A Foray into New York’s Underground Electronic Scene

aerial shot of room filled with people

Hi Y’all!

By way of introduction, I am Annie, a Gallatin student studying the political, economic, and cultural inequalities of globalization. This summer, I am using my interest in the music industry to illustrate how the electronic music industry is affected by globalization, what that means in concrete terms for the two cities of New York and Berlin, and how the two electronic music communities respond to the changes wrought by a global market place and new technology. I am interested in underground scenes specifically because of the reaction they represent to the rise in popularity of mainstream electronic in the last 10 years. Artists and events people who use the term ‘underground’ often do so in reference to themselves, meaning that they are striving for a differentiation between themselves and the regular. Often this can mean that underground music and parties strive for a certain exclusivity, whether of sound, location, musical composition, level of intelligibility or all of the above. In New York, I began the project with the understanding of ‘underground’ in reference to a number of warehouse parties taking place in Brooklyn. In Berlin, the term ‘underground’ holds a little less weight, where many artists who consider themselves to be underground in their home-countries are celebrated. In Berlin, underground culture is paradoxically mainstream. As a result of large numbers of club-goers in Berlin, audiences are curated for the musicians rather than vice versa.

So far, I have spent the last four weeks mapping the New York underground scene, identifying the major events collectives and record labels involved with the “resurgence” of nightlife in Brooklyn. Through interviews, I have begun to formulate an oral history of the New York scene which traces the heyday of the dance and disco-scene in Manhattan, through to the crackdown on clubs in Manhattan with 9/11 and Giuliani’s term as Mayor, to the new resurgence which has been taking place for the past couple of years. However, despite the agreed upon existence of a resurgence, many of the new and small events collectives struggle to make profits (indeed often lose thousands of dollars throwing events). I am excited to travel Berlin in the next week to see what effect government support of club culture, rather than active government quashing, has on the electronic scene there.

Warehouse space of an underground party in Brooklyn.
A warehouse party thrown by De’la Funk, a year-old events collective.
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A Resolute warehouse parties, one of the oldest and most popular event collectives in Brooklyn.
Berghain, the mecca of the underground dance scene, as a lego set, perhaps illustrating the complicated nature of using a term like ‘underground’.

3 thoughts on “A Foray into New York’s Underground Electronic Scene

  1. Hey Annie!

    This sounds like a very exciting project. Really curious what you find out in Berlin too! I saw you wrote about the German government supporting club culture, but I’ve also heard many stories of clubs being forced to close down in Berlin. I’m not sure about the exact reasons, but I think it’s important to incorporate that in your research, especially if you’re saying Germany is more supportive than the US.

    I’ve personally never been to Berghain, but I’m from the Netherlands and I have many friends who tried to get in / have been to the club, and they all told me there’s a very random ‘policy’ of who gets in and who doesn’t. Apparently you need to look a certain type, but most people in line don’t know what exactly this is, so they just try to look extravagant and different. It might be interesting to talk to people in line for Berghain about their expectations and knowledge about this club vs. the reality, if this fits into your research at all.

    Good luck, have a blast in Berlin!

    1. Absolutely, to say that the German government supports club culture while the American government does not is certainly a massive generalization. I will be interviewing the club commission this Monday, a sort of club union which operates in Berlin.

      Everyone I have interviewed so far talks about the culture of electronic music in Berlin, that culture is what has made the scene so strong. The club commission is a specific example of how a strong musical culture, one in which musicians a industry people activity work together, can create the infrastructure necessary to reach consensus between clubs and governments. The fact that the German government often turns a blind-eye to safety regulations and drug use in clubs is evidence of the success of groups like the club commission to lobby on their own behalf. In addition, Berlin is a notoriously poor city. Club culture brings tourism and money to the city. Notice that club commission uses the language of the economic benefits of a scene. These two factors, of a strong musical culture and the allure of $$ which comes with it, has resulted in an atmosphere very conducive to big-name, popular clubs in Berlin…

      Of course, the german government/police force can only do so much for clubs, like the example of Stattbad which was forced to close for safety code violations, but these cases are rare (or I haven’t heard of them).

      The questions I would like to answer are more along the lines of in what ways and to what degree has the german government supported club culture, through which channels do they do so, and what effect has this had on the scene ??? How often does the german government award clubs propoerty/money to keep on functioning as in the case of Berghain?

  2. Hey Annie,
    Be wary of using the word underground in Berlin, especially as a visitor. Even the small stuff strays away from that term. There’s a bit of a hyper-awareness to not act overtly cool, and instead the intentionally uncool style becomes that pretentious coolness in a way. But I’m not sure what you mean by “In Berlin, underground culture is paradoxically mainstream.” No one’s called Bhain underground since Ostgut. Maybe you mean that there’s a style of partying (weekend-long, no cameras, anonymous sex, unrestricted recreational drug use) that is very popular in Berlin but elsewhere is more underground?

    I’m interested to hear more about your interviews, and how you plan on formatting the final paper with all these elements!

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