Tuesday, August 7, 2012

a boring tirade

One of the weird things about running MRR is the insider/outsider take on the music business it offers. The magazine starts out from a place of refusal, an attempt to create something outside of the music industrial complex. And yet for probably the past ten-fifteen years this thing that our version of punk, a thing which the DIY network was put in place to circumvent, has become part of the reality of a lot of the music and musicians we cover. Things that would have once been out of the ordinary are now usual; one sheets from PR companies, bands that supposedly operate on a DIY scale who also play Blackberry / Facebook / corporate holiday parties for thousands of dollars, and of course corporate sponsorship of tours and records and punk festivals. Bands having not only a PR person that handles their records, but also one to promote the tour probably means that the only way they can financially exist is by accepting as much corporate cash as is humanely possible. Of course we exist in an era where only a small fraction of kids actually buy records; music is now seen as being something that should be free, everything is a one sided tape trade, so bands that actually expect to make a living from their sound or even a profit are “forced” to engage with the market place. Right?! There’s a lot of room for contradiction; for instance a friend’s band who I am pretty sure get flowed free sneakers from Nike recently played an anti-Walmart benefit... Of course there still exists a huge underground DIY network of punks that refuse to participate in corporate/pseudo music biz bullshit, and thousands of bands who have no dreams of playing the Diesel tent at SXSW in exchange for a pair of jeans and some coverage on turd-burglermusic.com. 
I have been thinking about the incursion of music business practices into punk rock, in the light of the fact that Maximum Rocknroll is thirty, and especially since I now get all my MRR email automatically forwarded and about three quarters of it is made up of relentless PR screeds for bands that you probably own records by. (And many more that you do not! It’s an endless stream of shit). 
It’s a different era from the one in which I grew up in for sure. My gateway band was Nirvana, a classic example of a band who desired stardom whilst being repulsed by it at the same time. I can’t imagine any members of that band giving away free Scion branded tube socks at their merch table however... From Nirvana it was a quick descent into actual DIY punk, a lot of which I found out about courtesy of major news outlets like Sassy magazine and the Melody Maker/NME before discovering actual underground communication methods. My teenage punk band, at the height of the Riot Grrl news frenzy would not do interviews with major publications, only fanzines. We had people literally invent interviews with us so they could get their GrrrlScoop taken care of, but we refused partly because of Huggy Bear’s treatment in the press, and partly because of the Fugazi code. Fugazi’s influence seems to have totally waned in terms of band ethics now, but when I was a teenage punk, even if you did not like their music (I did but I know many reading this did not) their ethics and ways of doing things as a band informed the culture in seismic ways. Of course people had lived DIY pre-“Margin Walker”, I am not claiming that Fugazi invented anything, but this was a huge band who insisted in doing everything on their own terms, using small scale DIY ethics even when their LPs made the Billboard Hot 100. I don’t think anything I am saying here is particularly revolutionary, but someone told me what a certain band got paid to play a Blackberry staff party, and it was more than I make in a month. In three months! It just made me think of how for example, now MRR is not paying my rent anymore, my job at City Lights Books is much less appealing in that it doesn’t cover San Francisco rent a lot of the time, and I have to sell shit in order to make the difference... Maybe too much personal information, but I wanted to heighten the fact that although I love my job I barely get by, and I am not someone who is complaining about people making life / financial decisions from the comfort of my parents’ basement or something. 
And as I stated before, there are many bands who refuse corporate hand outs, that somehow manage to do US tours without the help of multinational corporations, who rely on the DIY network to sell records rather than the Artie Fufkin PR angle. I am not trying to entirely write off our scene/culture as a mini-music business model because for the most part it is not like that, out of choice and out of necessity, and uh, reality. But we are definitely in an era where it seems for the most part consumers of underground music do not care if the fest they are at is sponsored by PBR or if the band they are watching got their gas money from a car conglomerate. Is creating a semi-DIY mirror of the music business what punk rock is aiming for? I mean I am not saying that punks who have set up their own screen printing, or record mastering or recording businesses should all stop engaging with capitalism and come smoke some banana peels with me, maaan. I understand that it’s better to support a small, DIY business, but I don’t understand the PR creep in. For example, if your band can’t sell any records without the help of a PR person, maybe that indicates that your band does not have enough of a fanbase to be putting out records at this point in time!? But then see my comment about kids not buying records; you have to be pretty popular nowadays to sell a thousand records... It seems the current business model is press 300 of something, attempt to build up some message board hype, hope they sell out instantly and become momentary ebay gold, before people move onto the next internet sensation, forgetting the names of those that went before...
What do I know! I do know that I pretty much delete all emails from PR agencies instantly. I also know that I have only been in one band that anyone (meaning the mainstream media) has cared about, and we had the privilege of not giving a shit about making it in the biz, possibly due to the fact that we were fourteen/fifteen years old. We played big shows (for instance the reason I met Lance Hahn was that J Church were Beck’s backing band when my band supported him...) and that back then, as is the case now, if your band is playing a big show like that, you will get paid about $50-$100 and also have to sign some shit about not playing anywhere in that city for a month. Supposedly the “exposure” you get from having 500-1500 kids screaming at you to go away so they can watch the headliner is payment itself. Unless of course you have a PR agent to negotiate better terms for you. Maybe you can put on your PR agent drag and work it out yourself with the venue, DIY style?! One of my friend’s bands was in this position recently—they were offered lots of amazing “career-wise” opening slots for amounts of money that wouldn’t even cover gas costs, and I was totally blown away by how little the terms had changed from my limited experience of twenty years ago. At one time said she was gonna write a big expose about all of this for the magazine, since she was living it (but without a PR agent representative holding her hand) but it never materialized. All of this shit is a world I am not interested in existing in. Drum tech, guitar tech, sound guy tombstone.
At any rate, this is a rambling confused column, with a lot of remarks that have been made before, but I think since this magazine you are holding has made it to age 30 without compromise, without knowingly taking advertising money from corporate entities, only supporting DIY bands, of a narrow scope perhaps, but on its own terms... I think that’s all the evidence you need that indeed, another world is possible, that punk rock does not owe you a living, that you are the one that owes punk. You have to make punk what you want it to be. 
Sometimes when I am at a show, or when I see pictures of kids at shows and every single punk is wearing a bootleg t-shirt of some band that broke up thirty years ago, probably bought online, it makes me wonder what the point of all of this is. Another outfit bought out of a catalog to signify the correct allegiance to whatever subsect you are adhering to!? What does it all mean!? We all walk in line.