Building Community in Underground Music

Music is often divided into two broad spheres: the mainstream and the underground. In Scotland, this is no different, and ‘DIY culture’ as a concept continues to be lauded and promoted in our independent music media. But how inclusive and community-driven is our underground music scene? And what attempts are there to decouple it from the dominant neo-liberal model? Dr Stewart Smith poses these questions in this long read…

Back in April, I attended Glasgow’s Counterflows festival, where I enjoyed everything from the warp-speed polyrhythms of Tanzanian dance music collective Sounds of Sisso to the energising weirdness of Newcastle father-daughter duo Yeah You, alongside Scottish artists like Cucina Povera, Lucy Duncombe, Sarra Wild, and Usurper. The festival is a bridge between the funded arts scene and the DIY underground best described by experimental musician Kelly Jayne Jones in a recent issue of The Wire magazine: “Raw, uncut energies and aesthetics, no bullshit, weird, obscure sounds, something you could be part of... a community making crazy sounds.”

The idea of community is central to Counterflows. As co-organiser Fielding Hope put it after the event: “The love, compassion, laughter and dancing from everyone helped form a very special kind of social space for engaging with the music.” His utopian emphasis on love, compassion and community positions the underground as a site of resistance to neo-liberalism. There’s more to this than rhetoric: his festival is part of a wider effort to create inclusive and sustainable creative communities - a practical utopianism. But does the Scottish underground succeed in its utopian aims? Is it truly a space for musical experimentation? To what extent does it replicate the same structures of privilege and oppression as the mainstream? And what future does it have under a neo-liberal austerity which makes it increasingly difficult for musicians to make a living?

The underground is a contested term. Some will argue that in the age of the internet, where everything is accessible, it no longer exists. But the underground has always adapted to changes in society and technology. If anything, the internet has given the underground a new lease of life, opening it up to more diverse voices. It’s easier than ever to access, make and distribute music, but the vast majority of it still takes place under the radar. Frank Zappa’s old saying that one must go to the underground instead of it coming to you still stands.

My definition corresponds with that of music academic Stephen Graham, who in his 2017 book Sounds of the Underground uses underground as an umbrella term for practices that exist “in some recognisable form outside and/or at the fringes of the cultural and social mainstream, with links to but partial independence from capital and institutions of the state”. These practices incorporate what we might call the marginal, grassroots or DIY underground, as well as underground music that fringes onto mainstream, commercial or “high-culture” contexts. Graham’s approach recognises the aesthetic and political radicalism of the underground but acknowledges the material realities of sustaining independent artistic production under neo-liberalism.

Scottish festivals like Counterflows and Arika bridge those worlds and are good examples of what Graham calls the co-determinate model. They use public funding to support underground and experimental musicians while maintaining organic links to local grassroots scenes. They’re not-for-profit and performers are all paid properly for their work. Inevitably, some see this as selling-out. But to whom? In a provocative piece for The Wire in 2014, David Keenan asked: “Is there anything more contradictory and hypocritical than a ‘radical’ music festival that’s essentially government sponsored?”

However, Arika directly acknowledges these contradictions. As their co-director Barry Esson told Graham: “Of course there is no position outside capitalism, that’s the point… we would rather work with the contradiction of dealing with ‘arms length’ state funding (which is supposed to be non-political, although of course it rarely is that) than with having to commercially exploit an art form. In doing so we can actually put more money in musicians hands, give them time to create new work, support their work at a level we could not otherwise.”

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While DIY is all about making a virtue of limited resources, Esson’s comments highlight its limitations, particularly under neo-liberal austerity. Reflecting on Counterflows, Esson noted this was the first time Edinburgh duo Usurper – who are from working class backgrounds and have day jobs and families – had been given time and resources to fully realise their ideas. This simply wouldn’t be possible in the kind of independent and self-exploitative economy envisaged by Keenan. At its best, DIY is about community building, creating an inclusive space to create and enjoy art free from commercial exploitation.

But has the ‘DIY’ term outlived its usefulness? In the first issue of their zine, Glasgow collective Communal Leisure stated: “DIY has too often become nostalgic, co-optable, and about simply escaping the status quo, rather than changing it.” In the same issue, writer and musicians Kieran Curran argues that “DIY needs to point to a wider political ecology of music making that involves questioning sustainability, environmental issues and societal structures”.

Before breaking down radical critiques of DIY, we should map out the territory of the underground and mainstream in a Scottish context. By mainstream, I mean pop stalwarts like Texas, younger acts like Chvrches, and indie institutions like Mogwai and Belle & Sebastian. By underground, I mean the fringes of punk, indie and dance music, as well as experimental and improvised music. There are of course numerous acts operating between the fringes of the mainstream and the more commercial end of the underground, with plenty of traffic in both directions. As we have seen, the Scottish government funds some underground and experimental music through festivals like Counterflows, but its focus is on supporting pop, rock and indie acts to attend international industry showcases like South By Southwest. As a result, pop, rock and indie have, to some extent, been co-opted into Scotland the Brand – culture as soft power.

The Scottish Government’s support for popular (and unpopular) music is to be welcomed, but I’d argue their neo-liberal culture industry approach tends to place an emphasis on short-term projects and marketable brands rather than sustained funding of infrastructure. More widely, there's a failure to view culture in terms of its wider social good. As Curran argues in a recent piece for New Socialist, state funding for the arts must not be atomised. “For a sustainable culture,” he writes, “we need intervention into public house building, the provision of new forms of welfare… constitutional change, lasting arts’ infrastructures.”

One of the strengths of the current Scottish underground, particularly in Glasgow, is its spirit of openness and co-operation. As Michael Kasparis, musician and Night School label boss, told me: “I’d say that because Glasgow is geographically small and relatively underpopulated, people rely on each other more to survive. Everything is less atomised and that leads to interesting music being created.” The current climate of “anything goes” fun can arguably be traced back to the founding of pioneering club night Optimo in 1997, and more recently, the work of independent promoters like Cry Parrot, Spite House, and OH141, and alternative venues like the Old Hairdressers, Glad Cafe and Glasgow Autonomous Space. All deserve enormous credit for creating a culture of unforced eclecticism and anti-elitism.

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Developments in technology, combined with access to a much wider range of music, have opened up ideas of what underground and DIY music can be. The underground doesn't have a monopoly on innovation and the old snobbery has given way to a more creative engagement with pop. The Glasgow scene has benefited from much greater crossover between the gig and club scenes, producing groups like Golden Teacher, a mutant disco outfit whose members have been involved in a range of genres, from techno and dub, to weirdo punk and noise.

But what about the wider ecology of music making outlined by Curran? Communal Leisure’s critique of DIY can readily be applied to the broader underground he defines. Communal Leisure – in which I play a modest role - describes itself as “a critical space for discussion of music, art and politics in our precarious working lives”. By focusing on the idea of leisure, the project aims to challenge the dominance of the “work ethic” in mainstream discourse – a discourse often replicated in underground and DIY contexts. As stated in issue one of the zine: “For all the love we have for the term [DIY], it’s due a reassessment, and possible replacement. We need to build critiques of the structures that deny people access to artistic production and enjoyment: work, sexism, racism and other forms of oppression and exclusion based on gender, sexuality, “ability”, bodies and class, that DIY has too often replicated itself.”

One Glasgow scene figure working to challenge oppression and exclusion is Sarra Wild, a promoter and DJ who has worked to make the underground club scene more inclusive, particularly for women, LGBTQ people and people of colour. Wild has gained a reputation for being “outspoken” for challenging the club scene’s white boys network over their lack of support for women and people of colour. She runs OH141, a platform to support women in the club scene. She told me:

“I had two things in mind: book women that aren't necessarily well known or haven't been booked before in Glasgow. And then later on I did workshops to encourage younger women to get involved and have them play the night. We don't have residents. The graphic designer's ever the same. Yeah, it's a club night, but every single time the people that are putting it together are different. So initially it was about women. But I'm not just a woman, I'm queer and a person of colour... So the aim isn't just to book more women, it's to say it would be great if they are queer, it would be great if they are of colour, and it would be great if they're non-binary, or from a working class background. Give marginalised people more of a chance.”

In order to make the club accessible, Wild keeps the prices as low as possible – never more than a tenner – and aims to attract different crowds through booking a wide range of acts. She’s also made a conscious effort to make herself visible: “People know it's a woman of colour running it, in which case they feel comfortable turning up. And I've been hella vocal, even people who thought they might not belong in that space know I'll have their backs. […] Asking for money, for respect, knowing your worth, that's seen as selling out. Everyone else out there is ‘alright, how can we brand ourselves, how can we make it big, how can we make huge money so that we can grow and help more people?’ They [the DIY purists] don't see it like that, they see it as selling out. I'm like, dudes, get over yourselves. If that's your biggest worry, that you might sell out, that's pretty fucking privileged. We're out here fighting for existence, and you're wondering whether you're going to sell out.”

In many ways Wild is DIY – she curates the line-ups and does all the promotion. Her model is perhaps more commercial than that of Hope or Esson, but she shares their aim of supporting artists, widening access and sustaining a community. And so to conclude with two questions posed by Communal Leisure: how do we move beyond ‘DIY’ to more effective forms of counter-hegemony? What role can print, visual art, gigs and leisure play in replacing the current order of things? Such questions are crucial to developing an inclusive and sustainable underground, one that harnesses the radical potential of collective joy, and connects to a wider grassroots politics. That’s the task ahead.

This article is based on a paper given at “New Approaches to Counter-Culture”, IASH, Edinburgh, April 2018.

Further Reading

  • Communal Leisure #1-3

  • Kieran Curran: ‘Domestic Defects: DIY as a Keyword’ in #1

  • Stephen Graham: Sounds of the Underground.

@StewFSmith