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May 22, 2016 | by  | in Features |
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Is Underground Music Journalism Relevant?

Rhys Stannard has been in various bands over the last few years, and is an active member of the Wellington music scene. He is currently a member of the band Kobra Club.

If you’re reading this and are unaware of local underground music or haven’t been to a local music show yet, then I encourage you to take an interest and support Wellington music. There are some incredible artists making all kinds of different music that deserve attention.

The Wellington music scene is as persistent as ever. From the days of my teenage years to my mid-twenties I’ve been drawn into music and in doing so have opened myself up to countless experiences of enjoyment, creativity, and friendship. However, in a similar way to how we develop double chins, protruding jowls, and unsettling folds during the ageing process, music has left its own imprint on my life—warts, creases, and all. My relationship with music has changed since my interest in the scene first began. The descent saw me go from audience member to performer, and eventually hitting rock bottom with forays into music journalism. And it was here, amongst a seemingly endless proliferation of glorified artists and three and a sixth star reviews, that I first started to feel confused, disinterested, and eventually, violently ill.

During my lifetime the internet has rapidly and comprehensively replaced verbal discussion and physically printed mediums as the main forum for commentary and critical discourse on local music. The internet quickly became a place where the audience could interact with underground artists both directly and indirectly, and as a result artists began to articulate and design their own online personas. It has meant that in this day and age an artist’s persona and their artistic output are closer together than ever before in music history, and as a result these two aspects have become inseparable from one another. The positive side of the move to the internet is that it is easier to reach wider audiences and articulate your artistic intention. It doesn’t matter how fringe an artist thinks they are, as my friend once said: if you’ve got the kind of ego to make music in the first place then you’ll want other people to hear it on some kind of level.

Another side to the transition is that it has provided an environment in which an artist must politically occupy a space using a carefully curated online persona. It seems to me that artists are rarely criticised for their artistic credibility these days, but instead their internet personas are evaluated for how many Facebook likes, Bandcamp streams, and Lorde tweets they have accumulated. I doubt this is going to change anytime soon, music is such a personally ambitious undertaking, whether you play in a group or by yourself, and the most successful artists survive on their own self-interest. I do feel that aspects of the local underground music scene can be improved and one of the ways in which we can do this is to develop a more critically engaged music journalism. The Wellington music scene is tiny compared to other larger countries like the US and UK and it is currently preoccupied with developing local music in a safe and warm environment.

The overt lack of constructive criticism is partly caused by an anticipated fear of drawing unwarranted or excessive attention to the journalists or the artists involved. But it is also because our music scene values participation and encouragement above all. Like any good gardener knows, maintenance of a plant requires first growth and then careful pruning of the plant to encourage the development of fruit. Metaphors aside, the current journalistic attitude towards music dilutes the understanding of what is good and what is poor. Constructive criticism isn’t another word for shit-slinging, it’s an important discourse that aids an artist’s understanding of how to improve and define their work in relation to other local artists. It also provides a degree of legitimation to artists if they have received positive critical feedback. If we develop an environment where music is discussed using valid and well-reasoned opinions then people will start to treat local music more seriously. This is crucial because artists are not currently treated equally among members of broader society. Music is regarded as a hobby in New Zealand unless you are commercially successful and the social identity of an artist still has the connotations of an unemployed moocher. If we want to change that we will have to be critical and demand representation with an authoritative voice.

One of the complications that prevents critical discussion being used in music journalism is the absence of a forum for it to exist within. For underground artists the main website in which to display your wares has until recently been Under The Radar (UTR). While we all have to thank UTR for promoting independent music tirelessly over the years, their ability to provided critically engaged music journalism is undermined by the fact that they review and advertise artists while simultaneously operating as a ticket service for gigs. As an independent company free from New Zealand On Air funding, UTR relies on advertising and ticket sales to continue operating, so it would definitely be awkward to give the latest Beastwars album a poor review after displaying full page advertisements for three straight weeks.

The other complication is that the amount of music being uploaded and promoted on the internet creates an ocean of information that can be confusing to navigate. Helpfully, the accumulation of this information is resulting in the formation of several archives. Wellington City Libraries recently created an online database for Wellington musicians that dates back as early as the 1940s. It features many underrepresented artists such as Beat Rhythm Fashion, an excellent post-punk band that is described as part of Wellington’s virtually unknown “Terrace scene.” Beat Rhythm Fashion are a band that would easily fit into today’s current sonic landscape which is heavily influenced by 1980s shoegaze and post-punk. The fact that it is more likely for journalists to attribute the legacy of Dunedin’s 1980s scene as a major influence on the local Wellington musicians is a shame, because there is a virtually unknown musical lineage that has been operating here unreported—and has therefore been unable to influence subsequent generations of musicians.

Another important database is the current Kick out the Jams feature of The Wireless. The documentation of local artists will provide a video archive from which we can make inferences about Wellington and the country’s sonic landscape: it’s visible musical progression; its continuity and difference.

For example, from my own memory the late 2000s/early 2010s were dominated by bands such as So So Modern that carried their own distinctive and energetic brand of math rock, that was no doubt attributed to the success of bands like The Mint Chicks and Die! Die! Die!.

So So Modern existed amidst a resurgence in guitar music that was extended and altered by artists like Glass Vaults, who incorporated guitars although noticeably with an emphasis on slower and more melodic structures. Simultaneously during So So Modern’s lifespan there were artists that characterised what is now being classified as the “New Zealand gothic” folk aesthetic, of which Seth Frightening is a notable example. Wellington’s Folk musicians alongside other noise artists (I.Ryoko and others) were also important members of the scene at the time, and contributed to an evolving change in the style of music. This period in underground music could be romantically referred to as when audiences started sitting down, but I mean this in the most literal sense. There is a parallel between the expectations of the sedentary audiences that attended folk gigs, and a hypnotic style of guitar rock music that eventually developed as a result of this trend in music culture.

This was followed by the emergence of electronic music, championed by Ian Jorgensen (founder of A Low Hum), which may have contributed to a resurgence in audiences demand for more energetic music, and therefore folk gave way to louder and more danceable styles of guitar music and electronica. A legacy my eardrums are still coming to terms with today.

It’s important to represent local music, to show the way it paves the way for artists to walk along today. Now, more than ever, we are at a stage where we have the ability to draw from a variety of online resources and we can properly give them the credence they deserve. We need to map out a more accurate representation of the music community by giving a greater degree of legitimacy to artists through constructively critical journalism and by recognising musical lineages that have preceded us. Due to the small size of the music community and the lack of resources at its disposal, it is unfortunate that the majority of the credit and legitimation given to artists is often the product of a retrospective review—sometimes years after the fact. I think that’s why it’s important for not only music journalists, but also artists themselves, to acknowledge and support one another as allies within a shared local music scene.


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