University of Sussex Students' Newspaper

Why the term ‘mainstream’ is bad for music

Matthew Nicholls

ByMatthew Nicholls

Mar 7, 2018

The term ‘mainstream’ in music is complex and detrimental. It is thought to mean music liked by a huge number of people that has managed to make it into the charts. Its rival ‘alternative music’ is therefore thought to be anything that isn’t ‘mainstream’, and is liked by less people with a more devoted following.

These explanations, however, are dubious. For one, when a band that is considered ‘alternative’ makes an immensely popular album with chart success (yes Arctic Monkeys, I’m looking at you), does this make them a ‘mainstream’ band? Likewise, when a once popular song becomes old, does it become ‘alternative’? Can there be an ‘alternative mainstream’?

It all depends on who you ask. Some may view the term ‘mainstream’ positively, taking it to mean successful or popular, whereas others may view it negatively, as selling out to appease their label over their fans.

One problem with the term ‘mainstream’ is that it seems to determine the quality of music. Music is a subjective entity that is virtually impossible to measure the quality of. Clearly, to make it into the charts, a lot of money and effort goes into marketing, so if the quality of a song is based on chart positions, does that mean the better the marketing, the better the song?

The trouble is, there are so many songs outside of the ‘mainstream’ that are, in my opinion, as good, if not better than those in the mainstream. Clearly, more people bought Dua Lipa’s ‘New Rules’ than Cosima’s ‘Un-named’ (a song I urge you all to check out in haste), but they are, to me, of equally high quality.

Having said this, the term ‘mainstream’ for others actually dampens the quality of the music or musician socially. Ed Sheeran was once considered a talented, edgy, alternative musician; now, if you say your favourite artist is Ed Sheeran, you could be faced with a smirk and the words “but he’s so mainstream”. He hasn’t changed his character and has only changed his style as any musician would, so why should his immense success make his ability appear lesser?

Another issue with the term ‘mainstream’ is that it is such a grey area. There are so many charts of varying prestige, making it virtually impossible to determine whether something is ‘alternative’ or ‘mainstream’. Is someone at number one in the R&B Singles Chart less ‘mainstream’ (or more ‘alternative’) than someone at number one in the Billboard Top 100?

In the past, the charts were an odd mix of novelty songs and rock anthems. In 1976, The Wurzels held the number one spot with The Combine Harvester for two weeks, beating The Rolling Stones, Cliff Richard and Diana Ross. Whilst this Somerset band may have been very popular at that time, if you ask anyone whether The Rolling Stones are, for want of a different word, ‘better’, they probably won’t say no.

The greatest issue with the term ‘mainstream’, however, is that it often makes the music unlistenable for some people in certain groups. A punk may be embarrassed to say they like Closer by The Chainsmokers, but this is ridiculous; everyone should be embarrased to say they like Closer by the Chainsmokers.

If you want my personal opinion, I believe that no matter what the genre or age of the song or band, if you like it, you like it. You should not be confined to disliking a certain song or band because they have been tarred with the ‘mainstream’ brush; and that is why the term ‘mainstream’ is bad for music.

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