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How Social Media Will Kill the Underground

It has almost become a truism: social media creates mediocrity. In an effort to gain a share of the social media pie, artists are rewarded for blending in, not standing out.

Mick Rock helped to create the underground music scene just as much as any of the musicians he photographed. Vanessa Thorpe's recent article in the Guardian promoting Rock's archival release also touches on some depressing ideas about the evolution of art in the era of social media. 

As part of the underground music scene of the 70s, Rock spent time photographing Lou Reed, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop, Freddie Mercury, and David Bowie. In particular, Rock came of age along with Reed, Pop, and Bowie. Rock was given a chance to see the three, who he calls the Terrible Trio, revolutionize music while becoming stars. Rock explained to Thorpe that the three stars had a chance to influence each other as their musical personalities evolved, basically, to help make each other become better musicians and performers. Without their shared influences, it's logical to assume that they may never have reached the heights that they have.

Thinking about the effect of social media, Rock bemoans that "(a)nything can go viral now and become successful immediately." We should consider this as more than a complaint from a veteran out of touch with new media. He has a strong point. If any single song can help an artist go viral, find success out of the gates without honing a craft and vision, can there really be any long-term success? If flavor of the month has morphed into flavor of the minute, success will require mimicry. Immediate success won't push artists to think and grow. Maintaining this type of success will only allow for tiny steps out from the norm. 

I think that we're also seeing this more and more in photography. Any quick scan of Instagram will show that popularity requires conformity today. The old method of learning the craft, carrying bags, and making good images isn't the pathway to success anymore. Clients are often more concerned with the size of a photographer's social media following, of leveraging a photographer's popularity to help their brand, than with the photographer's skill. Very few of the photographers that became ultra-successful through IG create something unique. 

Is that it then? Are we doomed to see the death of the underground as a result of the rise in social media? Will we see established artists become more cautious, fearful of losing their following? Will emerging photographers be required to gather a social media following by conforming to norms in order to secure work? 

Bleak.

After all, as Bette Davis was wont to say, "if everybody likes you, you're pretty dull."

Lead image of Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip from let us go photo.

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23 Comments

Kirk Darling's picture

Isn't the real problem the expectation that an artist /should/ "go viral?" Few (if any) of the underground artists became immediately popular. That's what being "underground" meant. The concepts of "going viral" and being "underground" are diametrically opposed.

How do we know the underground isn't still there? Let's look for those photographers who aren't getting all the likes.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I agree, at least in part. I think that part of the problem is that a lot of new artists don't get the chance to be underground and consequently loose that influence feedback loop that can help make new art.
I think that this can contribute to the starvation of the underground.

Justin Hadley's picture

Great article! I'd love to see more think pieces on here!

Jonas Karlsson's picture

Its the opposite. Social media does not reward mediocrity nor cause conformity. It rewards skill and uniqueness. People want to see things theyve never seen before and they want the best. Try your luck at it being mediocre and do what everyone else does. You will fail.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

That's the TOTAL POLAR OPPOSITE of the actual reality on social media, my god...

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Jonas - so as to not type everything twice, I've just responded to Edison's comment below.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

This is the first article on Fstoppers in a long time that I found hit it right on the noggin, bravo!

Yes, IG in particular rewards not only those who conform and mimic that which the algorithm thinks is "winning" or popular, but now it's almost impossible to grow your follower base organically, and instead you have to "pay to play" by paying for impressions, and it's open to even the most pathetic accounts, but the end results are those pathetic results can have thousands, tens of thousands of followers, and have absolute SHIT for their body of work, whilst true artists with very strong portfolios can't even break the 100-1000 mark.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Thanks Edison.
I agree - there is a feedback loop of mediocrity and mimicry. Too refer to Jonas from above, there are those that succeed with uniqueness, but, most success comes from gaming the algorithm and giving followers what they want.

T Van's picture

Or is this the year people wake up like Tim Cook and realize there are no socially redeeming qualities to Social Media that make up for the evils it all wallows in. Trolls, Bots, and as Tim Cook said, when you use Facebook, YOU ARE THE PRODUCT. I quit going on 3 years ago and I'm never going back. More productive, more happy and I find I prefer getting leads for work by actual word of mouth over trying to get leads from Social Media.
Join me out here. The freedom is exhilarating. And as someone already mentioned, the Underground is immune to Social Media. It's the antithesis of Social Media, the rejection of it.

Edison Wrzosek's picture

Aye men!!!

El Dooderino's picture

Your excellent comment reminded me of this cartoon I saw long ago...

https://ethannonsequitur.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/facebook-and-you...

Never had a FB account; never will.

stuartcarver's picture

As a DJ who used to walk in record shops to search for pre promo white labels I can add that the internet itself has ‘ruined’ what was underground about my scene. We used to have these tracks sometimes years before official release... now all that is pretty much gone for the normal consumer.

It’s not directly related to this article but the message is still there.

Graham Taylor's picture

'Rewards' is an ambiguous term though, rewards with what? Likes? Exposure?

Most of the 'successful' photographers I see on IG are either branching out to YouTube in the hope of becoming successful as an influencer or they are selling presets. Both of which indicate that they're not actually that busy as a photographer. You know, getting paid.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

I agree. Successful as an influencer isn’t the same thing as being successful as a photographer.
But, the need for likes and exposure short circuits the up and coming / underground feedback loop of making each other better, no?
I also see lower level jobs going to influencers instead of photographers. This isn’t a good way to encourage photographers to work harder at photography, instead it encourages them to work harder to be influencers. Again, short circuiting that drive for creative vision.

Graham Taylor's picture

Objectively speaking, I guess there's a fundamental difference between a working artist and someone who needs/requires social media as a showcase tool or as a way to create opportunities.

I've been a full-time photographer for 16 years now and I've been on social media since it started. I can tell you now, that I have earned £0 from social media in all that time. For a part of my career, when the things I was working with were particularly unique, my social media 'fame' saw a definite peak. But partly that's because I was being interviewed by actual press and in turn, people on social media (who clearly weren't getting paid either) were using that momentum to try and get exposure for themselves. But it never brought with it anything more tangible than more followers. Opportunities sometimes presented themselves but certainly not with the frequency that they did in reality and often, as someone with no vested or personal interest in me, they would end up dissolving as they found someone cheaper.

Social media does have some benefits, but I think to dedicate yourself to it is at best a 6-year plan that ultimately, probably won't pay off. I consider myself very lucky in this climate to still be working and even more so at the rate I am. I simply don't have time to curate a social media feed to the extent I would need to in order for it to gain any real traction.

I have friends who are very successful on Instagram particularly. But for them it's a full time job with almost 0 return. Fair play to them in many ways, they have opportunities (especially the lack of a mortgage!) that allow them to concentrate on that and it makes them happy. However as with anything else, people see it as a shortcut to fame and fortune and unfortunately, it just isn't.

Robert Escue's picture

I had to read this several times and read the Guardian piece as well, this article totally misses the mark and doesn't understand what has happened since the 1970's. In the time of Mick Rock, bands were signed to labels who recorded, produced their music and distributed it. The first time I heard "Raw Power" was on one of the best radio stations in the US, they played a radio station only live performance of that song. Photographers worked for the labels, for the few fan magazines that were available and many freelanced.

It is easy to beat up social media, I'll get to that.

Today bands record, produce and distribute their own music sans the record label. They source out artists for album cover work and seek their own photographers and videographers for their photos and videos. Individual musicians and bands have dedicated YouTube channels to show off their music. There are lots of online publications that a photographer can get experience and potentially move up to a paid position. This does not mean that the best are picked up, it just means there are opportunities.

For the last ten years I have covered metal music in the VA/DC/MD area and I can tell you that no metal band I ever heard of has ever had a viral hit of any kind as a result of the use of social media. I can point to rap and hip-hop artists who have exploded as a result of social media and the help of celebrities who paved the way for them to go viral. Social media works great for famous people. If you are not famous, your mileage may vary.

As far as being "underground" I can't think of a group of people who are virtually non-existent to the world than my friends who play thrash, death and black metal. The local radio stations and the music magazine pay them lip service if they notice them at all. The music isn't popular so they don't pay attention to them. That is about as "underground" as you can get. I think there are plenty of underground bands all over the world, but you have to find them. This means you are going to small clubs and bars with varying levels of security and may not be in the nicest part of town. I don't see too many social media influencers in the circle pit at a local or National Act show for that matter.

Social media is a favorite for photographers to beat up on because it allows people who have little to no experience or skill get published and "liked" by their friends. There isn't much you can do about that. Social media does allow for a level of collaboration between musicians like no other platform. My friends on a regular basis talk shop with major musicians about making music and making it "their way" so there are tangible benefits.

Do I think social media is going to destroy underground music, no it isn't. Is social media treating photographers fairly, no it isn't. When a guy can take a fuzzy, off color photograph of a band member playing at a bar and all the friends who know nothing about photography chime in, I just sit back and laugh. When they want photos for publication, they know who to talk to.The bigger problem is the pandemic and what is going to happen to live music when venues close and performance opportunities dwindle. This is something me and my friends think about all the time.

Mark Dunsmuir's picture

Thanks for taking the time to share your experience. Appreciated. I had fun looking at and reading some of your work!

I think that your experience with a very niche area doesn't necessarily mean that it's underground in the same way that Pop, Bowie and Reed were. Perhaps I should have been more clear about what I meant. The scene you're involved in is unlikely to influence mainstream in a way that new wave / punk / pop did. I don't mean that as a value judgement. Please correct me if you think I'm wrong.

I do understand how your musician pals use social media. That makes sense. But, they aren't using it the same way that artists trying to sell themselves are, are they?

As for the pandemic. That must hurt. The musicians can still make. and sell new music. Photographers that make a living in live music venues have far fewer options.

Robert Escue's picture

Mark, metal music includes grind and grindcore which is a mashup of hardcore punk and heavy metal. Think Napalm Death, Repulsion or Terrorizer. Metal has always been on the fringe and while there are "mainstream" bands such as Megadeth, Metallica and Anthrax, most of the stuff we listen to doesn't get much airplay on mainstream radio. Spotify and Sirius XM on the other hand ...

My friends use Facebook and Instagram to showcase their music, speak to fans and talk about music and equipment, who is on tour and where they can play. Photographers use Facebook and Instagram in a similar fashion. I am part of a group of music photographers and when times were better we talked about music, venues, lighting and issues that come up from shows. To me, Instagram is a necessary evil and if it wasn't required by the magazine I shoot for, I wouldn't use it.

My success as a music photographer is the direct result of Flickr, where one of my photos of a bass player was "borrowed" by a major online metal website for use in an article. I ended up being their contributing photographer for a short time and that got the ball rolling. Like others have said here, Facebook and Instagram haven't done squat for them and I agree. For the musicians, I think if I asked they would say social media is a mixed bag.

Matt White's picture

Likewise. I've been involved in various things to do with DIY punk in the UK for about 20 years now. Putting on gigs, taking photos, driving friends' bands and just going to gigs.

There's very few bands who've had any mainstream recognition or anything blow up online. People keep pushing the sound, they keep getting weird and doing what they think is interesting.

Those who HAVE had some kind of breakthrough haven't been the ones who are the same as everyone else, the ones who play it safe. Doesn't matter if it's to newspapers like the Guardian (Chubby and The Gang recently - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRgP_vca1Po), random shows on BBC (Send More Paramedics - https://youtu.be/k1JBNdo1H_A), made it onto bigger labels (Rolo Tomassi - https://youtu.be/Fdyg8k5qZFM), into national music magazines like Kerrang (Shitty Limits - https://youtu.be/cwer7Tp2RgI), or NME (Creeper - https://youtu.be/rmDiNAIccW8), or just got big and influential in their own sub-genre (Fall of Efrafa - https://youtu.be/yxDud25Lfnc), it's the people who stand out who make an impression.

Difference I've seen with the rise of social media has been the speed that bands have evolved and explored different sounds. You used to get a certain types of bands more associated with one part of the country. Good example would be that London always had more beatdown bands than elsewhere. That's changed a bit now - people don't need to be from somewhere particular to get more varied influences. They're able to pick up on something that speaks to them from the other end of the country and build on that. Nobody has to wait for a band to come through on tour, or to pick up a record from a distro. You still want a local scene that you can play in that appreciates you, but there's more connections, more opportunity to spark, artists influencing each other more and more.

If you have a quick scan of Instagram, you'll see stuff that all looks the same. That's because you're having a quick scan of Instagram, it's like complaining that the stuff in the charts is all too mainstream. It's at the top of the charts, it's the mainstream.

I think the problem isn't that there's no scope for artists to influence each other in the underground without getting picked up on, it's that Mick Rock doesn't have a finger on the underground now. He's 'the man who shot the seventies'. He met Bowie in 72, who introduced him to Reed. Bowie in particular was not 'underground' in the 70s, he was on Top Of The Pops ten times in '72 alone.

The next Lou Reed? The artist who's 'never really been able to sell records', but is about to release something that will really transform their life? We won't have heard of them now, we won't be seeing how they're bouncing off other artists unless we're in their part of the underground.

Otherwise we wouldn't call them underground.

Robert Escue's picture

Matt, I live in Virginia Beach, VA. 120 miles from Richmond, the home of Lamb of God, Municipal Waste, GWAR, Cannabis Corpse and a slew of other bands. You get crust punk, thrash, tech death, doom, OSDM and crossover here. I could spend a couple of weeks back when shows were active and possibly never see the same band twice and not hear the same sound twice.

Mick Rock doesn't have his finger on the pulse and hasn't for years. In time neither one of us will have our finger on the pulse of the respective music scenes we follow. We capture a slice of time and if we are fortunate some magazine like Kerrang!! will ask us for a couple of photos and an blurb to use in an article about how it was in the day.

Most of the people I listen to will eventually fade away, some already have as they are building families and no longer desire a career in music. All of them will have their "moment" and it will be gone unless some A&R guy likes them and makes them famous. For some of my friends, they don't want the spotlight, they just want to throw down. They will always be underground.

When things get back to normal enjoy the moment.

Christian Lainesse's picture

Love this piece

ChooChoo Chucklehead's picture

This brought up some thoughts about how many kinds of creative endeavours are seeing their participant’s wings clipped. These days, anything that is unique and becomes somewhat successful because of it’s creativity is immediately cloned by an avalanche of imitators, often with the progenitor being drowned out in the process. Have an interesting style in your photography and processing? If you get too much attention be prepared to have your style imitated into oblivion. Got a good shtick for YouTube? Pretty soon there are four thousand well-lit dudes on YouTube sitting at wood grain desks talking about cameras while their preferred colour of LED lights gently illuminate carefully placed knickknacks in the background.
The only way to really stand out these days is to have some immutable aspect that can’t be imitated, which is tough to do in such an incredibly saturated culture.

It makes one start to question whether to put their “thing” out into the world, lest it become successful and cloned into a cliche.

Kirk Darling's picture

That has always been true to whatever extent entertainment media has been able to stretch it. Discovery by the masses of any novel expression has always meant imitation of that expression.

Yes, the question here and now is whether that happens so quickly that the inventor of a novel expression doesn't have time to fully develop that expression before it has been imitated in every permutation that the creator might have grown into themselves.