Ultra Music Festival 2023: What Does ‘Underground Even Mean Anymore?

Ultra Music Festival 2023: What Does ‘Underground Even Mean Anymore?

As the name suggests, "underground" music is supposed to be something that can be "unearthed". You have to find it, go a bit off the beaten path and try something that feels a little risky. So it seems to be the opposite of "mainstream" which is easy to find because it tops the charts, gets radio play (often ad nauseam), and requires a little research to learn.

The class struggle between "mainstream" and "underground" dance music lovers lasted for more than a decade, and EDM made its way into the mainstream consciousness and shook many "serious" heads. This era reinforced the idea that those "doing their research" came with an "uneducated" audience, as the underground gained its own status by taking over their playlists and mainstream music fans simply accepted it. You are given.

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In the broader discourse of the contemporary American electronic music industry, "underground" is usually defined as house and deep house, techno and tech house; While "mainstream" includes EDM music, dance-pop crossovers, and maybe sometimes bass-heavy American dubstep.

But after attending Ultra Music Festival 2023 at Miami's Bayfront Park last weekend (March 24-26) and watching the massive parties at the nearby Miami Music Week, the so-called "underground" term is clearly gaining traction as it leads the hit - Tips No More Than adviсe.

So what are we talking about when we talk about underground music and the culture that surrounds it?

Indeed, what about a group of "underground" house/techno heroes Maceo Plex and Michael Beebe cramming nearly 10,000 people onto an indoor stage the size of a small aircraft hangar, just five minutes from The World Away's hottest venue, Zedd? Represents a future rapper? (Ice Spice's cameo appearance on the Ultra main stage during Zedd's Saturday night even drew hatred from EDM fans online, despite his massive popularity and his 2021 hit "No Clarity," the star producer's greatest hits showcase.)

Dance music is about storytelling; The idea is that one is lured into the rave scene by a big EDM pop hit and visits several festivals with their friends, mostly on the main stage to listen to big favorites. Over the years, as they attend dance festivals, they begin to explore the side stages and become familiar with the venue and technology. They soon swapped out their daisy bras for black T-shirts and sunglasses and became "serious dance music fans".

This narrative is reinforced by many in the industry, whether it's a promoter trying to book more European gigs in the US or a Twitter blogger reminding everyone that "we all started on the main stage" and this certainly aligns with the experience of some. people in real life. . But it also makes it easier to clean up populations that can be profitably exploited. Of course, we all understand that people are actually more subtle than "basic bro" or "techno in black t-shirts."

There are many other people who are introduced to dance music through other paths of exploration, and some people skip dance pop altogether. On the way home from Ultra Sunday Night, my friend was talking about the intimate life of Italian house and techno DJ Joseph Capriati, but he hadn't even heard the name Illenium and only knew one song from the latest Hot 100-.

Where does my friend fit in the overall scheme of things? Right there at the Ultra Music Festival, next to the Marshmallow Stance, he stood meters from a man in a Dioro T-shirt during Mind Against's techno-house set. We may all have slightly different tastes, but we all dance on the same pitch.

Yes, there is something sexy about being part of the underground. There's a sense of exclusivity, like you're special, even when tech house goes mainstream - which was almost inevitable on weekends, regardless of the scene. The exotic appeal of "Underground" is at the heart of the Ultra "Resistance" concept. The brand debuted at the festival in 2015, the same year that Major Lazer and DJ Snake released their record-breaking song "Lean On" and Martin Garrix collaborated with Usher, two achievements that mark the pinnacle of EDM radio saturation in the US.

With a 2015 debut lineup that included Tale of Us, Sasha, Jamie Jones and The Martinez Brothers, the idea was that house and techno DJs were somehow "resisting" the urge to make mainstream pop music and did something really interesting for those who flocked. it was great on stage. was in the corner. Not that it wasn't, but it's hard to argue that everything that happened on that huge stage in front of a huge audience was somehow more exclusive than anything else that happened in Bayfront Park. It's harder to argue now.

There may not be much overlap between people who want to see the Art Department and people who want to see Armin van Buuren, but in the end, both categories of people spend hundreds of dollars on a ticket, including flights and hotels. and other amenities. Miami is one of the most expensive tourism weeks. Two works are very popular. Otherwise, Ultra will not book them.

Resistance levels are not only popular, they are preferred by all Ultra brands. An example of this is the Ultra Resistance residence at the newly opened M2 Megaclub in South Beach. Following in the footsteps of Ultra's existing and acclaimed Ibiza residency, this week will kick off with performances by house and techno stars Carl Cox, Sasha and John Digweed, Soulard, Anfisa Letiago, Charlotte De Wit and other Resistance headliners. brand

De Wit, a Belgian DJ producer known for his brutal dark techno, made his debut on the main stage of Ultra on Friday night. The set was billed as something of a coup, with Ultra host Damian Pinto urging audiences to show the same love for DeVito as they would for any other more well-known artist on the main stage, as if an incredibly talented and world-famous DJ were in the laundry. the stage was supposed to be the biggest stage of the festival, nobody heard about it.

Was this the first time a "serious" techno DJ Ultra was on the main stage? Maybe, but Deadmau5 played here, and he is not new to this genre. Hardwell's big comeback last year was quite dark and dark, while also highlighting and capitalizing on how popular the style has become with viewers around the world. De Witt's performance was a frenzy that struck the entire audience as a little contrived and a little condescending.

The world classification of dance is so intrusive that it began to influence the artists themselves. A producer friend who didn't play Ultra this year but came to the festival to have fun and support his colleagues spoke of the disappearance of "middle-class DJs" - a phenomenon similar to the current economic crisis in the American music industry - their real strength middle class.

According to him, some artists feel they have to choose between high-paying, ostensibly "mainstream" gigs like Ultra, EDC Vegas and the like, or the more "respectable" way of playing in "culturally rich" venues for much less money. money. This decision becomes increasingly difficult as corporate interests dominate the scene, and decisions about how much money artists make or how many people they play for determine the quality of their art. But this is a dangerous way of thinking, both in terms of how it can limit creativity and in terms of the well-being of artists who may avoid financial gain for fear of losing credibility.

After all, Ultra and Miami Music Week this week proved that "underground" house and techno are really popular in the US - just as many cynics who criticized EDM in its heyday hoped. If you need more proof, check out the 5,000-person mini-festivals that took place every night at Factory Town in Miami last week, including the sold-out Tales of Us, Camelfat and Matham aftershows then held at Mega Structure Ultra. resistance. They played four days later.

But at the end of the day, if someone really loves music, "popular" shouldn't be a swear word. Taste changes and develops over time at micro and macro levels, but to argue that the music a person enjoys says something about their worth or intelligence as a person is a slippery slope. (We're talking about the M83, which made Ultra in 2012 and recently faced a backlash on Twitter from DJs who said they regret the EDM crossover fame the scene has brought him because of his dislike of fans.)

Last weekend, live guitarist Kaijo stood in a cage breathing fire from every corner of the Ultra Live stage. It was pretty cool to see a huge 3D line of Exterminators hovering above the crowd at Eric Prydz's stunningly empty show at the Kriyas Megastructure. The Swedish Household Mafia played Fred again. The tracks were some of the trio's classic hits when they closed the main stage on Sunday, and it was hilarious when Kaskade and Deadmau5 jumped like the best, spinning on giant glowing cubes. It was bad when Tiësto suddenly quit drum and bass and you could clearly hear Carl Cox remixing Daft Punk's "Da Funk" live.

As genres continue to merge, underground music draws more crowds, and the mainstream becomes more experimental, it's hard to argue that many (or any) of the true "rules" of dance music remain in place. But – from the main stage to the resistance stage, to all the places where the mainstream and the underground intersect, to the musical moments – a lot of what happened at Ultra 2023 got people dancing. It certainly remains the best test of what's good.

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