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"Underground" Is the New EDM Buzzword

With their fans growing tired of the mainstream, promoters are looking at musical alternatives.
Ultra Music Festival in Miami

Last week, Ultra Music Festival announced that when it brings the rave back to Miami's Bayfront Park this March, it will also debut a new addition: a stage entirely devoted to "underground" dance music. This oasis of record store clerk-approved DJs will be called the Resistance stage, presumably in reference to Detroit's politically-charged techno collective Underground Resistance. The debut lineup will feature mostly European and tech-house-leaning mainstays like Maceo Plex, Dixon, tINI, and Umek. In a statement, the festival explained the Resistance stage's formation like this:


"It's the urge to go against the grain, to step out of the box, to move away from the norm and challenge yourself to experience something new-to break down boundaries and barriers and abandon your comfort zone-to be able to open your eyes and ears to an undiscovered realm of electronic music."

"Undiscovered" might be a relative term. More than half of the artists on Resistance have already played at the festival before. Out of the 25 DJs who will grace the Resistance stage this year, 15 of them are Ultra veterans-including Maceo Plex, Sasha, Tale of Us, tINI, Joris Voorn, Jamie Jones, The Martinez Brothers, and Art Department. Sasha even headlined Ultra's second stage with Digweed in 2001. From Chus & Ceballos and Pete Tong to Martin Buttrich and Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, this stage is stacked more with the familiar than the new. If the Resistance stage was a Christmas present, this lineup would be a bit of a re-gift.

Still, for those who only come to Ultra for the Tiësto and Guetta types, the sounds of these techno stalwarts is something to be discovered. Even though Ultra has hosted the Carl Cox & Friends stage for years as an alternative to the mainstage sounds across the festival grounds, so-called underground stages are popping up at almost every big, commercial dance festival across the country. Since its inception, Electric Zoo in New York City has had a Sunday School tent, named for the now-legendary Sunday School for Degenerates parties Made Event threw in mid-00s Miami in late March. Last year, they added a vinyl-only stage after premiering the concept at Mysteryland's New York debut. Both events took the vinyl concept literally, with a stage decorated with hundreds of records. Just last week, SFX sister festival Tomorrowland announced that the celebrated German DJ Sven Väth will curate an all-vinyl stage for its flagship event in Belgium this summer.


Photo by Andrew Rauner

The rise of these alternative stages demonstrate how "underground" and "vinyl" have become the latest buzzwords in the commercial dance music world. Spurred by a growing backlash against generic EDM, ranks of DJs and dance music fans have grown tired of generic build-ups, drops, overwrought toplines, and heart-hands-in-the-air moments and now want something different. The formula of the EDM sound has long-since reached parodic levels, with Saturday Night Live spoofing Avicii with its "When Will The Bass Drop?" sketch, and MAKJ literally taking the piss with a banger by sampling his own toilet sounds. Even mainstage mainstays like Tiësto and Martin Solveig have backed off from the concept of EDM.

In some ways, the popularity of underground stages at dance festivals is an acknowledgement that the big sounds that brought dance music to American radio and EDM to marketing gurus the world over is no longer fashionable. These stages also solve the problem of how less mainstream but still immensely credible artists like Dixon and Tale of Us are able to fit into festivals with Hardwell and Steve Aoki on the mainstagewhile appeasing the growing group of dance music fans who have a yen for fresher sounds. Behind the scenes, agents have resisted having their "cooler" acts sharing the bill with commercial EDM DJs. Now, they'll be in a special section instead. Even as Ultra announced that it will be 18-and-over for the first time this year, its audience still skews young. The Resistance stage will expose these younger ravers to artists they're not yet old enough to see in a club setting. While Resistance and the like may be mere marketing ploys, the benefits of this new addition to festival culture lie in the future audience of techno.

In truth, this trend is part of an age-old cycle wherein counter cultures are embraced as an alternative to mainstream options and then buoyed into greater popularity. Hip-hop, alternative rock, new wave, punk, disco and even EDM itself were all once part of an underground of their own, far from radio, Billboard charts and Grammy categories. Embraced for being different from the dominant sounds of a time, they eventually became the dominant sounds of their time. There's nothing inherently wrong with this progression; protesting it usually makes you sound like a grouchy old snob. It's important that fans know the difference between something that is truly underground and something that is just marketed to look like it is.

As Ultra is still a super commercial festival with a ticket price that would prevent many people from attending, (three day passes are $450 now, as $300 and $380 passes have sold out), one could argue that the underground dance scene is one that operates outside of this kind of economy. No matter how many credible, underground artists Ultra, Electric Zoo, Tomorrowland, or others book, as long as these festivals charge stratospheric ticket prices, they can never really replicate the underground experience fans and artists seek as an alternative to mainstream festival culture. After all, the objective of these events (and their publicly-traded owners) is to make money.

It is perhaps the underground's indifference to profit-based motives that is its best protection against dilution by popularity. That might be the greatest resistance of all.

Michelle Lhooq is THUMP's Features Editor.