Written by Jack Meyer and
Edited by Arminda Downey-Mavromatis, Parth Chhabra
Art by Lucy Wang
You step into a small classroom, one typically peppered with easels and assorted art paraphernalia. Today, though, the room is dim, illuminated only by fairy lights, a makeshift stage up front with people packing the room. Onstage, a student sings a folk-tinged melody into the mic, strumming his guitar while the synthesizer sits to the side, playing a looped melody. He’s following a half-hour performance that blended together flutes, vocals, and electronic beats.
It’s Friday night in 501 Dodge, at a concert thrown by Hi-Fi Snock Uptown, one of the many groups involved in Columbia’s underground music scene, the likes of which include Rare Candy, Postcrypt Coffeehouse, WBAR (which loans out equipment to independent musicians and in its daily programming reflects eclectic tastes), Columbia University Society of Hip-Hop, and more.
What does it mean to be involved in Columbia “underground” music scene? Some of these groups are perhaps more well-known than others, many of them don’t get much funding through official school channels, and the people in the scene are rarely involved in just one group. In some cases, the groups are literally underground—WBAR operates in the basements of Reid Hall while Postcrypt Coffeehouse organises shows mostly beneath St. Paul’s Chapel.
Most Columbia students will go four years without attending, or even hearing about, one of these events. Lack of publicity aside, what makes the underground scene stand out most within Columbia’s music culture is its dependance on the initiative of its students, be it a concert in Dodge, a discussion on the significance of mumble-rap, or student’s carefully curated hour of whatever music they care about. When organizing the average Rare Candy concert, the discussion will usually go along the lines of, “we’re going to book a rapper, a techno-dj, and a folk-trio, all on the same show, and people are going to be like, ‘what the actual hell is going on?’ Well, there’s something for everyone,” Tati Becerra, editor-in-chief at Rare Candy, says.
Often, this mix of popular interests with the more niche idiosyncrasies of those in the underground scene is met with enthusiasm. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would get knocked over in a Columbia dorm basement because of a mosh pit,” quips Becerra.
Much of the scene’s standard groups are relatively new: CU Records was founded in 2016, Snock and Rare Candy are both just under five years old. They arose from a desire to address the lack of independent music performance platforms at Columbia. Cleome Barber, a junior in Barnard, is on the board of Hi-Fi Snock Uptown, a group that organizes student musicians to perform on campus, a DJ for WBAR, and a booker for Rare Candy. She says, “It was just some friends filling in gaps on campus where they saw things were missing.” Most of these clubs have no formal recruiting process, and they stay relatively under the radar.
And although many students miss these events, those in the know are usually drawn in through involvement with one club, which opens doors to a whole community. Across all our interviews, it seems the members of these groups share some mutual recognition—that once you’re involved in one, you’re somehow loosely affiliated with all of them. “I think I realized how interconnected it was as the year progressed. Rare Candy was really my gateway into the whole scene,” Becerra reflects.
The events are often spontaneous and DIY, depending on a mixture of effort and creativity on the part of students. Barber describes the scene as a creative incubator: “It’s really just about having music on campus, and being a space where student musicians can perform and try out their new projects or whatever. So we keep it very low-key and very open, and it’s a wonderful space.”
Klea Kalia, a senior at Barnard and one of the general managers of WBAR, stressed WBAR’s emphasis on programming DJs with a variety of identities who are passionate about a range of genres in an effort towards inclusivity. Becerra also sees WBAR as a home for varied, interesting, alternative projects. “There’s a death metal show, there are a couple shows that are all Latin music or Latin-based things. One of my friends does East Asian music,” she says. “There’s a huge range that way. In terms of their shows, I know they really like representation for people of color and the queer community, and that's something I try to do with Rare Candy shows as well.”
In creating this inclusive space, these groups give students a chance to gain experience in fields that they typically couldn’t access, either due to a lack of opportunities elsewhere in Columbia or because of the competition within the larger New York music scene. Vanessa Chadehumbe, a Columbia College senior, is a member of the Columbia University Society of Hip-Hop, a group that brings together hip-hop fans on campus, often for talks on the state of rap in the space they borrow from CU Records (with whom they share several members). But the group is perhaps most notable for its group freestyle sessions, called cyphers, which they hold around campus. As Chadehumbe points out, “I think it really is about how relaxed the atmosphere is. It’s very come as you are, don’t be concerned about like ‘the weight of your bars’ or whatever. People are already engaging with us, and seeing us as almost a fun kid’s space for doing these things. Not that the things we’re doing are childish, but it’s just a lot more relaxed than what you might find outside of campus.”
Chadehumbe is alluding here to an intensity in the surrounding underground scene of New York that has deep roots. Whether it be the Velvet Underground in the 60s, the iconic venue CBGB and its revolving door of punk and new-wave acts in the 70s and 80s, the birth of rap in the Bronx, or the latest flock of indie singer-songwriters in Brooklyn, New York has enjoyed a thriving underground music scene for about as long as the notion of underground music has existed.
And while a thriving music scene exists in New York, its hubs center around Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. “When you come Uptown it’s like a ghost town, there aren’t really any venues up here that are comparable to the ones in Brooklyn,” Barber said. This inspired Hi-Fi Snock Uptown’s name, with emphasis on the “Uptown”.
Music, like most things in New York, doesn’t come for free. Tickets to attend gigs in the city can cost up to hundreds of dollars, deterring many students from fully engaging in the scene. Conversely, on campus, most groups do not charge covers for their concerts, and musicians, both from within and outside the school, often perform for free. “Since we book so many fledgeling small bands, a lot of times they just really want a place to play a show,” Becerra explains.
Free music, free experience, little administrative funding. Often, financial resources are what keep these clubs on the periphery of more “mainstream” music avenues like Bacchanal or even the Music Performance Program. But receiving more money from the school not only chips away at its “underground” cred, it also may not provide a thorough solution, as Bacchanal—definitively not a part of the underground scene as the most well-funded music event on campus—demonstrates.
“It takes a lot of financial effort that a lot of people don’t know about,” Anderson Peguero, a Columbia College senior serving as co-president of the Bacchanal committee, admits. “It’s always kind of a challenge to get what we need and to do better with Bacchanal because of the level of bureaucracy we deal with and the fact that, on some level, it’s kind of out of our hands ’cause we can’t go to Columbia’s front door and be like, ‘Give us the money.’”
Rather than deal with the constraints of Columbia’s bureaucracy, most of these groups rely minimally on the administration for funding or, in the case of Rare Candy, bypass it entirely. This choice is one that can place a strain on their budget, but a strain that, in some ways, ties into their identity. “There were definitely times where we felt we could get this funding. But part of the DIY spirit is also the hustle, and working for it and trying to make it work with what you’ve got, which is not a lot of resources all the time. It’s like using an old thing of rainbow lights or a fog machine,” Becerra says.
Barber explains that the underground music scene effectively rotates among and competes for the same “hidden” spaces. It’s mostly personal connections that get Snock and Rare Candy into Dodge 501 and the Potluck basement.
This is where the disparity between the groups begins to reveal itself. While Barber appreciates the freedom that “independent” student groups have, she points to the significant difference funding makes. “WBAR does have access, like they throw WBAR-B-Q every year, which is a big thing where they can spend thousands of dollars on these awesome artists,” she says. Kalia acknowledges that WBAR’s school funding does put its events programming at an advantage, and they loan their equipment out to smaller student groups, which partially helps sustain the unfunded underground scene.
Limited resources bind both the underground and mainstream music scene into a close-knit community. The underground community, then, is ironically sustained by groups with more resources and funding. WBAR loans its equipment—like monitors and CDJs—out to smaller student groups, and CU Records’ website states: “Our goal is to foster the campus music scene by serving individual musicians and acts that do not possess the resources to record or showcase their own music.”
It’s worth asking if the scene is stuck, too small to receive official resources, and so unknown as to remain a self-contained community.
“It’s a weird balance because we want to be able to recruit people, be able to advertise ourselves as something that people can come and get involved with. But because we aren’t recognized … it’s a weird balance that we have to work with,” Barber says.
For now, though, these clandestine concerts continue to spread through word-of-mouth, reaching mostly club members, or possibly friends of friends. If you’re not actively looking for it, chances are these Facebook events will never appear on your feed.
When asked if she feels it’s a self-contained community, Barber pauses, thinking briefly. “I guess so, though I don’t know if it’s different from any other community,” she says. “If you’re involved in it, then you’re going to hear about it.”
Have fun leafing through our sixth issue!