By: Luigi Monteanni & Matteo Pennesi (Artetetra)
Sounds from the Modem’s Peripheries
A survey of the transglobal digital underground
Keywords: music; underground; transnational; folklore; temporalities
- Internet-themed Skits from “The Amazing World of Gumball – Gumball and the Internet” and “Seaman Rocks! (Chat about internet)” (Downloaded from YouTube, 173 kps)
- YNO – うざん (UZAN)
- JPN Kasai – 山姿
- Kevin Silalahi – Bagian 2
- Sara Persico & Xavier Lopez – Dreamwork
- Nikolaienko – The Ancient Musical Complex Of Mammoth Bones
- Francesca Heart – Giochi, Dispetti, lo Sguardo della Ninfa
- Kensho Nakamura – Waltz (feat. keisuke s_d_)
- Shakali – Aluilla
- 03sem – nyc
- Yem Gel – Mageborn
- Mondoriviera – You Don’t Belong Here
- Polonius – Sharing a Caña @ Café Marcelino 2000
- Loris Cericola – Planet 23
- Emamouse x Yeongrak – Gaguusad
- Rainbow Island – Jesterbus Ride
- DJ Kimchi – Tetrapot Melon Tea
- DJ Kimchi – Goblin Mode
“Sounds from the modem’s peripheries” is Artetetra’s non exhaustive survey of the developing transglobal, digital underground. Through the mixtape format – a compilation of music drafted from multiple sources and album releases – Artetetra offers an aural homage to and glimpse into the musical aesthetics and digital-vernacular practices of these post-internet freaks. Dive into one hour of pure digital time-space compression, fifth world music, digital folklore and samples of internet-themed audio-commentary framing the uncertain boundaries of this decentralised scene.
If it’s on Facebook, it’s not underground at all: an introduction
As a decentralised, transnational and semi-material infrastructure instigating a new experience of time and space, the Internet has allowed a plethora of new social environments based on virtual encounters, audiovisual content and digitally mediated practices. Due to various historical factors, alongside the economic and spatio-temporal convenience of new technologies, this encounter is increasingly influencing underground music communities worldwide. However, there is an ingrained proclivity to declare underground music dead in the digital age.
For example, a 2021 social media post discussing the underground in Berlin, wrote:
“If it’s on Facebook, it’s not underground at all”
Conversely, many of my social media feeds on Facebook, Reddit and Instagram feature Internet-influenced underground musical subcultures, and as scene insiders, we present a mixtape of underground music collectives representative of these occurrences accompanied by this explicative text. While not exhaustive, the contribution is a multi-media commentary on the digital development of transnationally connected subcultural movements and maps the spatial and temporal boundaries of a specific network of artists grounded on artistic, conceptual and political affinity. As a consequence of the progressive disappearance of performative spaces and the multiplication of niche ‘no-audience underground’ subgenres—music movements in which authors and fandom collide (Hayler 2015) —artists have moved online experimenting with the DIY possibilities offered by the net and its ‘digital folklore’ (de Seta 2019). Through production and dissemination tools, musicians have gained renewed access to subcultural capital and artistic exchange, collapsing geographical distances and the shortage of economic and social resources, while adapting to maintain the ethos of underground practices.
In order to characterise and analyse what we term the ‘digital underground’, we explore the argument in three sections, building on our personal experiences alongside data gathered from artists’ descriptions. In the first part of this article we illustrate how the meta-genre has formed, then we illustrate how this subculture experiments in their productions with alternative temporalities and, finally, we hypothesise some of the genre’s key-features, expanding on themes discussed in the first two sections. On the one hand, we postulate that the musicians defining this new digital underground respect the fundamental traits of the ‘original’ genre; that is, under-the-radar projects pursuing aesthetic radicalism and a ‘Do It Yourself’ ethos, intentionally placing themselves at the margins of the music industry. On the other, we argue that for some of these artists the Internet is not only an instrument of music dissemination, but a creative device. Through its audio-visual tools, a new, digital underground represented by entities like Quantum Natives (44:25 – 46:45) can only thrive online as it becomes a lens to express and reinterpret conceptions of time and space, often with synesthetic connotations.
Death to the underground: is it still a thing?
In 2014, The Wire published an article titled ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues‘, where David Keenan, author and key figure of the U.S. and UK underground, stated that after more than forty years, the pseudo-movement incarnated by the post-1960 cultural expansion of bands such as The Velvet Underground and Captain Beefheart wasn’t a symbol of ‘Do It Yourself’ attitude and countercultural isolationism anymore; the defining elements of the subculture. Instead, it had become a genre, a gimmick ready to be emulated. Ultimately, an issue of attitude had become an issue of style, thus compromising the subculture’s integrity.
Following Frank Zappa’s principle that, “the mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground”, journalists and cultural theorists such as Simon Reynolds observed that the Web has extinguished the idea of an obscure “true underground”, being now too easy for anyone to discover anything. Nonetheless, Reynolds stated that the ‘new underground scenes’ differ from the ‘originals’ in two senses: first, as a constellation of online microgenres spanning from Soundcloud rap to vaporwave and, second, as musical subgenres where authors and fandom coincide; a no-audience underground.
The digital transformation of music is imputable to the democratisation and hijacking of mass-distributed, affordable consumer—from cables and smartphones, to headphones to audio-monitors—alongside the Web’s creative and circulatory affordances provided by the internet. Free, cheap or illegally downloaded music apps and Virtual Studio Technologies (VSTs) such as like Borderlands, VCV Rack, Supercollider, Pure Data or Serum as well as digital audio workstations and editors such as GarageBand, Ableton, Logic Pro, Pro Tools, FL Studio or Audacity, nudged amateurs and underground musicians to employ semi-professional and professional music production tools constituting valid alternatives to otherwise expensive, cumbersome, and esoteric technologies. Moreover, free streaming websites like Bandcamp and Soundcloud, along with non-musical, digital platforms such as Linktree, YouTube, Discord, WordPress and social networks, namely Instagram, Tik Tok and Facebook, provided musicians with virtual stages to not only promote and sell their productions more or less directly to the public, but also to discover, exchange and collaborate with kindred artists transnationally. With tools allowing them to record complex musical works and digital services substituting classic, physical trading circuits and mailorders between artists, distributions and labels, musicians are ultimately crafting their sounds in new economically and logistically convenient ways, building scenes in the meantime; all without necessarily leaving their bedrooms.
The general preference of many underground musicians to favour these new media and technologies is instigated by hostile cultural and urban policies making it increasingly difficult for artists to access spaces in real life (IRL). The dramatic and ongoing rise of rents in city centres following the global real estate crisis, the continuous decline of independent clubs’ and live venues’ revenues, the closing down and criminalisation of many autonomous zones and squats, the drastic cuts to arts and culture fundings, as well as the downfall of music sales and the rise of the streaming industry, have forced experimental musicians to resort to marginal territories such as garages, flats, bookshops and art galleries, because normal venues for live shows are increasingly unsuitable and hostile. Thus, the no-audience underground also becomes a no-venue underground, and is compelled to follow Gavin Prior’s coniage: ‘to hell or to Internet‘; when the lack of offline resources makes the sustenance of underground musical cultures impossible, the internet’s applicative, promotional, and communicative potential proves the only alternative capable of nurturing small, connected international scenes. In short, to compensate for the disappearance of localised, physical space, musicians resort to virtual, decentralised environments.
Contrary to the popular opinion that the underground is a set of independent, radical aesthetic practices incompatible with the internet, contemporary musicians have employed the digital infrastructure to expand on the metagenre’s credo and creative possibilities, connecting with scattered fellow artists and forging transnational ties. But how does this new pseudo-movement differ from its original IRL counterpart?
Sounds from the modem’s peripheries: temporalities in the new digital underground
In order to highlight the peculiarities of the scene, it is worth trying to grasp its speculative boundaries first. From this perspective, one of the entities that most represents the digital underground is modem, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, they are described by its founder as a student radio show, “uncovering the hidden sounds from the online underground […]”. While not exhaustive, the broadcast charts the development of these decentralised subcultural movements.
Employing imagery and other technical improvisations, many of the projects showcased by modem fit the ethos of digital folklore; that is, “a vernacular emerging from below and a folk art created by users for users, coalescing into repertoires of jokes, memes, and other genres of digital content”. Projects customarily resort to vernacular, pirate techniques such as sampling Internet content or employing free or illegally downloaded music apps and softwares. These musicians also propose readings of folklore through digital means, superimposing mythical registers and historical symbologies with the secularity and pop appeal of technological devices, memes and video games.
Interestingly, many of these artists strongly engage with ideas of alternative, non-linear time and space. For example, Rainbow Island’s album ILLMATRIX (46:30 – 54:10) dabbles with time’s physical alteration by affiliating themselves to the symbol ‘GMT±∞’: an uncharted temporality that defines the digital timezone of the band’s “internet diaspora”. Francesca Heart’s album Eurybia (16:15 – 20:58) explores a superimposition of different ages, where images of nymphs and mythological landscapes are connected with new age music and contemporary video game soundtracks and ringtones. Through these artists, time is both perceived and expressed as tangled and multilayered, as opposed to linear, progressive and irreversible.
In addition, one of the albums which best embodies the collision between underground music practices, digital folklore and alternative, digital temporalities is Mondoriviera’s soundtrack to video game Nòtt Lönga (33:04 – 37:07), described as the music to “an abandoned retro game haunted by folk horror creatures and ghosts of broken futures. […] a liminal dimension where time has lost all meaning […]. Past and future, reality and dreams, nostalgia and amnesia have merged beyond repair.” Likely unknown to many, this follows the temporal tropes familiar to gaming, where multiple temporal frames, time compression and de-sequencing are employed to execute a regional narrative to conjure a suspended time-space; a new liminal dimension.
As projects like Mondoriviera show, these temporalities also bear synaesthetic qualities. Superimposing timelines frequently implies overlapping spaces, planes, dimensions and vice-versa, in a way that reminds of Leopardi’s ‘vague’, where concepts like ‘far’ and ‘ancient’ are lost in space-time extension and consequently their meaning cannot be fully grasped. In this sense, as Enrico Monacelli has pointed out in his essay-review of Loris Cericola’s album “Metaphysical Graffiti” (43:00 – 44:48), although these works flirt with nostalgia, the digital world and the screen are for the most part conceived as portals, gateways to personal, sonic imagery. A compendiary definition comes from one-man project Polonius’ (36:48 – 43:00) whom advertises their wares on bandcamp as, “sciencefiction archeomiragical time travel tapes”; an expression where history, imagination and different temporalities are mutually involved in a work of vague, sonic world-building.
The fascination for alternative temporalities and the digital is not exclusive to this subculture and has been recently picked up by artists defined as accelerationist pop or conceptronica; the latter defined as conceptual electronica and most likely to be found in a museum than a nightclub. The peculiarity, then, is not that artists have imagined alternative geographies and timelines, but that they have done so as often self-taught, DIY amateurs resorting to vernacular practices and easily-accessible digital technologies. Their works are not ordered critiques of capitalism or conceptual pieces designed for gallery exhibitions. Rather, they are naive, ambiguous and lighthearted pastiches of mismatched audio-video influences reminiscent of the Web’s compulsory hyperlink structure driven by escapism and curiosity.
By analysing different positions regarding the underground’s contemporary evolution and examining ethnographic data (i.e. liner notes, descriptions), I have tried to show how bands and projects belonging to the digital underground have come to exploit the Internet as a field of possibilities for vernacular, creative action as well as a tool revitalising the democratic ideology of the subculture, largely expressed through and inspired by digital means. Additionally, I have framed this developing scene through some of its key features. In sum, participants to the digital underground (1) perceive complex, synaesthetic temporalities attributable to digital media’s structure, (2) express them though the digital-folklore-vernacular, (3) create gateways to personal, DIY world-building processes and (4) explore naive and lighthearted pastiches of audiovisual references and influences.
Luigi Monteanni is a PhD candidate in music studies at SOAS under the AHRC CHASE. He studies the relationships between contemporary transnational pop music genres and regional music and, particularly, the indigenisation of extreme metal in Bandung, Indonesia. He is also the co-founder of Artetetra Records and the duo Babau: a music label and project pursuing practice-based inquiries regarding notions of digital folklore, world music 2.0 and exoticism in late globalisation. Among others, he has collaborated with Norient, Simon Reynolds, Scuola Cònia, CTM, The Attic, NON-Copyriot, ISMMS, Aural Archipelago, Kiosk Radio, NTS, Rai Radio 3, and Roskilde Festival.
 Alongside musician Matteo Pennesi, I have co-founded the digital folklore label Artetetra and neo-exotica duo Babau in 2014.
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 Quantum Natives official website. Accessed on June 22, 2022.
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 Among similar items, in this category fall at least most analog synthesisers, percussion and drum kits, amplifiers and personal address systems (PAs).
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