Friday, July 6, 2007

Punk Rock Paradigm Shift, Pt. 1: On Labels

In the last week I have had two punk-related experiences that I think are noteworthy (and thus blog-worthy), and so I want to spend a little time thinking about these events and their significance in the broad scheme of punk music today.

Today’s post is about a band that I have had on my radar for the last five years, Against Me!. Most of my punk-listening life has been a story of playing catch-up, as I have had to learn about all the great bands either at some late stage in their career or long after they closed up shop. My listening tends to circulate around late 70s and early 80s punk, and a smattering of early 90s stuff. So it’s a little bit rare for me to have had the chance to follow a band that I like unfold and develop.

The case of Against Me! is especially interesting because I have been able to see them so many time and in so many different venues (the most interesting of which were a school for the blind in Alston, MA, and a dining hall at Boston University). I’ve also eagerly awaited each release, which have come regularly since 2002, when they released their first full-length, Reinventing Axl Rose.

Next week Against Me! is set to release another record, entitled New Wave. I have been looking forward to this release with some level of unease, the reason being that this will be the band’s first release on a major label.

Yes. A major label. This came as quite a shock for me and many people who like Against Me! for the simple reason that, as a band, they have tended to espouse the best virtues of punk culture: they tour relentlessly, performing songs about the simple joys of the music and the culture, and releasing records in ways that tend to promote independent labels. The reason that I liked Against Me! when I first heard them is that they seemed to understand all the basic tenets of a punk ethos, and when I saw them actually perform, I knew that I had found a band that was doing something positive and fun for the American punk music.

While for some bands going to a major label is a matter of course or an expression of success, for most punk bands, it is a mark of shame—evidence of a band’s lost punkishness and occasioned by the inevitable accusation that a band has “sold out.” I don’t like to throw that term around, mostly because it is used with such cavalier disregard for what it actually signifies, and used so frequently, that it’s really hard to even say for certain what the phrase means. Only recently did I begin to understand why it is the great bands—band whose ethos is inimical to the industry—find themselves driven into the embrace of a world they claim to despise.

In order to make a living off of punk music, one has only very few options. The first is to tour and release records relentlessly; the problem with this is that such bands tend to live their lives on the road and release very mediocre music (c.f. Joe Queer). The second option is to be on of those rare individuals who can release music on every couple of years and tour when convenient because they either produce records or run a record label (Ian MacKaye’s moral superiority is premised upon his ability to stand between realms and occupy space that is not available to all members of the punk community). The third way in which bands may make a living off punk is by going the major label route.

Against Me! is clearly exhausted by the touring, and their records have, in my opinion, suffered somewhat. So the move to Sire has come as a natural consequence of the rules of the game. New Wave will get better distribution than any of their previous records, and, produced by Butch Vig (who produced Nirvana’s Nevermind), the record has the potential to be something new entirely, a change of course for a band drowning.

This is, in fact, what the band wants, as the album’s title track suggests. The record’s first lines are as follows:

We can control the medium
We can control the context of presentation

Is there anybody out there receiving errors

Reaching out for some kind of connection

C’mon and wash these shores
I’m looking for the crest of a new wave.
In changing the context in which the band has created and distributed their music, they hope to make better music without compromising their sound. As the song suggests, listeners will receive no errors in this recording.

But New Wave is not, in point of fact, a great album. The added production detracts from the feeling that the earliest recordings had, and the expertise exerted on shaping the arrangements of these songs serves only to round corners that should not be rounded. Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a bad record, and Against Me! has done well to not be overly apologetic about going to a major label. But New Wave only furthers a trend the band has been following, as their sound veers away from the stripped-down, unprofessionalized sound that made them so vital in the early years. New Wave sounds like a south rock band playing hard south rock, with some punk influences. It’s a different sound for them—a band whose personality has, perhaps, changed more than it would like to admit.

All this raises for me a more vital question about punk itself. Should Against Me! or any punk band try to make a living out playing music? I tend to think not. Sad as I would be to have only gotten three albums from Fugazi or the Clash, I think that the best punk music has tended to flow from bands that experienced temporary and embattled moments of creation, and whose mode of production, distribution, management, and creativity were simply unsustainable. The really vital bands, the ones that laid the cornerstone of punk culture, were not, by and large, bands like the Ramones. A quick listen to any of the Killed By Death compilation CDs is argument enough the best punk music came spasmodically out of exceptional moments that were best left unsustained by industry.

I am not trying to condemn Against Me! for moving to Sire. In fact, what I want to emphasize is that I understand why a band like theirs would do such a thing. However, I am increasingly of the attitude that to try to make one’s living, to become professionally a punk, is to threaten the culture by inviting in forces that have historically undermined it and enter a domain where musical success is far from guaranteed. What a major label ultimately signifies to me is not that a band has “sold out” or that the music will by necessity suffer, but that a band hopes to guarantee its place in a culture that has exhausted it. It’s a dangerous move for the band’s music, but an even worse one for the culture it draws upon because such a move is premised upon the hope of injecting that culture with unproductive and debilitating stasis.

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