At the beginning of 2010, the government passed the Cultural and Creative Industries Act, which is progressively pouring NT$26.2 billion over a five-year period into film, music, TV, video games and other design-based industries. Of this vast sum, NT$60 million has gone into the Pop Music Flagship Project, which has been doling out money to musicians — ranging from indie bands that generally play at Underworld to big name pop stars — to record albums and travel to international music festivals. All told, the government boldly predicts this national cultural investment will eventually generate NTD$1 trillion in GDP and create 200,000 jobs. Clearly, Taiwan imagines this as a priority for economic and cultural development.
Taiwan’s first real music festivals for local bands that wrote their own songs — Spring Scream and Formoz — both started in 1995, a year before Underworld opened its doors. For years, these festivals were some of the only true forums for underground music. But now local governments are literally competing with each other to see which can host the biggest mega-concert featuring kids with electric guitars and Joy Division t-shirts. In July and August, city and county governments around Taiwan will hold nine mega-scale band festivals that will feature over 700 bands collectively and draw hundreds of thousands of visitors. The biggest is still next weekend’s Ho-Hai-Yan in New Taipei City’s Gongliao Township, which stakes its reputation on an annual indie rock competition and expects 400,000 people over four days.
Many of the bands that will play on these overblown night-market-cum-music-festival events will tell you they once played for fewer than 20 people at Underworld. Du-pi (肚皮), drummer for the pop band Wonfu (旺褔), remembers a gig at Underworld where nobody came. “We were just playing for the bartenders,” he said. “But we didn’t care. We played anyway.”
The list of musicians that have filed through Underworld includes a few pop stars. In addition to Mayday, whose music sales are so enormous they’re unlikely to be eclipsed by another Taiwanese band for at least a couple decades, the pop singer Selina Jen (任家萱) of the massively popular girl group S.H.E. also used to hang out at Underworld while she was a student at National Taiwan Normal University. “She was dating one of the bartenders, so she’d come hang out quite often,” recalls Randy Lin (林志堅), one of Underworld’s co-founders. “That was way before her group ever released an album.”
By 2001, the rise of indie music spurred the Golden Melody Awards, Taiwan’s Grammies, to finally introduce a category for Best Band. Almost every group ever nominated for that award has played Underworld at one time or another. There are too many important bands to name, but to list just a few, there are bands that defined Taiwanese indie rock in the late-1990s, like LTK Commune (濁水溪公社), the Clippers (夾子樂隊瓢蟲) and Ladybug (瓢蟲). Sodagreen (蘇打綠) has gone on to sell out Taipei Arena and play enormous stadiums throughout China. The metal band Chthonic (閃靈) has played international festivals including Fuji Rock, Ozzfest and Wacken Open Air. Bands like 1976, Chairmen (懂事長), Wonfu and Tizzy Bac all played Underworld frequently as young bands and are now considered major headliners. Go Chic, whose members are all under 25 and are currently having an album produced by Canadian electro-diva Peaches, is a band that was practically born in the basement rock club.