Courtesy of MCT
Discovering seldom-heard or “underground” bands before the Internet age meant combing through stacks of vinyl and CDs in local record shops or ordering directly from trusted record labels. Not to say I know from experience — the only bits of music I listened to during that time were the interludes between Pokémon battles on my Game Boy — but at the time, those were the only options for hearing the unheard stuff, the weird stuff.
With the Internet, a mouse and keyboard can achieve in minutes what could take an hour in a physical shop. Countless online blogs exist solely to catalog under-represented genres of music.
While this is the case for most “underground” music, mainstream music has remained easily accessible through local radio stations. Terrestrial radio regularly plays songs from the most popular artists, mainly because they have a responsibility to an audience many times larger than the average blog.
These blogs have specialties, like revivalist punk or witch-house electronic. CD101’s specialty must be songs that make a bunch of people say, “Hey! I like this song!” Blog authors are nearly never paid, which means any song that strikes them can get posted, regardless of its origin.
Today, music’s move to the web means “underground” and “mainstream” have become faulty terms for describing artists. Take the band Real Estate, for an example. The four-piece surf-rock outfit released its second album, “Days,” last month to critical acclaim, including an 8.7 (out of 10) rating from Pitchfork, an influential music website. Although the band is signed to independent label Domino Records, its visibility on a website like Pitchfork, read by almost 2 million unique visitors each month, means it is far from “underground.”
Since typing www.pitchfork.com into an Internet browser requires the same minimal effort as tuning in to CD101, MTV or other mainstream outlets, bands are now on the same ground, as opposed to above or below it. More popular groups have the advantage of being played by bigger outlets with their bigger audiences, but in terms of accessibility, it’s a draw.
So now, using “underground” to describe music assumes the audience isn’t as current or savvy as the speaker. Owning a copy of The Swirlies’ album, “Blonder Tongue Audio Baton,” was once underground because the only place to hear it was on the actual CD, LP, or cassette. Now, a quick Google search is likely to yield a downloadable .zip file of that same album.
Bands with small followings are still worth pursuing, though any sense of superiority one might feel from discovering them should be gone. With that said, abandoning these artists would be a mistake. Plenty of them are making great music on their own terms, and that alone is the last good reason to seek them out.