Of all the wacky responses I got from the announcement of Punk Planet's closure ("Have you considered going online?" "Why don't you just move to Canada?" and "Why didn't you warn me?!") by far the most prescient was this one:
"Sucks. Does it have anything to do with [Sonic Youth's new Starbucks album]?"
In fact it does. Not in the sense that I'm so disgusted with Sonic Youth for signing with Starbucks that I must give up on the idea of supporting autonomous music cultures (although I sympathize with those who are), but in the sense that Sonic Youth is willing to do what I was not. And soon, that may be what it takes to survive in culture. Which does, indeed, disgust me.
All the hubbub about this being a revival of the question of "selling out," though, misses the point. In the early 1990s, when bands jumped from an independent label to a major label, they did so for direct and indirect financial gain. Major labels offered wider access to a bigger audience and crazy fat advance checks that allowed members to quit shitty day jobs, no second thoughts. It was a faster track to the success all artists envision, and the big labels--hot for the next Nirvana and gearing up for the Telecom Act of 1996--were willing to make promises they'd never have to keep in pursuit of providing all culture. But what these bands left behind were the friends who'd brought them onto the independent labels in the first place, nurtured their smaller (or medium-sized) audiences, and provided them an autonomous but supportive environment in which to explore their sound. Sometimes, the labels were OK with it; they couldn't keep up with runoff demand for their product anyway. But mostly, people were angry and hurt: the labels, the bands, and sometimes the major label reps whose bosses had promised to shepherd their picks through the process. Thus: "sell-out" became an insult, a trading-in of community for money.
Now, though, we're not dealing with as clear a transaction: a band does not as frequently leap from an independent label to a major--the independent labels have been shoved out of the business or forced to cut back on releases or are unable to support their records with advertising. Since media consolidation kicked in full-bore 11 years ago, radio play has homogenized around Sony and Time Warner subsidiary releases. Online this has seemed a more natural process, with the integration of iTunes into our daily music discussions, but not a discussion of what may not be made available on iTunes--or what may not be available online at all. Licensing deals are more common for lesser-known bands on independent labels, and now taking them is one of very few options available for musicians who would actually like an audience to hear their music.
In short, there is no more "selling out"; no one gives up anything to participate. There is only opting in. If you wish to play, now, you play by their rules.
This was a cultural shift, yes, and one a long time coming. But it was brought about by specific changes in legislation that deregulated all media (meaning, allowed more of it to be owned by single sources) in acknowledgement that the pursuit of profits was a goal shared by all. Yet keep in mind: this legislation was not written by a coalition of indie music labels. In fact, it was fought tooth and nail by them, as well as by other independent media producers and keen political activists agitating for the protection of the nation's supposed democratic ideals.
At Punk Planet, this cultural shift was brought into increasing focus over the last three years as major media became comically aggressive in trying to procure our ad space. "Corporate connections are never [as] cut-and-dry as we would like them to be," one CableVision-owned hack explained, seemingly reasonably. He was on his third round of e-mails, the point of each having been to demand that we throw our 13-year-old ad policy (stated simply: no major media) into the toilet for his corporate-owned product. "But I'm a subscriber!" a similar exchange had ended some months beforehand.
Despite CableVision's assertion (and earlier, Nike's, Victory Records', HarperCollins', and so many others) that these things just don't matter anymore, there is a small and confused group of us who believes that they do.
But we're being drowned out by our peers in the supposedly independent media. Not just by Thurston Moore, who laughingly crowns Starbucks "the new record store," but by music journalists like the Chicago Reader's Miles Raymer ["In Praise of Selling Out," June 22], who short-sightedly argues that the music industry's recent decline can be "rescued by corporations that make everything but music." Even if, he also acknowledges, it means a venue containing "no possible sight line that [doesn't] intersect a poster, placard, or video screen carrying one or more sponsors' logos."
The recently-sold-to-a-parent-corp-itself Utne takes a stab at more thoughtful criticism, postulating that the naked consumerism of bands who do the deal may overshadow their musical accomplishments. "While bands stand to profit from advertising's exposure in the short term, will their openness to corporate patronage eventually leave them an unwanted legacy of being 'the band that made that song from that car ad'?" Eric Kelsey asks. But this supposes a future where marketing and culture are not merged, and a distant past, foggily remembered, where such things mattered. Most significantly, it ignores the giant forces, so overwhelming as to appear invisible, that have narrowed our cultural offerings into a seeming monoculture.
So history is being rewritten. "Punk rockers are supposed to be especially hostile to the Man, but music consumers in the 15-24 demographic grew up watching punk, emo, and metalcore bands on the Vans Warped Tour, Rockstar Energy Drink's Taste of Chaos tour, and the Honda Civic Tour," Raymer states, ignoring the vast debates that took place surrounding each of these sponsored tours--and oddly ignoring the one that started it all: Jones Soda. Now in a Starbucks near you.
Fully designed at the outset to "co-opt" the "counterculture"--as well as shuttle in egregious new marketing ploys like Proctor and Gamble's possibly illegal Tremor youth word-of-mouth marketing program--Jones Soda brought product placement to those who hated products. And marked a cultural shift from the age of "selling out" to the age of "opting in."
Unfortunately, the spaces devoted to drawing that line--to reminding us that, in fact, corporate sponsorship is an option we can refuse--have been forced to succumb to this cultural shift themselves. Punk Planet is only one of many spaces for corporate criticism no longer available, and although it may have been the last canary in this particular coal mine, it was still a canary in a coal mine. If Raymer is right--and why wouldn't he be? If the worst bands have to fear is that they will be remembered as ad fodder instead of artists, at least they know they will be remembered--more independent cultural production will fall sick and die off. And the level of debate used to check it: brought to you by Starbucks.
"Old-timey indie ideals," Raymer calls this line of criticism, and he's right: I remember when it was feasible to think of something, tape it or write it down or paste it up, and put it out into the world without having to go though a profit-minded distributor, music label, or ISP. I remember autonomous cultural production done for the sake of promoting ideas and not achieving fame or fortune, independent publishing devoted to engaged and critical journalistic writing, and a day when I could find some music somewhere that didn't put money into the pockets of the corporate giant that shut down the coffee shop where I used to paste up my zines. I remember democracy. Ah! Those were the good old days.
Anne Elizabeth Moore