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.