Sounds of the Underground

A Cultural, Political and Aesthetic Mapping of Underground and Fringe Music
Stephen Graham
The first scholarly examination of underground music in the digital age


In basements, dingy backrooms, warehouses, and other neglected places around the world music is being made that doesn't fit neatly into popular or classical categories and genres, whose often extreme sounds and tiny concerts hover on the fringes of these commercial and cultural mainstreams.

The term “underground music” as it’s being used here connects various forms of music-making that exist outside or on the fringes of mainstream institutions and culture, such as noise, free improvisation, and extreme metal. This is music that makes little money, that’s noisy and exploratory in sound and that’s largely independent from both the market and from traditional high art institutions. It sometimes exists at the fringes of these commercial and cultural institutions, as for example with experimental metal or improv, but for the most part it’s removed from the mainstream, “underground,” as we see with noise artists such as Werewolf Jerusalem or Ramleh, obscure black metal artists such as Lord Foul, and improvisers such as Maggie Nicols. In response to a lack of previous scholarly discussion, Graham provides a cultural, political, and aesthetic mapping of this broad territory. By outlining the historical background but focusing on the digital age, the underground and its fringes can be seen as based in radical anti-capitalist politics or radical aesthetics while also being tied to the political contexts and structures of late capitalism. The book explores these various ideas of separation and captures, through interviews and analysis, a critical account of both the music and the political and cultural economy of the scene.

“There are no sustained considerations of the underground currently in academic literature. There are many discussions of noise, of exchanges between pop and art spheres, and of course of popular music, but Stephen Graham provides a sorely needed contribution in the form of a study that unites all of these different strands intelligibly. I can think of few other scholars who would be able to speak with the confidence and authority that he commands.”
— Joanna Demers, University of Southern California

“If the era of digital music distribution is often considered to have brought about a hyper-horizontality that has rendered all music accessible and audible, Graham’s Sounds of the Underground, true to its title, shows what happens if you start to dig down through this layer. What he finds is a rhizome that uncovers commonality amongst a dizzying array of diverse musical examples, practices and approaches.”
—Greg Hainge, author of Noise Matters: Towards an Ontology of Noise, series co-editor ex:centrics

“Stephen Graham's survey of noise, improv and extreme metal undergrounds (and much more besides) is as multi-faceted as it is meticulous, exploring the institutions, groupings and ideologies behind a constellation of unusual scenes and their rituals with a passion that fellow travelers will certainly recognize.”
—Adam Harper, University of Oxford

Cover Photo of Justice Yeldham by David Kenedy -

Stephen Graham is Lecturer of Music at Goldsmiths, University of London.

Praise / Awards

  • "By placing the focus on the economic, political, and cultural factors that shape these musics at the margin, musics that are often subsumed into broader musico-cultural narratives, Sounds of the Underground presents a compelling picture of this underground."
    --The Musicology Review
  • "From free improv to abstract minimalism to pure noise, Graham gives each a fair shake, conversing with some of the biggest names in each field and lending each a level of credibility previously only afforded by fringe publications."
  • "Of the books I’ve read regarding the underground and noise music...Graham’s ‘Sounds of the Underground’ makes the most sense. This looks like being the definitive work..."
    --Idwal Fisher Blog
  • "This ambitious overview of how underground scenes are connected aesthetically, culturally and politically is unquestionably a great contribution to the field."
    --IASPM Journal
  • "This is a fine work of scholarship, impeccably researched and written."
    --Metal Music Studies
  • "Graham distills a massive amount of cultural, political, and aesthetic history into his investigation, and his attention to the means of production, the shifting control thereof, changes in consumption, and the lack of change in content are all paramount to the story."
    --Roy Christopher
  • "Graham stays deliberately in the background...but comes over both as a rigorous academic and a passionate music fan, who's got a healthy obsession with ways of supporting and enjoying underground music."
    --The Wire
  • "This is a very good book likely to provoke thought and debate. I thoroughly enjoyed engaging with its claims, was prompted to return to several artists I haven’t listened to for some time and came out with a list of exciting new (to me) artists to check out – a very rewarding read."
    --Popular Music

Look Inside

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 304pp.
  • 7 Halftones, 3 Figures, 4 Tables.
Available for sale worldwide

  • Hardcover
  • 2016
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-11975-2

Add to Cart
  • $54.95 U.S.

  • Open Access
  • 2020
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-90237-8

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  • Underground music, underground culture, fringe culture, experimental music, avant-garde culture, noise music, extreme metal, free improvisation, musicology, music sociology