2014: The Year We Stop Arguing About the Death of Punk

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Every few years, someone comes along claiming ownership of their own little corner of music and raining down strident rhetoric on anyone who dares deviate from their vision of the One True Path. Just after Christmas, Don Giovanni founder Joe Steinhardt put in a late claim for 2013’s most reactionary screed with an article for The Media, wherein he complained bitterly about how 2013 was “a sad and depressing year for punk, for DIY, and independent voices.”

Don Giovanni is a great label, and I enjoy the work of many of the bands whose work Steinhardt has released. This only makes the reductive and fundamentally juvenile nature of his arguments all the more depressing. His complaints are based in a black-and-white view of the world that more realistic and/or nuanced thinkers realized was kinda stupid about 30 years ago.

The essence of Steinhardt’s complaints about the world of music in 2013 is that, “The worlds of ‘major label music’ and ‘independent music’ have been growing closer and closer together for a while now; it’s blurry and confusing and growing harder to tell which artists are actually independent, and which ones have teams of managers and lawyers with major-label dollars in their sights them round-tabling the best ways to keep up their faux-DIY aesthetic and when best to shed it.”

In Steinhardt’s vision of the world, DIY/independent bands will remain 100 percent that way forever, never accepting cash from the grubby hands of The Man, never releasing their music through nasty corporate distribution, printing up their own flyers and dutifully slapping them up in coffee shops that aren’t Starbucks. If they happen to want to actually, y’know, make enough money to pay their rent, they will do so entirely through through independent means; otherwise, they will be forever excommunicated from the church of DIY and lambasted as corporate cocksuckers forever after. Or something like that, anyway, because Steinhardt never bothers to define exactly what “independent” means in the context of his arguments.

It’s all very well to beat one’s chest about how things should be, but unless you happen to have a stack of cash in the bank, we all live in a world where you have to actually buy groceries and a Metrocard and maybe even eat out every so often. Steinhardt clearly has no time for such arguments: “I’m sick of hearing excuses about doing whatever it takes to survive as a band. I’m sick of hearing bands say they have ‘no choice’ but to give into this corporate bullshit. Stealing bread to feed your family is one thing, getting money from a shoe company to play a show in Los Angeles is another. One is essential, the other is something where maybe you should weigh your values and integrity over a single fun day.”

Well, frankly, I’m sick of hearing middle-aged white dudes telling kids what they can and can’t do. If it’s a choice between slaving in a shitty full-time job to make the rent and trying to cobble together songs in your spare time or taking a bunch of cash from a sneaker company and using it to fund your art, what exactly is the problem with the latter? Does Steinhardt really think that taking Converse’s money instantly turns a hitherto worthy band into a bunch of corporate shills? If he does, then frankly, he’s living in a world where dick-measuring about how “indie” you are is more important than actually making art. (It’d also perhaps be easier to turn down such offers if independent record companies were less about chest-beating idealism and more about financially supporting their artists, but that’s another story.)

Having fired off this broadside, Steinhardt goes on to complain, “Selling a song to a commercial is not something to be proud of if you’re not a jingle writer.” Perhaps. But there’s an argument to be made that extracting a decent amount of cash from a large corporation for the use of your music, and using that music to enable yourself to make more music, is in fact something to be proud of, because it means playing the system to your advantage.

Take of Montreal, for instance, who sold a song to Outback Steakhouse, of all people. At the time, Kevin Barnes had some interesting things to say about the deal: “The only way to avoid selling out is to live like a savage all alone in the wilderness. The moment you attempt to live within the confines of a social order, you become a sell out… The pseudo-nihilistic punk rockers of the 70′s created an impossible code in which no one can actually live by. It’s such garbage. The idea that anyone who attempts to do anything commercial is a sell out is completely out of touch with reality… It is important to decide whether you are going to completely rail against the system or find a way to make it work for you.”

This is a key point, and one that Steinhardt’s rant misses completely. Barnes draws a distinction between making art and then commercializing it, and “creat[ing] phony and insincere art in the hopes of becoming commercially successful.” Sure, there will be some bands who do the latter, acting as playthings for the corporate world (take the Black Eyed Peas and their song for Pepsi, or Beyoncé and her, um, song for Pepsi). But that doesn’t mean that every band that sells a song to a company immediately transforms into the next OK Go or Foster the People.

And for the love of god, what exactly is the alternative? Stay poor, work in a shitty food service job, and worry every month about how you’re gonna pay the rent, but sleep soundly every night because you’re safe in the knowledge that none of the gatekeepers of indie cred can possibly challenge your DIY credentials? Sure, this all sounds very romantic and utopian, but it’s a shitty way to live, and more to the point, it’s unnecessarily shitty. It doesn’t make for better art. If anything, it probably makes for worse art, because the more time and energy you can devote to your art, the better you’ll get at it.

In the end, such a situation risks making for no art at all. As The Quietus’ Wyndham Wallace pointed out in an excellent article a couple of years back, if musicians can’t make any cash, then ultimately they most likely can’t make music, either. I’m going to quote him verbatim here, because this is an important point and one that tends to get lost in the utopianism of mucking in and living on PBR and two-minute noodles while you make your DIY masterpiece:

The first people to give up will be those with the least money. This, some argue, will sort the wheat out from the chaff: serious musicians don’t give up that easily. But this is clearly nonsense. Serious musicians might not give up, and some may thrive – if the cliché is true – because they have suffered. But if they can’t afford to tour, record, build a website and pay those required to supervise their business, let alone pay their rent, then they won’t make music their priority and potential stars will be lost to us. Their guitars will gather dust, picked up to fill quiet time or, perhaps, to be strummed for friends in small bars. Maybe they’ll win fans, but most won’t be able to do anything with that fact. A developing act can’t tour anywhere unless it can afford to get there, and its products won’t be bought unless it can tour, because these days that’s one of the few ways to gain attention amidst the shrill shriek of marketing. The first hurdle any musician must now leap is financial: can they afford to pursue the dream? The majority that succeed will be those well connected enough to receive funding, or those from financially comfortable backgrounds.

That’s not a world that I want to live in. I want to live in a world where my favorite bands can make a decent living from their music. And, just as importantly, I want to live in a world where their music can be heard as widely as possible. Steinhardt complains, “This year, I watched … truly subversive and independent ways of releasing music being used as stepping stones to majors and major indies.” Well, so what, dude? Bands want people to hear their music. That’s why they get up on stage in the first place. If they decide that moving on from the world of ideologically pure DIY is a better way of achieving this, that’s entirely their decision.

Otherwise, and this is if they’re lucky, they’ll be playing to the same 100 people at a local DIY venue every week — and ultimately, what’s the point of that? Of preaching to the converted, of being part of a scene that slaps itself on the back for being DIY and insular and cliquey? Why draw the line there? What’s wrong with ambition? Don Giovanni has always been vocal about giving a voice to bands from New Brunswick and the surrounding area, which is a laudable goal. Steinhardt wants their music to be heard outside their immediate little scene, which is why he’s releasing their records. Great. So what’s the difference between that and releasing your next record on, say, Matador, where your music will most likely be heard by an even wider range of people? How is one ideologically pure and admirable, and the other selling out and sucking corporate dick?

Never forget, DIY bro: The Clash signed to CBS. Nirvana signed to Geffen. And for all that they both had entirely understandable ideological crises about doing so, it’s this fact that means that innumerable kids the world over heard their music, and the music of their contemporaries. If, say, Screaming Females signed to a major and as a result had their music distributed and promoted worldwide, and put in front of audiences who’d never have heard them otherwise, and made a decent amount of cash in the process… GOOD. And frankly, anyone who’d argue otherwise needs to take a good, hard look at their priorities.

One final point: I’ve written about my general distaste for poptimism before, and Steinhardt has something of a point where he argues that “ironic appreciation of pop-music in the past seems to have been replaced at some point by a pseudo-academic appreciation of this bullshit to the point where lines are so blurred that people can’t seem to distinguish between a catchy song, and something of importance to independent music fans, critics, and artists.”

But then, of course, he goes and ruins it all by laying down what are apparently his Three Commandments of DIY Music Writing:

If you run an independent music blog, if you are an independent artist asked to make a best of list, you shouldn’t be anywhere near artists that are up for a fucking Grammy this year, because (1) that’s embarrassing, (2), that’s doing a huge disservice to your readership, and (3), to put it bluntly: if you’re an independent artist or journalist writing on an independent music website no one cares what your opinion on pop and pop-rock is.

This sort of thing is the flip side of poptimism, the sort of elitist rockist fundamentalist bullshit that gave music writing a bad name in the first place. I’m by no means a pop music apologist, but discounting an entire swathe of popular culture, not on artistic merit, but based on some sort of nebulous ideological grounds, is asinine and self-defeating. If you run an independent music blog, you should write about precisely whatever the fuck you want to write about — that is, after all, the point of being independent.

And again, Steinhardt’s argument is based in a view of the world that dictates that independent is independent and mainstream is mainstream and never the twain shall meet. This world never existed, and it certainly doesn’t exist today. Pretty much every single person under the age of about 30 or so has grown up in a world where genre boundaries aren’t the towering walls they used to be — which, as far as I’m concerned, is a good thing. People should be free to enjoy and find meaning in whatever they want to, be it Miley Cyrus or Waxahatchee or anything in between. It’s not “embarrassing.” It’s laudable.

Honestly, if anything’s embarrassing about this whole thing, it’s a grown man penning an article that basically amounts to a 900-word temper tantrum about the fact that people aren’t doing things the way he wants them to. If Steinhardt wants to sit around in an insular world of DIY fundamentalism, that’s entirely his prerogative (although it’s worth noting that apparently not even he can entirely live up to his ideals). But it’s disappointing that he has neither the breadth of vision nor the open-mindedness to see that wearing an ideological straitjacket is ultimately limiting and self-defeating.