood (Tom Waits {yes, an underground Grammy winner}, Nick Cave, Gun Club), providing some desperately needed irony (They Might Be Giants {dear god, another Grammy winner}, Mr. Bungle, Devo), or simply expanding the mind (electronica or math rock). Artists must push to be felt.

Addendum: Yes, many of the groups I have listed are commercial, though commercial on a different scale. When I saw They Might Be Giants, the tickets were ~30$. I can't imagine a Britney Spears concert being in that range.

5. Self-made artists.

Currently (2002), the common trend in commercial music is to pump out musical artists like widgets. When shows like "Making of the Band" and "Pop Stars" exist and are bought into like kids buying overpriced jawbreakers, and further strip away any dying remains of artistic integrity, it is evident that the commercial music industry is producing a finely tuned set of products (complete with actual product tie-ins; and I don't mean t-shirts, but rather all out dolls and school folders). In the underground scene, artists must create themselves, and prove themselves. Nothing is handed to them.

Addendum: By self-made, I do not mean struggling. I mean, rather, that they weren't handed a career and a contract.

6. (More) Censor free material.
By censoring I mean not only "offensive" content, but also the ideas involved. Boy bands are limited to oft-repeated, contrived sentiments of love (though, yes, emocore often falls into this same trap; at least they do it in an interesting way). Underground musicians write songs about Salvador Dali films, power hungry Jesus look alikes, the dangers of agoraphobia and stardom in tandem, or anything they fucking want!! I can't help but to celebrate that fact. Perhaps my personal favorite is Boylion's album, titled, "Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, A, B, Select, Start" (a tribute to the konami code*).

Addendum: Lyrics don't equal music, it is true, and instrumental pieces can still be excellent, but one method for a song to communicate potently is through the themes expressed. Pop stars are ignoring this. (Re: Blues; At the time, Blues musicians were expressing powerful themes, through seemingly neutral statements. Blues songs dealt with class issues, sexuality, and defying the norm. Listen to some Ma Rainey or Bessie Smith.)

7. Less production; more reality.

The music which commercial bands produce is not, in fact, real music. It is real music which has been altered by an outside hand to make it more palateable to the masses. This is done again, and again, without pressure to leave the studio. Underground, the music is created in (as least some cases) a fury of creativity.

Addendum: Re: Production. I apologize, it is entirely correc that production can help a record. But only when that production is in the hands of the artists, and not a result of label pressuring or an overly touchy producer. Hip hop and electronica artists do need production on a large scale, it is true.

8. Cheaper concert tickets; more intimate venues.

Perhaps I should just call this a pleasent bonus to underground music. Try seeing a N*Sync concert in an arena smaller than your high school auditorium, with only 200 people present, and you're standing ten feet from the stage.

* Thanks to mkb for this information.

A response to some points made above:

1. Certainly profit drives the commercial music industry - but what is profit if not a measure of efficient allocation of supply to demand? To put it another way, commercial music would not exist without 10,000,000 people who want to listen to Britney Spears, and who are we to say they shouldn't?

2. I would cautiously suggest that the underground music scene is also guilty of making judgements that are not based on the merit of the music - usually in a negative way. How many times have you heard people equate success with selling out without really considering the quality of the music in question?

3. Two words: the Internet. You have total freedom (at least until transferring data is made illegal to listen to anything you want, commercial homogeneous crap or hardcore elite underground.

4. Nick Cave is commercial. They Might Be Giants are commercial. Tom Waits is commercial. Last time any of them toured my town the tickets were way more expensive than the cost of an underground gig. All of the people you list sell their music for profit. Furthermore, bands like Nine Inch Nails and Rage Against the Machine could hardly be said to have lost control of their art, but they are surely sold in the same stores as Christina and Mandy Moore.

5. This is another argument that is always wheeled out to defend underground music. I say to you: David Bowie was an instant smash. Led Zeppelin was an instant smash. Nirvana was an instant smash. Bob Dylan was an instant smash. Many, many great bands have recorded only one or two albums and then disappeared. If an artist is really, really talented then why should they toil for years in obscurity before making it big? It's like saying Michelangelo should prove himself with crayolas for a few years before we give him a paintbrush. Furthermore, if you care about the music itself as indicated in (2) then what does it matter to you who created the music and how long they suffered for?

6. If people like listening to it, then it doesn't matter what sentiments are expressed in music. Just because a lot of recording artists choose to target their music at the 'ooh I love you' market doesn't mean that they couldn't write about something else if they wanted to. Furthermore, I would point you towards the blues as an example of great, timeless music that basically all takes the form of either 'my woman done me wrong' or 'lord have mercy on me.' Lyrical content does not necessarily define music.

7. You have thus far praised a number of electronic artists and then have the gall to turn around and criticise the production of commercial music? Many underground bands don't even have instruments! And good production can turn a good record into a great record. A band like Massive Attack can use huge amounts of production as their most potent musical device to produce brilliance.

8. In my experience the types of bands cited as underground are typically in the same price range as the most commercial crap around. Spearhead recently toured my town and charged about the same price as Take That on their last tour. Bob Dylan was over $100. The only really cheap tickets are for bands that are basically from the local scene, which means that no-one international is ever that cheap. So, either you have to pay a bit more and see a much wider range of music, or pay $5 to go to the local punk pit and enjoy your rebellious freedom whilst clutching at your bleeding ears.

Do not, however, mistake these for the words of some teenage, top 50, radio single-happy, boy band loving son of a gun. I love good music - many of the bands cited above are in my record collection. What I can't abide is when people hate something because it is successful, and music is an arena where this attitude flourishes. Many people who are into cult bands and the 'underground' scene seem to be motivated by a desire to be better than all of the mindless sheep who listen to commercial radio. It is all to easy to spew bile at anyone who actually likes the plastic sounds of the singles chart. If people like listening to that music, who are we to abuse them? If people of lower intelligence want to listen to the same song sung by different teen icons again and again then how does that hurt you? Presumably you don't resent their commercial success because they are stealing the limelight, otherwise you would be wanting the music you love to become the music you hate. I love the Smashing Pumpkins, and nothing pisses me off more than people who like to demonstrate how 'down' they are with the band by naming Gish as their favourite album and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness as their least favourite. It's like saying "I don't give a fuck about the music, so long as people I hate don't like it."

In the end, all music will be judged on its merits. 50 years ago Buddy Holly was the equivalent of Britney Spears, The Animals were the Robbie Williams of the early 1960s, but today we recognise the musical importance of their work with the wisdom of hindsight.

One final point: some music is not commercial for the simple reason that... it SUCKS! There is a fine, fine line between underground, edgy musical genius and a bunch of fools with guitars recording bad punk covers.

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