How new music scenes are created from the ruins of the past

Pádraic Grant
Sep 4 · 9 min read
Music’s liberation from physical media has allowed for the unparalleled availability of songs, old and new. Photo: Wikimedia

The story of popular music in the 21st century has been that of technological impact. As the internet snaked its way into homes across the globe, it made the past accessible by liberating information from physical constraints. Music was the artform most susceptible to this change, having already made the monumental leap from live performance to recorded sound one hundred years in the past. The first revolution meant performance no longer had to be subject to the unconscious whims of performer, audience or environment, but could be crystallised in the grooves of a record for as long as the medium held out against deterioration. By the turn of the century, music could be transferred and stored across vast distances with speed, listenable almost immediately. Technology’s greatest contribution to music is not amplification or synthesized sound, but accessibility.

With a century of sound at our fingertips, it shouldn’t be surprising that our gaze is consistently drawn to the past. When a song is fresh to the listener, does it really matter if it originated last week or in the ‘50s? This has caused a lot of stirring among those who place their faith in the future. It is fretting with a firm foundation, for all this distraction hasn’t produced anything earth-shatteringly original. There have been pockets of forward-thinking, unquestionably, but nothing that stamped a generation with its marker.

In the post-internet era, the defining condition of music is librarianship rather than technical innovation. Cataloguing the past is a part-time hobby for many listeners, a full-time job for some. This does not equal a creative drought. For those making connections between artists who never met, who had no conceivable influence on one another, lines are being drawn that become thicker with each discovery. Music is one of the most conspicuous representations of what the internet has done to the human collective. It has enabled the like-minded to collaborate, it has tangled us in reams of information, and it has channelled creativity into remaking the past in its own image. Things are rarely created out of thin air, but glimpses of what could have been are given a solidity they had never enjoyed before. There are some motivating factors for why this has become the case. There is the commercial and there is the idealistic, and like most things in the art world, the two are often fused.

The business of forgotten history

Simon Reynolds’ totemic 2010 book Retromania is one of those works that frets about our current indifference toward the future. One of its best passages concerns the nature of reissue labels. These are businesses whose bread-and-butter comes from mining deep cuts from various localities, packaging the best together and reissuing them as often sumptuous compilations. These labels have a special interest in creating subgenres, finding connections where none had existed and assembling chaos into order. Such cataloguing may be romanticised as an adventurous pursuit, exploring uncharted waters from the comfort of your sofa with a pair of headphones, but Reynolds is not hesitant in describing the more cynical motivation underlying compilation creation:

“Dealers and collector-explorers share an interest in pushing invented genres in order to make the price of the original records rise … Reissuing, in the 2000s, is increasingly bound up with the creation of markets for invented genres and exotic sounds. It is about stirring up desire: there was no pre-existing consumer demand for ‘Welsh Rare Beat’, for West African psych and Ethiopian James Brown imitators until labels, DJs and journalists made them seem cool. This is a big shift from its early days, when reissuing emerged to cater to those fans of a particular style who were left behind when pop music moved on.”

In Reynolds’s view, the curation business is underpinned by cold market logic. He is correct, because the moral intentions of the owners don’t really matter — whether motivated by cash or by art, they must operate within the confines of the market for their work to continue, because record pressing and luxurious packaging don’t pay for themselves. To that end, they also need to create demand for things that no one had an interest in before, and marketing-via-compiling is the tool to do so.

I had a bout of cognitive dissonance when I first read this section, given that I had suspected for a while that the rarities market was run much like any other business, thriving on rubes seeking out niche sounds. A certain collection mentioned by Reynolds brought this dissonance to the front of my mind. Before reading Retromania, I had seen Welsh Rare Beat on some corner of the music blogosphere and became immediately intrigued. It appealed to me for a few reasons, and part of the attraction came from the blurb accompanying it. I love when more universal styles are given a regional twist, I have a soft spot for Wales and so Welsh Rare Beat rose to the top of my must-hear list.

It is hard to have anything but respect and gratitude for the people who put the compilation together; the endeavour paid off with a brilliant, small but exemplary testament to the creative wealth that the Welsh nation continues to produce out of proportion to its small place on the map. At the same time, the very sentiment Reynolds expressed above lurked in the back of my mind. The same impulse that made me interested in curios like Scandinavian bossa nova (the music of sunshine-basking transplanted to a region where its coolness is made literal) was being exploited here. I had never felt the need to seek out Welsh language rock before, but the fact that it existed and that there were enough examples to fill up two compilations compelled me to seek it out. It has happened countless times, and I’m aware of enough people with the same quirk (deficiency?) in my small circle to know that there’s a sizeable market to be tapped.

As seen throughout history, capitalism mandates the search for potential markets, and the music business is no exception. The ease with which music can now be “transported” (a click of a button is all that’s needed for those who don’t care much for physical formats) mean that those searching out new old sounds, or seeking enough aesthetically-similar bands to throw a genre blanket over, can draw from sources and customers across the globe. Literal crate-digging is the only diminished echo of the explorers’ physical exert. The uncovering of new “scenes” will likely continue for as long as listeners crave fresh sounds whether for their own sake or for the cudos of turning up some obscure curiosities amongst friends.

Labours of love: Dungeon synth and imaginary music made real

Outside the reissue market, with its obvious cash potential, there exist undergrounds where the impulses are more clearly art over business. Genre creation has, like most things, been given a warp-drive boost by the internet, which has allowed for unparalleled amounts of cataloguing. The past has never been subjected to such mining and collating, the tracking of trends and comparisons between artists who had never met or heard one another’s work. Minimal synth was never a genre, psych folk was never a genre, dungeon synth was never a genre. They all are now, and the latter is a case study in how new styles are now not only created retrospectively, but ideas so successfully reified that they attain the ultimate legitimacy: contemporary artists creating works that draw from the unintentional pioneers, codify the genre’s boundaries, and eventually push beyond them.

Some of these genres began life as Wikipedia stubs, others as the idea of one person with a blog. Befitting its place in the post-internet era, dungeon synth lulled in obscurity until the beginning of the 2010s when it enchanted enough people to produce a web community and generate fresh releases made in the style. As codified today, its distinguishing trait is the invocation of grandiose high fantasy through the medium of cheap equipment and a sound so lo-fi that any sense of majesty is instantly faded. The instrumentation used to be cut-price keyboards but today’s artists tend more toward more accessible Digital Audio Workshops where that sound can be replicated using VSTs and other plugins.

“It is an electronic genre based on a longing for an idealised past, resurrected by the advance of technology”

For those first connecting the dots, some of the style’s immediate forebears included Mortiis and Depressive Silence, along with the ambient dalliances of black metal artists like Wongraven, Berlin School experimenters like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, and the soundtracks to early RPGs. Think the soundtrack to Golden Axe or Runescape, and you’re not far off what dungeon synth sounds like.

An example of dungeon synth, released in 2010, by leading light Lord Lovidicus.

The key characteristic of dungeon synth lay in the gap between its fantastical aspirations and its raw production. This sonic deficiency was forced upon the pioneers, but its naïve charm was attractive enough that the amateurish sound of second wave dungeon-keepers like Lord Lovidicus has become an essential aesthetic affect, much like the skeletal production on second-wave black metal was a badge of honour rather than a hindrance. It also has the practical effect of setting the entry barrier low, meaning that at the beginning of its codification the number of artists inspired to work in the style exploded, creating a scene that remains remarkably self-sustaining to this day, with new releases arriving daily and spawning micro-microgenres (winter synth, where coldness is the prevailing mood; sea synth, where fantastical ocean voyages are the order of the day).

The style is an example of how the internet has enabled the reboot of the past. A few people had made similar sounding music, with the same motivating ideas, but in quantities so small as to be largely forgotten. They struck enough of a chord among those who did listen that a whole scene is now based around them, largely thanks to the ease of distribution afforded by rapid telecommunication. Rooted in contradiction, it is an electronic genre based on a longing for an idealised, medieval past, resurrected by the advance of technology. I won’t even get into the fact that dungeon synth artists are now making their work available on vinyl and cassettes for fans who prefer media you can touch and feel.

Dungeon synth’s evolution is identical to other genres based on re-classifying the past: stylistic traits are recognised, codified and evangelised through blogs and messageboards, unfamiliar listeners discover the style through YouTube (where burgeoning genres are reared today) and a few will dare to progress it until it is nearly unrecognisable. As a coda to this genre’s story, one of 2019’s most exciting releases is Dungeon Rap: The Introduction, under the auspices of DJ Sacred, a work of lo-fi hip hop that draws heavily from dungeon synth. The fusion seems less disconcerting when horrorcore, rap’s immersion in the dark side, is considered, but the significance cannot be underplayed. Dungeon synth has become so legitimised that it is now starting to influence established scenes it was once a million miles from. All it took was five years.

Communication liberated

Dungeon synth is just one example. Numerous microgenres have been created in the internet era as an act of collective wish fulfilment. People have not just mined the past but cracked open its crevices and extracted any mood, trait or marker to be found there. Dungeon synth works on the grafting of naivety with grandiose fantasy. Bovver rock is created for those who want hard glam rock riffs with DMs instead of glitter. Vaporwave melds nostalgia for the softest of 80s run-off with, if you believe the theoreticians, a critique of the soulless world it once soundtracked.

The power of fantastical longing to impact the real world has been long recognised. A fictional recollection of the process is the basis for Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a characteristically inventive piece concerning the creation of a fictional country by an Illuminati-like secret society. The planet the country inhabits is chronicled in an encyclopaedia, where it is revealed that it operates on extraordinary premises, where there are no objects but only acts. Consequently, it has no nouns, with objects described only in verb form — instead of saying “the moon rose above the river,” its inhabitants would say “upward behind the onstreaming it mooned.” Entries referring to the country are placed in selected encyclopaedias, crumbs for enquiring minds to follow. Objects from the fictional land begin to appear in the real world. Eventually, the encyclopaedia is discovered in a Memphis library, and the fictional world begins to influence our own world, prompting reforms in the teaching of archaeology, history, biology and mathematics. The story’s narrator notes that “a scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world.”

Nowadays, the secret society wouldn’t even have to place the book in a library. Instant communication, freed from financial burdens, has rendered that part of the equation obsolete. Today’s proselytisers can easily find enough people who have longed for the same thing, whether consciously or not, to make their thoughts a reality. In musical terms, the newcomers, often found on music forums, Reddit, Bandcamp, blogs and Facebook groups, put in a collective effort to codify the emerging style. The qualitative change from imaginary to reality occurs with the emergence of artists producing new works inspired by the cobbled-together canon. Whether motivated by monetary gain or artistic pursuit, like no other time in human history the collective imagination of a few individuals can have an impact across the globe.

Pádraic Grant

Written by

Writer from Ireland, with an interest in politics, culture and the arts.

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