What is Underground Music?

Underground music is considered the opposite of mainstream music. It is more of a term than a genre, like “indie” or “alternative”. It’s used to describe “underground hip-hop”, “underground pop” and even “underground jazz”.

Underground music is one of the most trending musical terms that possibly has no clear definition. Maybe it’s a genre or maybe it is about how musicians commercialize their music.

Underground music is a practice based on self-organized production and promotion. The term “underground” indicates the way people work and the philosophy underneath. It keeps a distance from the mainstream music world connected with business.

In recent decades, underground music and artists are generally stemmed away from modern popular music and major record labels, instead, they favor small independent labels, DIY guerrilla concerts, and old-fashioned promotion tactics.

Underground Music Origins

Underground music can be traced back as early as the 60s. Pushing away conformity in return for artistic identity and sincerity, Underground music was linked to various artistic movements such as the psychedelic music movement of the mid-1960s and the hippie counterculture.

Favoring certain lyrical themes that stem away from the trappings of the mainstream commercial music industry, underground artists and bands came busting through the door. Bands such as The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges, The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and The Clash paved the way by creating flawless music from the 1960s and 1970s to the early 1980s.

Naturally, even underground styles of music became mainstream at some point. The best example is hip-hop, although, most of the genre is still deeply rooted in the underground world.

On the other side of the spectrum, some types of underground music will probably never see the light of mainstream such as black metal (deeply rooted and associated with church burnings, the occult, anti-Christian views, etc.), and extreme metal (Gothic, Doom, Death).

The Philosophy of Underground Music

“Underground music” is a term that is hard to define. Frank Zappa attempted to define it by saying “Mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground.” Underground musicians seek tremendous artistic liberty while also rejecting the mass media. In other words, standard “mainstream” media turns art into a commerce product.

Even though some underground artists use the mass media and the internet to introduce their music, they don’t use it under the “star” status of the big production labels. They are focused on expanding their audience, performing on a music channel, talking about their work, podcasting (in recent years), and sometimes utilizing streaming platforms like Spotify for their audio projects and playlists.

The media that deals with underground themes are niche media. Underground artists promote their music in specialized music magazines and radio programs. Also, the micro-media is one of the best ways to announce musical events, gigs, and other projects.

As a result, underground music involves musical styles that you don’t hear often. These types of music are called “underground music,” no matter pop, electronic, rock, punk, metal, or jazz genres and usually have a more extreme nature.

Technological advancements over the previous two decades have had a huge impact. There are a lot of specialized websites and other online platforms nowadays. So, underground artists can share and promote their records, concerts, venues, and stores with just a click of a mouse.

Clarifications on the Term

The term “underground music” may not be perfect, but it covers a lot of different aspects of making, listening to, and talking about music. It has been used a lot in the last few years, even though it has some flaws causing confusion.

If you are an artist looking to broaden your audience and raise awareness, the term might be used to describe your music. Even if you don’t introduce yourself to the public as a member of the underground, it can fit.

Another important aspect of underground music that causes confusion is its self-organized nature. Many critics believe that emerging superstars’ career-building tactics are influenced by this. It has long been the dominant strategy used in underground music cultures.

Still, the term “underground” is different from DIY. It has a different cultural significance and disregards popularity. But, artists are still trying to break beyond their own circles while maintaining some DIY techniques (self-recorded shows, self-funding, etc.). This includes independence from commercial concerns and artistic and thematic underground aspects in their art.

Under this title, what I want to do is to introduce some of the iconic underground artists in chronological order. This can be helpful to see how underground music has grown and has become more accessible.

The Velvet Underground

One of the iconic pioneers of underground rock bands formed in the 60s in New York. Lou Reed is the frontman and the main songwriter of The Velvet Underground. One of their ideas was to resist the system by being obscure. Their music and attitude in the music industry have been inspiring generations of musicians.

Sonic Youth

An iconic underground rock band formed in the 80s in New York. They are characterized by their weird and unorthodox tuning to their unique guitar preparations. Sonic Youth pushed the boundaries and paved the way for many people.


One of the most famous underground trip-hop bands formed in 90s Bristol. In this period, Portishead and Massive Attack’s trip-hop introduction to the audience was a huge success and it was thanks to keeping their underground style work. It was a new and positively strange experience for the listeners and the underground scene.

The Strokes

The Millennial underground rock&roll New York-based band took influence from The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed. The Strokes can be a good example of when the confusion between underground music and DIY music started. The band is considered more like an indie band than an underground band.

Chance the Rapper

Famous American underground hip-hop solo Project of the Chicago-born rapper, Chancelor Jonathan Bennett. He started the project as an underground rapper on online platforms and his success was unexpected for some listeners. He has millions of listeners and followers today.


Spanish underground alternative flamenco-inspired R&B singer Rosalia became globally known in 2019. She has such popularity and fame in the end that you may have a moment of doubt about her being an underground artist.


One thing that many people don’t realize about underground music is its diverse types of genres and subgenres. Underground music involves many different types. It can be categorized based on rock, electronic, metal, and so forth. Furthermore, the term “underground” indicates the way how people work and the philosophy behind it.

Artists working in this genre keep a distance from the mainstream music world. The term “underground” may not be perfect but it covers a lot of different aspects of making, listening to, and talking about music.

Arda Tuncer

Arda Tuncer

Arda Tuncer is a music producer, composer, songwriter, arranger, and performer. She releases music as part of the music duo, Kronik Leila. She has worked and collaborated with some prestigious orchestras around Europe, while also holding University positions as music theory professor and music research assistant. Arda studied music theory and clarinet at the Ecole Normale de Musique de Paris and completed her degree at the Conservatory of Strasbourg in France.

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