The day before I prepared this article, I happened to hear about a couple of long-running BBC radio shows (one of which had been running for more than sixty series!) that I’d never even heard of before (which have possibly inspired more popular TV shows on the BBC). This intrigued me because radio seemed like a totally separate media ecosystem with it’s own traditions, history etc… that runs parallel to the more well-known one on television.
In other words, it was an alternative mainstream. I vaguely remember finding something similar whilst playing a low-budget computer game called “Retro City Rampage”, which also references well-known indie games in a similar way to how it references well-known films, old “mainstream” games etc.. This made me think of the idea of there being a “mainstream” for indie games, and how interesting this would be.
However, a better computer game-related example of this type of thing would probably be games in the hidden object genre. Although it’s been quite a while since I’ve last played a hidden object game, this is a genre that is pretty much never mentioned in mainstream gaming media, yet it pretty much has it’s own ecoystem – with big name publishers, smaller developers and long-running series (eg: “House Of 1000 Doors”, “Twisted Lands” etc.. ). It’s like an entirely different gaming culture that exists in parallel to the more well-known one.
Then there’s music. I remember hearing part of a fan recording of an Iron Maiden concert where the lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, went on this absolutely brilliant rant about how their music is never played on the radio, how it doesn’t appear in the most music magazines etc… and yet they still have literally millions of fans, because people can make up their own minds about music. It made me think about the contrast between the mainstream mainstream and alternative mainstreams.
Because Iron Maiden is, quite rightly, one of the most popular heavy metal bands out there. They were the band that introduced me to heavy metal and, even in the days when online shopping was still a relatively new thing, you could always find their CDs in even the most mainstream of high-street record shops. This made me think of the idea of a more meritocratic mainstream, where (like with heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden), popularity is determined entirely by quality and musical skill rather than celebrity.
Then there’s the TV show “Eureka”. This is a sci-fi TV series set in a secret town in America where all of the country’s top scientific geniuses live. One of the interesting things in the show was how it would reference real 20th/21st century scientists in the same way that famous historical figures etc.. are usually referenced.
Although this idea isn’t entirely new (it reminded me a bit of an old episode of “Sliders” where academics are treated like famous sports stars), it made me think about how fame in certain spheres rarely translates to fame in the everyday world. In other words, it made me think about alternative mainstreams again.
So, why are alternative mainstreams such a fascinating thing?
In addition to all of the stuff I’ve mentioned about how they often tend to work differently to the actual mainstream (eg: they can be more meritocratic, they can be less commercialist, they can be more tradition-based, they can place emphasis on different qualities etc..), there’s also the intriguing idea of these things quite literally “hiding in plain sight”, like some kind of secret parallel culture or something like that.
But, more than all of this, alternative mainstreams are fascinating because they show us how culture works. They hold a mirror up to “mainstream” culture and allow us to see which parts of it developed “naturally” and which parts of it were due to celebrity, advertising etc…
Finally, they are also reassuring because they show us that “the mainstream” isn’t the only mainstream out there. That, hiding in plain sight, there is a “world” where bands gain popularity purely on musical merit, where low-budget 2D games can be popular and where well-known programs can run for over sixty series.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂