Once upon a time, the only way the masses could easily hear new music was to turn on the radio. Unfortunately, most of the music in regular rotation at radio was controlled by the major labels—some things haven't changed much over the past 30 years—which meant that artists who either weren't signed to a major or who had no interest in making "radio records" didn't have a place to easily broadcast their latest work.
These artists, most of whom embraced operating outside of the commercial landscape, took pride in being labeled as an "underground" act, meaning quite literally that they were operating below the mainstream radar and mobilizing as a group, usually on a local level, against the big bad corporate-controlled music industry.
Of course, thanks to this thing we call the internet, artists no longer need to sign with a major label in order to gain access to radio in an effort to reach a broad audience. By adding their music to free and paid-for on-demand streaming services (Spotify, Apple Music, TIDAL, Amazon Music Unlimited, SoundCloud, Audiomack, YouTube, etc...) and by creating social networking accounts on the big three platforms (Facebook, Twitter and Instagram), an artist can both make their music available to the masses and interact directly with their listeners.
Currently, AM/FM radio accounts for 35% of the general population’s listening on any given day, but young millennials, who are the core demographic for new artists, are opting to consume new music through on-demand services. According to a 2016 study by the Music Business Association and data analysis firm LOOP (Lots of Online People), on-demand streaming accounts for 51% of a younger millennial’s daily listening. This means that, for the first time in music history, a prospective new fan is more likely to come across material from a new artist via an on-demand streaming service than they are the radio.
In other words, the internet gave "underground" artists the platform their art deserves—one where their work could easily be broadcast across the entire globe, without having to sign on the dotted line or spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on radio promotion—and in the process, allowed those who were operating underground to finally see the light of day.
This past weekend, a DJBooth reader sent us a tweet, asking why we don't "cover any of the underground," to which I replied:
To be clear, we feature new artists on DJBooth all the time—in fact, we have three monthly series (Meet, Under 1K and Rap Map) that are strictly dedicated to this mission—but anyone with tens or hundreds of thousands of followers on Spotify or Twitter simply can't, by definition, be an "underground" act. Independent? Of course. Underground? Nah.
Take Memphis, Tennesse rapper Xavier Wulf, who didn't take kindly to our suggestion that the internet put an end to the "underground." Wulf, 25, was once a part of Raider Klan, a Miami-based hip-hop collective started by SpaceGhostPurrp in 2008. Since exiting the Klan in 2013, however, Wulf has built up a tremendous following online to the tune of 277k followers on SoundCloud, 133k followers on Twitter and almost 80k followers on Spotify. For comparison sake, Wulf has more Twitter followers than RCA Records artist GoldLink ("Crew" was No. 3 at radio last week) and more Spotify followers than major label acts like Boogie (Interscope), Cousin Stizz (RCA) and CyHi The Prynce (G.O.O.D. Music) and acclaimed indies like Dave B, Saba and Smino. As part of the SESHOLLOWATERBOYZ collective, Wulf has performed at large-scale festivals like Rolling Loud and Day N Night, and performed at venues nationwide.
Like "independence," which, depending on who you ask can be defined in a number of ways, the term "underground" does have multiple meanings. For example, an artist might employ the label for aesthetic purposes. (Note: I asked Wulf to define "underground" from his perspective, but he has so far refused to comment.) This tactic, which is all about marketing the music to its intended audience, is no different than choosing to affix terms like "conscious" or "trap."
To date, the closest Wulf has ever been to a major label is a guest spot on "F**k a Swisher," a song on Alamo Records artist Smokepurpp's 2017 EP, Up Now F**k Next, and according to Nielsen, a service that tracks monitored radio and detects songs, he has never received airplay. Yet, he currently boasts 359k monthly listeners on Spotify, with more than a handful of his songs collecting one million-plus plays.
Before the rise of on-demand streaming, which has helped to single-handedly give him a career outside of his own backyard, Wulf would have been justified in labeling his movement as underground. Now that he's doing "mainstream" numbers on par or better than major label acts who have seen support at radio, though, he's merely one of the thousands of hard-working, independent rap artists fighting for our attention alongside fellow independents and major label artists alike.
This might be tough for many hip-hop artists and fans to wrap their heads around, but in 2017, the underground is the new mainstream. For those that have always pushed back against anything mainstream, this notion is certainly going to take some time to get used to, but trust me, the music sounds way better now.