There has been a lot of controversy about the term 'independent' and 'underground' lately. Radar Radio in London has been getting some serious flack for its large scale funding (and the source of money) behind the scenes, and artist Chance the Rapper, who in particular has built portions of his career off the idea he's free from the chains of record label executives, has faced criticism for his exclusivity deal with Apple Music.
This all leads to the question, what does it mean to be an independent and underground artist in today's age, and to what extent should this matter?
Early on in my music writing career, I sat down with Eats Everything, who explained to me that there is no such thing as underground anymore. Any sort of appealing and marketing through the internet makes an entity no longer really underground. In my youth at the time, I didn't quite grasp the concept, but I've come to understand what it means to be in music today. Marketing in the digital age makes staying truly underground impossible. There's a level of appealing to the masses that comes with social media marketing, and when the goal is to make it big, it can be difficult to remain completely below the radar.
I admit- to the underground girl within me- seeing wealthy people backing warehouse parties and pirate radio stations (the spaces meant for misfits) doesn't exactly feel like a positive at first glance. It's not enticing to know that artists and people within the underground music community aren't completely autonomous and free from the corporate world, and I still will argue that it's important to call out artists who give up artistic integrity for the sake of financial stability, especially when they try to maintain that they are still part of the "underground." However, an artist taking a deal, or having financial backers shouldn't be as earth-shatteringly devastating as some people are making it seem. If Chance can make $500,000 off an Apple Music deal, that doesn't exactly mean he's independent anymore, but does it truly even matter? He's still free from label bigwigs, he's still bringing attention to the causes that matter, and he's still helping out Chicago. With the $500,000 in his pocket, perhaps he is now more able to wield his power and influence and finances to bring together better shows, better production, and a better team to take care of his work, and probably a lot more.
I've lived enough years broke and tired to know that asking for others to stay starving - for the sake of the art- is to ask people to sacrifice a lot more than we, as an audience, are willing to give. The music landscape has changed. Single and album sales no longer provide what they used to. The audience is no longer fueling the industry alone, and artists need to find means of survival. Living and surviving off artistic work is a challenging endeavor, and judging them for choices we ourselves may not have to ever make, is unfair and cruel.
Some of today's most exciting artists themselves come from money. The Wedidit crew, for example, are kids hailing from Beverly Hills and in particular, it's relatively common knowledge that Nick Melons' father created the Minions. LA-based DJ Delroy Edwards' father happens to be actor Ron Perlman. Mark Ronson, Lily Allen, etc. all come from money, and even if they claim that they didn't receive financial backing from their family, it's obvious they've still gained some kind of an edge in making it to the top. The fact of the matter is that money helps, and if there are wealthy people willing to help keep a market alive for the rest of us to thrive in, is that truly a negative thing? There is something to say about the kids who could have anything or be anyone they want to, ultimately choosing to make art. They took advantage of their situation, something we all would have done had we been dealt the same hands in the deck they were. It doesn't mean that there is no space for those on the fringes anymore, there is still room for freedom for everyone that wants to be a part of the community.
Instead of focusing anger towards the infiltration of money into independent circles, what we need to focus on more now is working on promoting art in lower-income locations, where backers often fail to reach, as well as holding everyone responsible for staying true to their artistic integrity. To go back to Radar Radio, who's money comes with a dark history of poor working conditions via Sports Direct, those claims still need answers and there should be a demand for changes or else Radar will feel dirty, but overall, the infiltration of money does not have to be a bad thing. Money might still be the root of all evil, but that doesn't mean we don't all need a little bit to keep going. If our favorite independent and underground artists are making a little extra cash these days, it's important to celebrate their work.