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
Want to have your record reviewed? Give me a shout at email@example.com
As usual, a thought-provoking post! I bought Earthling when it came out here in the UK, helping it reach number 6 in the charts. I remember thinking at the time that it was a strange departure for Bowie, but listening to it again during a recent Tim Burgess Twitter Listening Party https://timstwitterlisteningparty.com/pages/list/collection_212.html I realised how many strong tracks there are on the album. The other ‘niche’ Bowie album that is still one of my favourites is the previous album, Outside, which doesn’t seem to get mentioned much now…
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Outside remains one of my favorite concept albums. It brought me back to Bowie. But you can read about that in my book. 😉
While I like David Bowie, honestly, I’ve never heard of “Earthling.” That’s largely because, I’m mostly into Bowie’s early stuff, in particular his glam rock period. I pretty much stopped paying attention after “Tonight” (1984).
All of the above reflects that I’m generally not a niche music guy. But at the end of the day, there are only two types of music, and they are highly subjective: Good music and bad music. And that’s perfectly fine.
You’re making a great point that with niche music, concerts tickets are likely easier to get and venues are smaller. For that I envy you and your fellow niche music fans! 🙂
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Bowie made some of his best music post-1995. Not that American commercial radio let you know about it. All I can suggest is NEVER stop following an artist, even after the radio fails them. There’s plenty of good, non-commercial music out there. Join us. Join us …
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Completely agree commercial success oftentimes isn’t a good guide to find great music, especially nowadays. In fact, I don’t pay any attention to the current charts.
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Your comments about competitiveness and smugness on social media groups are the main reason I’m stepping back from a lot of that stuff. It just sucks the oxygen out of what should be a moment of happiness when you simply want to share a new discovery.
I’ve quit some groups because it’s getting out of hand. Recently, perhaps because of lockdown, there’s been a huge upsurge in reviewers, some of whom don’t seem to understand the etiquette of respecting the writings of others, especially if you’re covering the same album. I got fed up spending hours on a review only for it to be pushed aside minutes later by a moderator who liked the sound of his own voice. It happened on several occasions, and in the end I walked.
I’ve never bought into the “mine’s is better than yours” behaviour, and would rather walk into the wilderness with a positive and happy outlook rather than remain in the front line and be dragged down to that level.
Interestingly, like yourself, I’m about to join the ranks of the retired, but I’m thinking of scaling back time on a screen and spending more time with real people, helping as a volunteer. I won’t have the same ready access to spare cash so the new releases will quickly slow down, and I may just possibly retire from the whole music thing. We’ll see.
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