Musical underground in the digital age | WBEZ
Skip to main content

Eight Forty-Eight

The musical underground in the 21st century

Listen to Althea Legaspi's story, and Jim DeRogatis' reminiscing about his musical upbringing, on Eight Forty-Eight


Many of us grew up with a sense of identity and community through the music we listened to. Now, with fast-paced technology, the biggest global community exists online.Whatever you want is just a click away. But in a techie world, how has counterculture, and the discovery of new music taken new shape? 

“I mean I still buy records, they still make records...I mean finding unknown artists…It’s not as exciting if you heard that record on the internet before," say students from my Columbia College class. We’re discussing how students discover new music.

"I am kind of envious of generations before me, who were all a part of this movement and they were all part of something that was worth doing and it had its own soundtrack to it," says student Michael Byrnes. "And even if you’re just making music to go with that soundtrack you’re still contributing to this, something that was bigger than you and wasn’t just music."

We’ve been reading about music history and criticism, the various eras when the underground flavored rock’s growth. It spurred genres and shaped identities like rockers and mods, hippies and goths. It united some, excluded others, and fueled an underground press.

Rolling Stone magazine was born from the counterculture at the time, as their longtime music critic David Fricke explains.

"The first issue was published in November ’67, at a point where there was an underground and a lot of the music that was taking shape and it was really connecting with people outside of the mainstream. It was happening away from the charge, there was no arena concert circuit at the time, the mainstream was Top 40 and then there was everything else."

Fricke says that Rolling Stone and other underground weeklies that were in print back then provided something outside the mainstream.

"At the time that was an alternative voice, because there was no option for discussion about this music and actually the wider culture – the politics, sociology, the fight against racism, obviously the Vietnam War."

These are topics that are close to home for Fricke.

"I was of draft age, so I could relate to that pretty directly so those voices were really important," says Fricke. "I didn’t know the writers, I certainly didn’t know the artists, the bands I was reading about the records I was buying, but I felt like they were saying something to me that resonated and my reactions to that were determining the course of my life in a very a very wild time."

My own dip into the underground was through a Detroit pirate radio station. They played songs no one else did and opened up a world of music for me. Each night I tuned in past my bedtime, there was a new band to discover. From the local indie record store where ‘zines informed me about little-known bands to the pink-mohawked girl behind the counter who recommended limited releases and imports. I’d share, discuss and debate these music discoveries with friends. It helped define who I’d become, and was a subculture where I felt included.

For today’s generation, student Britney Rosario says that while non-mainstream music is more readily available, few are discovering it.

"What’s considered underground is not like what used to be underground. It kind of has transformed because technology is kind of taken everything, flipped it upside down, going on Myspace or whatever. Like yeah, going on the internet is so readily available to everyone, but like that’s kind of like underground now for us"

Fellow student Alex Katz says the easy online access can also be isolating.

"I think it is a bummer that there isn’t a community. There are more people than ever, yet somehow,yet because of that, people are alone more than ever. I could sit on Facebook and talk to a couple thousand people but at the end of the day I’m in an apartment alone, you know?"

And though social media offers even more opportunities to connect with like-minded individuals in counterculture scenes, classmate Nicki Butler says that oftentimes, it’s a false sense of involvement.

"I feel like the internet lets you participate, but not actively participate, she says. "You can reply to the Occupy Wall Street hashtag on Twitter and feel like you’re a part of it, and not even go out there. You know, but you feel like you’re a part of it still just because, I feel like it allows you to participate but then it doesn’t create a community because everyone’s participating separately through their computer."

And Rolling Stone’s Fricke says all those participants vying for attention has produced diminishing returns.

"It’s not that a lot of the writing in the underground at the time was that great, but it was passionate, it was informed to a large degree. They didn’t have the research and obvious infrastructure and copy that we have now say we have at Rolling Stone, but there was care put into it. And I think that’s something that is missing when everyone has a voice and instantly goes on line and starts spouting whatever…. And I think you can’t have an underground where everyone is talking at once….All you have is static."

New technology is transforming music in good ways, too, of course, but Fricke says where we’re headed is hard to gauge.

"I’m glad to have an iPod so that I can take music on the road, but I don’t know if it’s a better world yet," he says. "I can certainly see it with musicians who were able to sell their wares more directly, easier...But again, I think that this, it’s all in flux, we’re still in the wild west, you know, they’re still developing the toys."

And while perhaps our collective musical experiences are evolving, together and individually, student Alex Katz says the convenience can still lead to an abundance of gems.

"It can be looked at as a bad thing, that there is all this out there. But at the same time, if you do know where to look and you know what you like, technology is a facilitator. It has given us the ability to really find things we really never would have."

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.