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Never Say Die: How the UK Underground Adapts to Survive

Austerity and Covid: Double Trouble

Coverage of Coronavirus, and our discussions of it, has become increasingly nebulous in nature as it’s become more comprehensive in scope. With an event that has so fundamentally shaken the social, political and economic structures of our collective societies, it is both easy and difficult at once to properly recognise the underlying stories that have developed amidst all the uncertainty.

Beyond the tragic realities of lost human life, the lived experiences of those on the ground have already been generationally defining, and it seems there are several, well-founded causes for concern within our creative communities. 2020 was a year that saw an unavoidable, yet equally unprecedented decline in the resources available to creative communities, with as much as two thirds to four fifths of musicians’ revenue lost in the UK over the past year. That is not to say that this hasn’t been long-endured to some degree; the closure of several high profile venues in recent years (Fabric, Rainbow Warehouse, Niche etc.) has made mainstream political stances on underground music culture demonstrably clear: from community spaces to profitable, heavily touristed international venues, there is little care for those that play host to underground music culture within the UK.

Sustained cuts to community spaces have had their share of the impact over the years, with as many as two-thirds of centres in local authorities facing off against closure due to a lack of funding. In 2010, David Cameron’s Conservative Party proffered a ‘Big Society’ philosophy, centralising the role of communities in our development; ironic, then, that these selfsame communities have often been deprived of essential funding in favour of pandering to big business actors. Indeed, Oliver Dowden’s ‘Cultural Recovery Fund’ pledged £1.57 billion to offer ‘financial support for cultural organisations that were financially stable before Covid-19, but were at imminent risk of failure.’ It is worth remarking that a given creative projects’ success in applying for this funding hinged on proving their ‘contribution to wider economic growth’, with further emphasis placed by the aforementioned Culture Secretary on preserving the ‘crown jewels’ in the arts sector. The emphasis on nationalist imagery, coupled with the fund’s sole focus on profit should be a worrying proposition. Does our ‘Big Society’ consist of luxury apartments, high street cocktail bars and an alienated majority that cannot use them?

Adapt to Survive

The above is to preface an important discussion for those involved in UK underground music. It is clear that we are facing off against much uncertainty, and that most people in the scene have had to adapt in order to survive. Livestreams and radio shows have, to use the dreaded term, become the ‘new normal’, and many have found the already difficult process of establishing or maintaining an organisation even more difficult given the circumstances. To this end, my personal involvement with IllNotion Records has revealed a complicated picture of the creative landscape—work has involved many hours of investment for small, albeit steadily increasing returns. Success has been encouraged thanks to the outpouring of support from within our music community alongside an audience that’s willing to listen, watch and contribute. As it turns out, starting a record label amidst the chaos of Covid isn’t necessarily disastrous; lockdown is a period that encourages a greater engagement with the arts and culture, and many have shown remarkable generosity in their social and economic support for those involved in the community.

This, however, serves as a reminder of the clear disjunct that persists between a passion for music, the willingness of a community to pool social and economic resources into it for relatively little financial return, and the equally prominent (and valid) desire to carve out a living participating and working within these communities.

DIY culture, experimentation and good faith cultures have long been the preserve of UK underground music communities, whether in practice or sound. One only has to look at the exceptional sonic creativity in UK music to see how this ethos affects the music. UK Garage, Bassline, Jungle and Grime, amongst a long list of others, all have their origins in considerable experimentation within other genres. Our commitment to creativity and ingenuity shouldn’t just stop with the music—it is a necessity in these times.

Johnny S Photography – Stealth

Different Approaches and the Value of Solidarity

Over time I’ve become familiar with a host of inventive strategies to better share our collective resources, touted by a number of different crews. A common thread that appears to link the separate, booming undergrounds I have personally covered or experienced in Berlin, Nottingham, Perm or Vancouver, as a few examples, is a willingness to find creative and inclusive ways to grow their scene from the bottom-up. In Berlin, for example, the city’s only entirely UK Garage promotion ‘Operate’ functions on systems of mutual bookings across Europe, fair ticket prices and an inclusive atmosphere, an ethos considered right down to the track selections. In Perm, similar practices persist with the Sight by Sight crew. Numerous interviews with artists and promotions in Nottingham reveals an emphasis on tying together the rich and varied arts scenes in the city, creating and strengthening linkages across different movements. Online, presences such as 3000 have helped forge networks across the world with a shared appreciation for the music—many more prominent examples exist today.

Despite the challenges underground music faces, the forecast is not entirely pessimistic.

It’s worth recognising that much of the legwork has already been done. In an era where creatives have been left in the lurch, we are behoved to ask the following: ‘How might we best translate practices rooted in generosity and mutuality into means of sustaining ourselves and our communities?’ The good news is we’re already doing lots of it.

Continuing to support systems of good faith and mutual assurance is certainly one key component—in a time where resources have been drained from a number of areas, supporting one another, whether in terms of favour, or money, is of central importance. It is often difficult to resist the urge of famine mentalities in uncertain times, but the reaction must be to grow, rather than to invite shrink. This must also come with a willingness to not be too proud to ask—aid, if given freely and in good faith, is something that serves to empower, rather than indenture us, so we must try to view (and offer) gestures of cross-promotion, cooperation and support without suspicion.

This comes with an important consideration: solidarity, though providing a backbone for many communities, is insufficient alone. Growth and redistribution have to provide important cornerstones atop the foundations of favour economies. Where there is surfeit, we must apportion it fairly. It is self-defeating to only pool our resources into the already-successful; after all, so much labour is required to write, record, release and promote music, and it is another battle yet to host the appropriate event.

Investment and the Future of the Underground

Fair payment in both economic and social capital for services rendered is a simple place to start, but there are many ways in which community reinvestment can take place outside of the paradigms of monetary exchange. It may be that this involves: platforming emerging talents, exchanging ideas, teaching skills, or offering feedback—for their reputation, groups like Lengoland have often resembled this vision of community, providing the basis for many, including myself, to begin their foray into a more serious involvement with music. Recognising and connecting to the increasingly globalised spaces we share has shown the potential to help all involved, a fact that can be clearly seen from within bass music with the torrent of international activity that has been coordinated since lockdown began.

Lengoland
Lengoland

Continuing to support each other, in terms of monetary and non-monetary exchange, alongside a commitment to substantive social and economic reinvestment, in the format of fair exchange and pay, is crucial to the continued survival of the underground. Overcoming famine mentalities and a lack of resources will prove significant obstacles, but I have confidence that the DIY sensibilities, continued ingenuity and the increasing interconnectedness of the UK underground will find a way.

After all, it always has.