In Condemnation of Opting In
Our voices are being drowned out by our peers in the supposedly independent media, like Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, who calls Starbucks “the new record store,” and music journalists like the Chicago Reader’s Miles Raymer, who argued in a piece called “In Praise of Selling Out” that the music industry’s decline can be “rescued by corporations that make everything but music”
Within a few days of the announcement that Punk Planet magazine (which I co-edited for three years) was shutting down, our compadre in Chicago music journalism, Pitchforkmedia.com, dropped the sad news that the underground (and indie-supporting) stalwart Sonic Youth was signing a recording deal with Starbucks.
These were not synchronous events. They were causal, symbiotic even, if you are the megacorporate monolith. For 13 years,Punk Planet devoted itself to reviewing every single independent music release we received, regardless of musical genre, and refused all big business advertising and content featuring major media players. Now it is gone, and what is taking its place? Starbucks.
Critics rushed to accuse Sonic Youth of selling out. Yet the hubbub about this being a revival of the great “sell-out” debates of the ’90s misses the point. Post-Nirvana, when bands jumped from independent labels to corporate majors, they did so for direct and indirect financial gain. Major labels offered a bigger audience and fat advances that allowed members to quit shitty day jobs and jump on what they hoped would be a fast track to success. Hot for the next Green Day and gearing up for the Telecom Act of 1996, the big labels were willing to make promises they’d never keep. The bands that signed left behind the friends who’d brought them onto independent labels in the first place, nurtured their smaller audiences, and provided them an autonomous but supportive environment to explore their sound. Sometimes indie labels were OK with the jump; after all, they couldn’t keep up with runaway demand for releases. But most everyone involved ended up angry and hurt: the labels, the bands, and sometimes, later, the major label reps whose bosses had promised to shepherd their picks through the process and didn’t follow through. “Sell-out” became the ultimate insult, a trade-in of community for money.
These days the transaction isn’t as clear: A band rarely leaps from an independent label to a major because many independent labels have been shoved out of business, forced to cut back on releases, or are unable to support records with advertising. Since media consolidation kicked in full-bore 11 years ago, radio play has homogenized around Sony and TimeWarner subsidiary releases. The process has seemed more natural online, with the integration of iTunes into our daily music discussions, and scant attention paid to what may not be available on iTunes – or online at all. Licensing deals are more common for lesser-known bands on independent labels, and taking them is one of the very few options available for musicians who want anyone to hear their sound. The culture that was sold out in the ’90s has in this decade been forced off the market. There is no more selling out; there is only opting in. To engage now, you do so under conditions over which you have no control.
And while these changes may seem organic, they are part of a cultural shift born of legislation that deregulated all media in the understanding that the unregulated pursuit of profit, rather than a democratic culture, is a goal shared by all. Of course, this legislation was not written by a coalition of indie music labels. They fought it tooth and nail, along with other independent media producers and political activists keen to defend the nation’s bedrock democratic ideals.
Punk Planet watched this cultural shift closely over the last three years as major media comically tried to procure our ad space. “Corporate connections are never [as] cut-and-dry as we would like them to be,” one CableVision-owned hack lectured us. He was on his third round of emails, 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!” was how a similar exchange had ended some months before.
Despite CableVision’s assertion (and earlier, Nike’s, Victory Records’, HarperCollins’, and so many others) that these things just don’t matter anymore, a small group of us still believes that they do.
But our voices are being drowned out by our peers in the supposedly independent media. Not just by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, who glibly calls Starbucks “the new record store,” but by music journalists like the Chicago Reader’s Miles Raymer, who recently argued in a piece called “In Praise of Selling Out” that the music industry’s decline can be “rescued by corporations that make everything but music.” Even if, as he acknowledges, salvation means a venue containing “no possible sight line that [doesn’t] intersect a poster, placard, or video screen carrying one or more sponsors’ logos.”
Utne Reader, itself recently sold to Ogden Publications, takes a stab at more thoughtful criticism, postulating that the naked consumerism of bands who opt in 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 asked in a July 5 story. Yet his query supposes a future where marketing and culture are not merged, and a past, perhaps foggily remembered, where such things mattered.
Now history is being rewritten. “Punk rockers are supposed to be especially hostile to the Man, but music consumers in the 15 to 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 writes. He ignores the debates that took place surrounding each of these sponsored tours, and blinds himself to the one that started it all: Jones Soda, now available in a Starbucks near you. Fully designed at its mid-‘90’s creation to “co-opt” the “counterculture” – as well as shuttle in egregious new marketing ploys like Proctor and Gambles’ youth word-of-mouth marketing program “Tremor” – Jones Soda brought product placement to those who hated products, through innovations like skateboard tour sponsorships and punk-rock venue vending machines. It marked the shift from the age of “selling out” to the age of “opting in.”
Unfortunately, the spaces devoted to drawing that line – reminding us that corporate sponsorship is an option we can refuse–have themselves succumbed to the times.Punk Planet is only one of many venues 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. If Raymer is right, and the worst that bands have to fear is that they will be remembered as ad fodder instead of artists, at least they will be remembered. And the last vestiges of independent cultural production will wither and die.
“Old-timey indie ideals,” Raymer calls this line of criticism, and he’s right. I remember when it was common for kids 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 when I could refuse to consent to demands made by big media and still have a place to work the next day. I remember autonomous cultural production done for the sake of promoting ideas and not achieving fame or fortune, and independent publishing devoted to engaged and critical journalism. And I remember when I could find music that didn’t put money into the pockets of the corporate giant that shut down the coffeeshop where I used to paste up my zines. I remember democracy. Those were the days.