We all have our music tastes, and for many of us, they come from the great musicians of our time. There are the Drakes, the Elton Johns and the Taylor Swifts whose lyrics run through our minds and playlists. The music world seems to be dominated by them.
But in an age of streaming media, a new voice emerges in the mix. It’s not loud, but it’s growing. It’s the sound of a new generation — aspirant, empirical, revolutionary. It’s music, written and produced, by undiscovered kids in their 20s. More often than not by college students.
It’s no secret that underground music is getting popular. Thanks to streaming apps like Spotify, SoundCloud and Apple Music, these small artists have a broader audience than ever before. These platforms help musicians from across the country and even the globe put out their music, and even Madison has taken a piece of the action with LÜM, an up-and-coming streaming app created by University of Wisconsin alumni.
This developing population of underground artists takes on every opportunity they can find. No longer does it take money, studio work or “right place, right time” timing to get discovered — artists can be completely self-made, operating as the creator, producer, manager and promoter.
Whether they’re looking for fame and fortune, or simply an outlet to be heard, this new age of streaming music has created exciting potential for artists. It’s enough to entice anyone to the music industry, and students are no different. Despite their workload, many students try to make time for their music-creating habits.
Where Do They Come From?
Student musicians come to the industry with different outlooks. Some do it as a hobby to pass the time, while others create as an extension of their major, usually associated with the music department or entertainment business and others find their passion in developing songs and want to make a career out of it.
Regardless of where they came from, most musicians had a love for music early on, and maybe even started to create it at a young age. Deryk Gonzalez, or Deryk G, is one of these students. A UW junior studying engineering, Gonzalez has been a lover of music for as long as he can remember. During his freshman year of high school, he started making it on a whim.
“I learned how to play guitar by accident,” Gonzalez said. “My friend left his in my room, and I just picked it up and started playing. I thought, ‘this is cool, I want to learn.’”
He went on to form a band that eventually split but decided to keep playing solo. His interest grew, but he claims he didn’t realize his full potential until college.
He joined the Studio Creative Arts Learning Community, a section of Sellery Residence Hall inhabited by student artists. Not only does the community provide a space for student-creators to meet, but it gives them the tools and facilities to do so.
Gonzalez performed in the community’s showcases, which opened him up to larger audiences for the first time. The performances connected him to other musicians and got him familiar with the student musician lifestyle.
But the Studio isn’t the only place students can cultivate their interests. Many find motivation for their passions through UW-sponsored organizations. Besides its many choirs and band ensembles, UW has a variety of clubs dedicated to making, producing and managing music.
One place that seems like an obvious environment for musicians is the UW Music Department. This is where Abigail Arkley, a junior majoring in Music and Piano Performance, spends the majority of her time.
Growing up, Arkley had a special link to music and started playing piano at a young age. She later got into singing and playing the guitar. She was a well-practiced musician by the time she came to UW, and it was the university’s music community that helped her see a future in creating her own.
“Once I got to college, I met a lot of really incredible fellow student musicians who inspired and challenged me to create my own music, and I’ve kind of been working on stuff since then,” Arkley said.
She collaborated with a few artists, including Gonzalez, and eventually created her own voice as she developed her songwriting. With the community she found, Arkley was able to see firsthand how students created music with the few traditional resources and little time they had at their disposal. And then, like all great musicians that found motivation, she got to work.
How Do They Make Music?
Student musicians like Gonzalez and Arkley work hard to balance school and make music on a budget. In most cases, a little corner of their dorms or apartments is dedicated to recording, producing and uploading.
The process of writing and composing is different for each musician, and for Gonzalez, “the beat always comes first.” Writing the lyrics is a bigger challenge, but he lets the music guide his prose. And when he hits a rut, he takes a step back.
“You kind of have to wait it out until the moment comes where it does click,” Gonzalez said. “I kind of just have to live a little more life to figure out what I’m trying to say.”
Other musicians, like Arkley, find their lyrics through poetry. A trained instrumentalist, words for songs didn’t always come easy to her. She wrote poems in middle school but didn’t seem to truly connect with the medium when she got to college. Gaining life experience and maturing helped Arkley’s poetry blossom, and with it, her lyrics. As for the order in which she creates, it differs with every song.
“It depends on when inspiration strikes first for me,” Arkley said. “Sometimes a melody will be my first inspiration and I try to find words for it from what I’ve written or something new.”
Similar to Gonzalez, Arkley listens to a lot of different music to find inspiration for lyrics and melodies. And with a college student’s budget, they get to work recording.
A standard setup consists of instruments, equipment and programs. Bread and butter instruments consist of a mic, guitar and keyboard. Because of today’s advances, keyboards can imitate a variety of different sounds. Musicians can also sample or use sounds from other musicians or free commercial websites. Arkley uses Splice, a royalty-free sound search engine, when she needs a decent drum set or baseline.
All artists need a mic and some type of audio interface, which allows recordings to transfer from instruments to the computer. From there, musicians use a digital audio workstation. Both artists prefer Ableton Live software, allowing them to mix and master their creations.
Throughout the music-making process, student musicians rely on their community for support. All have different levels of experience in writing, playing, producing and promoting, which makes the environment very collaborative. Those who struggle in one field can get assistance from those who see it as their strength and vice versa.
Arkley writes her lyrics and melodies on her own but uses her connections to get critiques and improvement. She created her upcoming EP, “I Feel, I Think,” with the help of talented instrumentalists and producers.
“I have a couple of friends that I’ll bring songs to, and they’ll help me with the mixing process because they’ve been producing for a lot longer than I have,” Arkley said. “It’s really cool to have those resources, especially at UW.”
Gonzalez also relies on collaboration, contacting friends to critique or contribute to his work. In his 2019 single, “Lonely,” he features Arkley’s voice to capture the story and mood of the song. He also calls on her music writing background when he needs some extra guidance.
But their songs aren’t finished after editing. From there, they navigate the channels of uploading and marketing.
Where Do They Market?
What separates a musician from hobbyist to underground is when they release their music to the public. In the past, this looked like playing for an audience — usually at college parties — passing out cassette tapes and CDs or placing small advertisements around their city. Now, thanks to the internet age, musicians can publicize easily on their computers.
Streaming apps reach the public in ways they never have before — an underground musician in Maine can reach a listener in California. Many take advantage of this accessibility to develop their brand or create a constant stream of motivation for their work.
Student musicians are busy with their education, but the encouragement of listeners allow them to push forward. The motivation is enough for many to make space for their craft and even develop it further than a pastime.
Services like Apple Music and Spotify are only the tip of the iceberg. Some streaming apps like SoundCloud even cater to these underground artists and help them develop a following for their music. Rappers like Post Malone and UW’s own Yung Gravy started their careers pumping songs into these channels, and one way or another, they got discovered.
Spotify has also made the push to include better opportunities for these smaller musicians, creating a more inclusive platform that makes it easier for the public to discover their music.
But one service that has made the largest drive with the underground in mind is Live Undiscovered Music, or LÜM. Created by a group of 11 UW-alumni, LÜM has dedicated their brand to supporting emerging artists, going as far as limiting their app to these content creators. Their app doubles as both a streaming platform and social media app to upload and promote music.
LÜM offers events, competitions and networking opportunities for their creators from the Midwest and all over the country. LÜM Director of Music Partnerships and Artist Relations Endre Krumholz said LÜM expands their in-person support with connections to services in the artists’ communities.
“We make it a point to find studios in the area and then promote those services and availability through the rest of the community, especially at UW-Madison,” Krumholz said.
They hold retreats for those who find success and sponsor music festivals, a highlight being Madison’s 2019 Freakfest. Musicians, including some prominent midwestern independents, had the chance to perform on stage with bigwigs like Lil’ Yachty in front of thousands of people.
Recently, they announced Grammy award-winning artist Ne-Yo as their global ambassador and will increase their support with a new $3 million investment.
Many UW student musicians offer up their music on LÜM, and some have gone further and met with their team for more individual support. Artists can work close with the team to understand the industry and learn how to market and produce their music more professionally. Most of their reach, according to Krumholz, has been through word of mouth, especially on campus.
“We’ve seen a lot of students at Madison get very excited about LÜM,” Krumholz said. “Not only because this is where we started, but because we’re using our platform as a way to bring more attention to all of the talent UW has.”
Both Gonzalez and Arkley offer their music on LÜM and many other platforms. Arkley does most of her marketing on Instagram and Twitter, collaborating with friends that work in photography. She’s also planning to go more traditional and pass out cassettes and CDs once her EP comes out.
Gonzalez takes a similar approach to marketing, preferring platforms popular among teens and adolescents. He’s also used YouTube to create videos to accompany his songs.
He’s released two music videos for his new songs “Lotus” and “My Pride.” For his upcoming EP “Lotus Junkie,” he also adopted a standard form of releasing that many popular artists do to build hype. He released three new songs, “Commit,” “Lotus” and “My Pride” to attract more listeners and get his regulars ready for the new and full collection.
As for branding, Gonzalez focuses most of his attention on the music.
“I don’t like doing things for attention, it has to be all about the music at the end of the day for me,” Gonzalez said. “I feel like the music comes first, and who I am as a person will reflect whatever the music is telling me to reflect.”
How and Why Do They Balance?
While student musicians are drawn to making and producing music, they still have to keep their education in mind. Both college and the industry take a lot of time and work, and students must manage their priorities.
Some decide to create as a hobby, while others put it before school work to develop their career. Regardless, all student musicians have to balance both school and music, which can mean long days and hard work.
“Whatever free time they have, they’re typically working on their music,” Krumholz said about students he works with. “They’re staying up at the crack of dawn to finish a project and get it out there, and then they have to go to class and do their homework. I’m not seeing these people take breaks.”
LÜM also offers guidance to those who need help creating their music. According to Krumholz, they can assist independent musicians with promoting and branding, and even offer marketing advice.
Despite all the support LUM offers, balancing music with school is a daily struggle. As an engineering major, Gonzalez feels the effects of the intense work grind. He’s been at UW for three years, but he still struggles to keep up with college and his passion.
Gonzalez claims it’s hard to balance school and music when you want to be fully dedicated to both. What helps him most is the relief music-making gives him.
“It’s an escape from the pressures of real life,” Gonzalez said. “Over those last two years being in my major and doing my music, it’s definitely helped alleviate that stress.”
He sees creating music as therapy, a way to leave the pressures of his life and take time to himself, a way for him to process the world around him. In the past, Gonzalez has used his music to develop an identity for himself and understand his responsibility as a first-generation Mexican-American college student.
While Arkley is in the UW Music Department, she has also faced similar challenges with her workload.
“The real struggle for me is balancing all the different kinds of music that I do,” Arkley said. “My degree is made up entirely of classical music and accompanying. It’s challenging at times because I still have a full course load and it doesn’t necessarily translate.”
When she was younger, she played and wrote music because she had a passion for it. Now it’s what she uses as her main outlet for processing her life and emotions.
College is an eventful time in a person’s life, even when you set aside the learning part. It’s a time where you question things about yourself and your place in the world. For Arkley, she finds her answer in the music she writes.
“Something in my soul shifts when I sing and I feel more peaceful,” Arkley said.
Thanks to the internet age, underground music is finally getting proper recognition. Independent artists can create music and a following to back it. The music community finds new ways to get in touch and collaborate with its members, and overall life as a musician has become more successful.
As for student musicians, they are, according to LÜM, the music of the future. They put the work in and create the sounds of each generation. They make music to initiate dialogue as art has done for ages. They make music to infuse inspiration among the public.
“We have a duty as artists to go against the grain and be something for others to be inspired by,” Gonzalez said. “I want to inspire just as my favorite artists inspired me.”
Arkley believes that the purpose of music is twofold — to be both a gift to others and an experience shared between the artist and their audience. It’s something she has to do to express her ideas, create a connection and affect change in the world around her. Arkley, Gonzalez and LÜM join the millions of artists who do this, to speak into the world from their own experience and the time in which they’re living in.
“If I can contribute to that in even just a tiny way, then I think that would be super cool,” Arkley said.
Be sure to check out Gonzalez and Arkley’s work on all streaming platforms. Gonzalez’s EP “Lotus Junkie” will be out Sept 30. Arkley will publish her first single “Around You” on Sept. 25 and her debut EP two weeks after. Other independent musicians can be found on multiple platforms, including LÜM.