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Duff McKagan's column runs every Thursday on Reverb. He writes about what's circulating through his iPod every Monday.
Somebody asked me last week if I

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Duff McKagan: Underground Is the New Mainstream

duffFASTBACKS.jpg
Duff McKagan's column runs every Thursday on Reverb. He writes about what's circulating through his iPod every Monday.
Somebody asked me last week if I could open up for discussion the difference between "mainstream" success for a band or artist, and "underground" success. So here goes:

Back when I was a lad and punk rock was all the rage, the movement itself was self-supporting and eventually made its way to college FM radio, which was then a new and burgeoning way of spreading musical ideas.

In the early '80s, bands like R.E.M. and U2 were gaining speed on college radio as underground successes. They were selling records for their indie labels, and selling out shows on college campuses around the world. Of course, when you put the word "success" or "sales" up against a marketplace, nothing can really sustain its core underground-ness.

Major labels tried to capitalize on the success of the underground dollar by creating imprint indie labels. That is to say, the same major-label muscle with a new street cred name (GN'R's label, Geffen, created DGC sometime in 1986 or '87 just for this purpose. The Muffs or the Waterboys on Geffen Records would seem like a sellout to their fan base, but DGC? Well, that was fine!).

Mainstream success is basically the same deal. Artists and bands sometimes, and more commonly, want to be a mainstream success. This is where the possibility of the major dough can roll in, especially if one is unabashed by what commerce looks like to their public. Someone like Beyonce actually uses her fan base to sell perfume, clothes, makeup, and anything else. It's not a bad thing, either. She doesn't let her music suffer as a result, and can get away with it (a female audience like hers LIKES all these extras). Jay-Z, on the other hand, while achieving mainstream superstardom, stays far away from being perceived as selling out. Jay-Z WAS once a fairly underground rapper from Brooklyn. It seems that he wants at least a part of his art to still be perceived as underground and edgy.

Silversun Pickups and MGMT have an image of being underground, but both are on major labels, sell tons of records, and were up for major Grammy categories. "Alternative music" used to actually mean something. College radio WAS the alternative to, well, everything else. "Alternative" is now just another selling-tool catchphrase (kind of like "change" in politics!).

I still think that there are stalwarts in our industry who blend a good bit of mainstream and independence. Foo Fighters kind of do what they want, right? Nine Inch Nails for sure do. Alice in Chains paid for this latest record themselves, and licensed it out to a major label, enjoying the marketing that only a major label can afford.

Underground success, though, will soon be redefined, and, I am sure, become more of an indicator of overall success. Major labels are dying because of their shortsightedness, brought on when they introduced a digital format just to sell the catalogs of certain acts all over again. Little did they know in 1989 that every home would have a computer some five short years later. When Napster tried to make a deal with the majors on revenue-sharing through advertising on that site at the time (hundreds of millions of dollars in 1997), the majors buried their head in the sand and continued their lawsuit with Napster. Napster lost, and the floodgates of free content to everyone have never stopped, and never will. Artists are the smartest people when their backs are against a wall. Free music will serve as the new loss leader to bands trying to attract a larger audience.

If You Like This, You Might Also Dig:

-- Duff McKagan: I've Been Listening to Aerosmith, Frampton, and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band

-- Duff McKagan: Starting Over

-- Krist Novoselic: Duff, We Don't Need More Politicians, We Need the Rock Party

-- Krist Novoselic: Rock & Roll Jihad, and the Unifying Power of Led Zeppelin

 
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