I spent part of my day thinking about David Bowie. This is hardly a new phenomenon. It happens at least a couple of times a month.
Specifically, I was thinking about his Earthing album from 1997. I wondered if it got any real commercial attention.The album made use of the popular “electronica” or “drum and bass” sound raging through clubs at the time. Now I had no use for the club scene, but the music had me riveted!
The question plagued me enough to ask my Facebook group about it. The group told me pretty much what I figured: Earthling was much more popular in Europe than it was in the States, where the electronica trend was more popular. I went to Wikipedia (not always a go-to source for me) to see where the album charted. Sure enough, Earthling reached No. 6 on the charts in Europe, but only made it to No. 39 in America. While this may seem like a disappointment on the surface, I actually found it a little comforting, because it fit the story of my musical life. I’ve always been an “outsider” when it comes to the music I enjoy. Even with a global superstar in the mix, I chose to love an album a lot of people didn’t.
So, business as usual then.
My association with commercial radio ended in the summer of 1985 during what I lovingly call “The King Crimson Renaissance.” I was introduced to that band while away at Army training in Virginia. I came home to realize I had no use for at least two-thirds of my record collection. Out it went, and in came the earliest of a slew of records I discovered either via college radio, the discographies of sidemen on the records I now loved, or the word of mouth from the cool people in record stores or people standing nearby while I was talking to the employees. As far as I was concerned, it was the best way to exist, musically.
I spent another 12 years raging against commercial radio, my argument being they were passing over TONS of amazing music while giving trendy crap a LOT more attention than it really deserved. (Seriously … is anyone addicted to Chumba-Wumba anymore?) But in ’97, I read an article in Musician magazine (I had also long given up on Rolling Stone) that explained how commercial radio worked. It was both eye-opening and unbelievably depressing. Nevertheless, I realized I was doing little more than shouting at the rain, and it would lead me absolutely nowhere. So, I stopped my railing. I had lost the war, but I was completely fine with it.
I can’t remember who pointed it out to me back then, but I distinctly remember him saying, “Pretty much everything you like is niche music, man. It’s you and a select few others, and you feel like members of a club with an amazing secret. And for the most part, that secret will remain yours forever.”
He wasn’t wrong.
I’ve loved living a musical life outside the mainstream. I suppose it made me feel like a bit of a “tastemaker,” though the term wasn’t used in those days. (I’m often called the same thing now, much to my initial discomfort. But I’m slowly coming to embrace the title.) I got a bit of a kick introducing my friends to bands and having them ask, “Man, where do you find this stuff?” I was careful to never completely reveal my secrets. If the word got out, how could I maintain the single thing that made me feel cool?
But the secret got out anyway, primarily through two sources: The rise of the “Alternative” radio format, which helped bring a lot of the “college rock” bands I loved above ground and into relative popularity; and the Internet, which not only brought my music above ground, but got the word out worldwide much more quickly than it could have via a few people using “word of mouth” as their pipeline to what was new and different out there. It started getting more difficult to stay ahead of the curve.
I still live a life in “niche,” but I’m finding a lot more kindred spirits than I used to thanks to social media. This sounds like a complaint, but — for the most part — it isn’t. It’s actually pretty comforting and fun to discuss the most obscure music with like-minded people sure they were alone. Sometimes, it gets competitive, with people challenging me with certain “deep cut” albums from the artists we love. “It’s cool you like so-and-so, but have you heard THIS album the guy was in?” My smug side enjoys answering in the affirmative, then firing off a couple more titles the inquisitor doesn’t know about on top of that particular record. Conversely, it can feel a little frustrating when I haven’t heard a particular record being recommended to me. Shit … how did I miss that one? Ultimately, I learn to be thankful for being shoved in a direction I didn’t know about. As a friend pointed out to me during one of my “I didn’t know about them” pouts, “Dude, you can’t hear everything!”
Not that the truth stops me from trying.
So here I am, comfortably reclining in my “niche” chair, scouring Bandcamp and talking to others about the music we know or don’t know, and how cool it is to slowly dole out that information to others we deem worthy. Snotty? Yeah, a bit. But at least we don’t have to worry about concerts selling out before we get our tickets, or the venue being too big to enjoy the show.
Remember when you could do that with Snarky Puppy?
You can follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (cirdecsongs) My book, I Can’t Be the Only One Hearing This: A Lifetime of Music Through Eclectic Ears, is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine book dealers. I’m currently working on my next book, The Wizard of WOO: The Life and Music of Bernie Worrell
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