Underage is All the Rage

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Hannah Bridge

Teenage music fans enjoy an adult-free gig at London's Underage Festival

Music-loving teens can be forgiven for thinking they're being swindled out of their rightful inheritance of fun. Michael Eavis, the legendary organizer of the UK's Glastonbury Festival was heard griping after last month's mudfest that the grungy edge of the event has become dulled in recent years by the influx of "middle-aged" and "respectable" festival-goers. It's a common complaint this summer, with England's festival fields thick with well-heeled campers — the ones with fast broadband and an unblocked credit card to slap on a party-booking for family and friends the moment tickets go on sale. Good news for the corporate sponsors and, to be fair, the ancient bones of Iggy & The Stooges may have given Glastonbury's younger bands an object lesson in bad-assmanship. But if you're 15 and working hard at hanging cool, do you really want to share a mosh pit with a bunch of sweaty dads screaming "I Wanna Be Your Dog!" — especially if one of them is yours?

There may have been worse sins against decorum committed at last Friday's Underage Festival in London, but unless you were aged 14 to 19 and had scored one of the 5,000 tickets for the all-day event, mums and dads will never hear of them. Featuring 37 bands over 4 stages, the festival was a spin-off of the Underage club nights, a series of gigs for 14 to 17-year-olds only that have been running in London since June 2006, featuring young British indie bands like The Horrors, Black Lips and the XX Teens.

This ain't Mika or Kelly Clarkson. Cool teen Londoners are into "credible music," according to Sam Killcoyne, the15-year-old organizer of the Underage events. And the roster of young talent assembled at London's Victoria Park for the festival was dripping with cred. The Young Knives, Jack Peñate and Cajun Dance Party may have already made an impression on the charts, but even the likes of Nottingham's electro-popsters, Late Of The Pier and Brighton's Maths Class have mustered a substantial London following by word of MySpace alone.

The popularity of Underage gigs, and a growing number of like-minded club nights in cities across the country, comes from the same impulse that prompted Killcoyne to organize Underage in the first place. "Me and my friends were really, really obsessed with this band called The Horrors," says the modestly spoken but over-achieving Killcoyne between sets as a DJ at a London record store. "I tried to see them seven or eight times — once in a strip club in Soho — and I couldn't get in. Because they sell alcohol, you have to be 18, and I look really young." Horrified by the thought that The Horrors (they play garage/punk/surf music, in case you were wondering), would be gigging in stadiums by the time he could get to see them, Sam, with help and contacts from his father, a music industry veteran, found a venue and booked his dream band. Then it struck him that, even if they let him run the gig at a venue licensed for alcohol, he still wouldn't be allowed into his own club. In retrospect, Underage might now seem like an inspired bit of marketing, but in reality, says Killcoyne, "I was just really pissed off, so I thought I'd stick the knife in and say over18s weren't allowed in at all."

Corporate sponsors have been quick to embrace the trend, and all the hard parts — staging, logistics, security — have been arranged and paid for by the likes of MySpace, Converse and BBC's Radio1. Seizing the moment, UK indie music company Mute Records has also launched a label, Irregulars, pitching new, young talent at a new, young market, with Killcoyne on board as a talent-spotter.

Even though the Underage formula is spreading fast and Killcoyne regularly gets email from kids in cities across the UK and beyond who want to know how it's done, Killcoyne is a reluctant impresario who's says he plans to duck out of Underage before he's 18. "What you don't realize when you organize these things is that it can suck all the fun out of it. I'd rather be a punter," he says. "I'd like to take Underage as far as it can go and then give it to someone who really appreciates it. Someone who's 13 or 14 and can take it to a different place." But where's left to go? Irregular's first release is by New York's Tiny Masters of Today, a band so young they wouldn't even be allowed into the Underage Festival — were it not for the fact they were headlining it.