20 Years After Chile Changed Indie Music, a New Pop Paradise Emerges

Photo by Vicente Brogca

Almost 20 years after Chile’s independent music scene began, a new musical landscape focused on the here and now is emerging, and its energy and vitality is inspiring both newcomers and veterans to build a sense of community. For starters, emergent bands are playing tocatas (or shows) at rehearsal spaces or in living rooms like Espacio Elefante, a student-run venue inside Universidad de Chile that holds recitals for music students on its top floor and lets local bands book shows in its basement. Rodrigo Herbage from Dolorio y Los Tunantes, a musician and promoter who frequently books shows at the venue, finds it funny that “it’s a space for underground music that is literally underground.”

Ironically, the space hosts classically trained students playing on top of self-taught noise pop bands, sometimes simultaneously. In October of 2015, its ceiling collapsed, and although no one was physically injured, it left the scene’s up-and-coming artists with one less venue to play in.

Dolorio y Los Tunantes. Photo by Vicente Brogca
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In Santiago, this is not a luxury local bands can afford. Surprisingly, this did not hinder their momentum in any way. On the contrary: bands like Medio Hermano, Patio Solar, Niños del Cerro, Tus Amigos Nuevos, and Playa Gótica are continuing to find alternative means to make their music heard.

In the last two decades, Chile’s independent music scene has seen notable changes in its identity and complexity. The community originally blossomed as a small network of fans, journalists, and bands making do with whatever infrastructure was available at the time. In her dissertation on late capitalism and the country’s indie music industry, Dr. Shannon Gardner reveals, “Throughout the 80s and even into the 90s, alternative music was largely circulated on pirated cassette tapes, whether dubbed by friends or sent through mail by relatives living abroad.”

Journalists like Cristian Araya, founder of the prominent online music publication Super 45, was part of this generation and began reporting on music as a college radio DJ. His main focus was on artists from the U.S. and Europe, but he had the foresight and vision to give local artists a forum. To this day, it remains one of the pillars of Chile’s independent music network.

After the dictatorship ended in 1990, Chilean citizens enjoyed easier access to information from across the globe, and along with the rise of the Internet, indie music culture had a newfound distribution network. The scene was no longer just for the adventurous digger or those with enough disposable income to buy imported records or travel for leisure.

Related: 10 Chilean Artists You Need to Know Right Now

As the scene matured, it spawned a wider diversity of acts, ranging in styles from folk, post-rock, indie-pop, and post-punk. DIY culture pushed young Chilean artists to be more self-reliant. Bands like Congelador produced beautifully arranged post-rock albums; the short-lived Supersórdo gained cult status by channeling Sonic Youth and the Melvins; and Pánico’s goofy, hyper-sexual disco punk broke ground.

The early 00s heralded Chile’s golden age of creation and collaboration. Bands like Taller Dejao created what many deem a particularly Chilean style – lo-fi recordings of freak-folk and pop infused with nuevo canto and the influence of Los Prisioneros. The indie label Quemasucabeza nurtured future indie darlings Gepe and Pedropiedra by giving them license to experiment with their sound. This ebb and flow of local and global influences clashing and fusing opened doors for artists like Teleradio Donoso (Alex Anwandter‘s pre-solo venture) and Fother Muckers released a sparkling and radiant brand of indie rock, heavily focused on production overflowing with dance pop brilliance.

By the late 2000s, the scene began to garner international attention; in 2011, Chile was singled out as a “pop paradise” by the Spanish newspaper El País. In that piece, Gepe declared that “10 years have gone by, but it seems like 30,” a statement that shrewdly captures the extent of growth and change that followed the initial birth of indie in the late 90s. Dënver, Gepe, Javiera Mena as well as Fakuta and Astro garnered fame and success. Chilean pop became a blogosphere favorite, and even bookers and fans hailed it as a new chapter in Latin indie. But that kind of insular celebration may have shone too blinding a light for outsiders to see that it was pigeonholing the entire scene.

“It’s not that we necessarily want to move away from the Chilean pop label, but we are not influenced by it.”

According to Juan Fernando Rubilár, who currently fronts Medio Hermano, these artists “changed the way the media saw Chilean musicians.” They became so successful, they didn’t have to bet on the local music industry infrastructure, enabling them to reach markets outside of the region. Of course, local musicians still had to rely on venues and labels for support.

Rubilár’s previous band, La Reina Morsa, was signed to Sello Cazador, the label behind other Chilean pop heavyhitters like Ases Falsos, Protistas and Adrianigual. Between 2010 and 2013, Rubilár played in spaces like Cellar and Club Mist, alongside acts like Dadalú and Portugal. “With the closing of these spaces, it felt like we were forced to book venues where music is not the main priority again.” For him, 2015 marked the next step. That year, Rodrigo Herbage and Diego Sepúlveda of Cazador banded together to create a series of showcases or ciclos that booked bands in a variety of venues and spaces with music as their top priority.

Medio Hermano. Photo by Javier Escobar
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After speaking with Herbage, it seems as though the current community is tight-knit and isolated. There doesn’t seem to be any resentment towards the pop label coined by outsiders, but also little to no relevance for the reality of the community flourishing today. “It’s not that we necessarily want to move away from the Chilean pop label, but we are not influenced by it,” he explains.

Rubilár echoes that sentiment; the label seems to have shaped the media more than local artists. Herbage is young, informed, and enthusiastic, but he doesn’t claim to know it all, either. During our conversation, he seemed respectful of artists past and present, but he was also aware that the scene’s history planted roots all the way back in the 90s.

Chilean music isn’t a one-trick pony.

Stylistically, the new generation is a carefree crowd that plays noise, power pop, and garage. During our conversation, Sepúlveda half jokes, “I think seeing Mac DeMarco at Ex Oz had more impact on these newer musicians than anything else.”

Trying to understand the identity of the South American nation’s musical community based on the amount of effort put into a specific genre, especially one like pop, would be an essentialist and homogenous endeavor. As Rubilár explains, “There has always been activity in the independent music scene, only the players and spaces change.”

Photo by Sebastián Saldivia
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Local media seems to understand that reality, too. During Rolling Stone Chile’s brief existence, it published a list of the country’s 50 best albums. The list’s first 10 slots were given to legends like Violeta Parra, Victor Jara, Los Tres, and Los Prisioneros. It places La Ley just above Gepe, while slot 11 belongs to Supersórdo. Chilean music isn’t a one-trick pony, just because outsider publications have characterized the nation’s rich cultural legacy as such. Chileans know what they have, and they appreciate it.

Related: On the Eve of His First US Tour, Gepe Looks Back at the Chilean Pop Revolution

“Right now my main question is, ‘What comes next?’” Herbage seems a bit anxious, but excited about the future of the scene. He’s definitely comfortable with venues coming and going, the media paying attention, and then leaving for greener pastures. He mentions the possibility of booking tours to nearby cities, but nothing seems set. This step-by-step way of working might be inherited from figures like Francisco Morales, who ran CFT, a small DIY space that booked experimental and underground acts. Fans and patrons remember it fondly, and the venue’s success showed people like Herbage that booking small but meaningful shows was possible.

Fast forward to 2016. Events like Nuevo Verano or Ciclo Fisura consolidate different skill levels and knowledges, helping to bridge the gap between inexperienced bands and more established venues. The evolution of Chile’s scene doesn’t just yield an onslaught of new and exciting music, it fosters a community of vibrant, passionate people building something through cooperation and camaraderie. While the sustainability of the scene remains to be seen, artists and stakeholders are being smart about managing fame, ethos, and community building, and those who came before them seem happy to pass the torch.

Dive into Chile’s new pop paradise with our Apple Music playlist: