Identifying with Underground Music without Engaging in a Local Scene: The Why’s and How’s

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Like with all juicy topics, this one started with a conversation with my therapist. Bearing in mind that I’m new in town, she was curious about what measures I’ve taken to assimilate. To offer insight into the moving parts of my identity, I had disclosed the fact that I’m a music blogger. Reasonably enough, she followed up by asking if I had been to any local shows. Her goal of suggesting them as a venue for meeting new people was apparent. After a pause I told her, “only one, but I had a pretty bad time.” Back when I was trying to prove myself as a “real” female metal fan, I would have been embarrassed. Now I’ve reached a point of acceptance. Music culture is, indeed, a part of who I am, but not in the way that people like my therapist would traditionally picture.

A local scene; while others still may thrive on it, it’s something I’ve adapted to not need. Sometimes I feel pretty damn alone in my attitude, but I know that deep down I’m really not. It’s a trend I’ve heard some buzz about in underground rap circles, but I think it applies to subsects of metal as well. Let’s give it a proper dissection.

I realize the old heads reading this are probably shaking their canes, but let me explain. When I say fuck ’em, I don’t mean I only want to listen to Volbeat from the comfort of my dinner-for-two seated VIP package at the House of Blues. Highlight and underline: supporting the underground is still something that I very much value. Not that it necessarily matters, but just as some preemptive self-defense, my music collection hasn’t been shot out of some Dr. Luke-ass producer’s dickhole. In terms of metal, what I listen to is hardly even mixed. Hip-hop wise, I’m keen on teen producers working for the love of. However, my favorite work does diverge from traditional “scene” culture in that it doesn’t live on a shelf or even necessarily on a stage, but rather, the safety of Bandcamp and Soundcloud.

When it comes to the shock of changing cities twice in the span of a little over a year, the portability of “internet artists”—non-performing one-man DSBM acts and new wave web-based rappers—has become my security blanket. It feels like a home that doesn’t have a foundation in any one place. When I’m anxious, lonely, and in no mood to head out to a dive, I can turn on a playlist streaming from down the coast and instantly grasp familiarity. A podcast can make me feel immersed in cultural simulation while I eat dinner in my pajamas. I can scroll through content on Instagram that would have once been reserved for zines distributed in the corner of a club. You get the picture. At the end of the day, I’m sober, tired, and probably not in the mood to put on some costume just to have PBR spilled all over it.

Sure, at this point, you’re probably wanting to attribute my sentiment to the realities of the internet age and its associated “degradation of communication.” There is some truth to the fact that the internet is changing our mediums for art and community. However, the existence of the internet in and of itself does not make up the whole picture. After all, networks of local artists, promoters, and so on, have evolved, working from the inside out to build internet presences. Thus, there are finer nuances that needed to be laid out.

First and foremost, there’s a bit of distinction to be made. The musical underground is made up of artists who may not be well-known in their area but have garnered attention online or in another geographical place, and Local (with a capital L) artists who are famous in their cities but are otherwise virtually unknown. Let’s look at how the former came to be.

Even if you live in a major metropolitan area, you may not automatically have your place. I learned that the hard way while living in New Orleans. Most of the options for hearing heavy music were limited to thrash and crust. I don’t want to be a complete dick—those bands were doing their thing and I wish them all the success, but they’re not my cup of tea. I was hard pressed to find much black metal, whether it be traditional, post, or atmospheric. Even harder to find was anything new wave rap-oriented, which is ironic since trailblazers $uicideboy$ lay their heads in Louisiana. As the hip-hop duo discussed in their viral No Jumper interview, they’ve never even played a proper show in NOLA because it’s just hasn’t been the right move. Now embracing their identity as New Orleanians on their most recent record, it’s apparent that they garnered success by working from the outside in instead of the other way around. Britain’s Scarlxrd—despite earning millions of views on his music videos—has experienced an inhospitable environment in his nation’s rap scene due to his more abrasive style. He’s sought refuge by recording in a no-man’s land warehouse and projecting his work into the global market, which has earned him success particularly in Russia a la Lil Peep. When you’re a square peg, you need to look elsewhere until you find an accommodating hole.

On the same accord, the ability to fall seamlessly onto a local bill alienates one-manners. My favorite black metal artist is a Czech dude called Entering. He uses a good deal of layered drone effects, samples of 911 calls, and cries of suicide, and he does so entirely all on his own. Chances are, I’m not going to catch a performance like that down the street, nor does Entering necessarily have the ability or desire to see the light of day. Some have the fortitude to realize they don’t belong and/or just want to be left alone, so they quietly upload their content to Bandcamp, avoiding politics while ensuring their artistic integrity. As a listener, you can still support these kinds of underground artists, but in the form of a $5 PayPal donation instead of a $5 cover. Segueing into my next point, while I enjoy solitude, what I enjoy even more is not having my money enter the pocket of some fugazi local “promoter” who might end up paying artists in pizza and drink tickets. The fear of being violated—even by a small-scale local monopoly—is legitimate. Incestuous small-scale networks can pose just as real of threats as industry giants, albeit more in the form of cash exchanges and personal problems run amuck.

Speaking of gross promoters, managers, and more, then there’s the notorious scene creeps and condescenders who never learn how to fuck off. I could cite specific examples here, but I’d rather not make this that kind of call-out piece. Let me put it this way: as a woman and as an introvert, I feel like my voice is heard more in this post than it would be on a smoke deck with a talk-over mansplainer. In the blogsphere, there’s also not the subtext of flirtation that comes with bar culture. If some dude does get weird in your comments or DMs, it only takes one click for you to move on without fear of who’s around the corner. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for face-to-face interaction. People not taking the hint is bad enough, but it’s even worse if you’re running into them every Saturday night. Taking matters one step further, some people are seeking alternative safe spaces outside of the paradigm of non-conformist conformity, but that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Ethics aside, some artists have gotten to where they are now simply because they didn’t wait around on their hometown boys to get their shit together. In the same vein as many of my favorite DSBM artists, former deathcorer OmenXIII has stated that one of rap’s appeals is the fact that it’s an artform he can produce without having to herd bandmates. Returning to $uicideboy$, $crim chose to forgo playing in the local hardcore scene because his suburban colleagues had too solid of financial networks to want music badly enough. There are a lot of flakey people with wavering degrees of motivation. Even if you’ve known someone for years, their true colors don’t always come out until there’s money, responsibility, and artistic input involved.

Finally, when the more anonymous sides of the underground do emerge for shows, they become all the more special and truly worth everyone’s time. Of course, I don’t want to knock shows completely when they’re one of the few ways through which you can make money doing music. Ultimately, I think it’s a matter of quality over quantity. The interactions between all parties are so much more meaningful (and the merch sales are so much higher) when everyone is really champing at the bit to be there.

All of this being said, if you’re the kind of person who thrives on swinging beers in an IRL community and gossiping about it on Facebook when you’re back home in bed, that’s totally cool. But if you’re not, don’t feel obligated to engage with others in a place where you don’t want to be just to legitimize your status as an artist, or even just as a music fan. You have something to contribute without showing up and showing out, peacocking around the street corner of every venue until you’re the headline of a Hard Times article—really. Do what makes you happy, even if that means becoming a podcast Patreon in your Hoodie Footie. Unless your cat or Postmate is shrouded in patches, I don’t think you’ll be judged too hard.

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