The back of some crappy beer-soaked tavern is not where one expects an awakening of political consciousness. But if you’ve out come to see hardcore punk band HeWhoCorrupts (HWC), you’re going to have one – smoky and sweaty though it may be.
At some point late in the evening (or more likely, early in the morning), the CEO of HWC, Thomas Camaro, will take the mic and deliver his annual report in the form of a 12-song set. His suit is screenprinted with the company logo. His lackeys mill around, helplessly awaiting his lead like standard-issue office drones. When he begins, Camaro will outline a strategic economic program the likes of which you have never seen.
At the end of a set where the songs average less than a minute-thirty each – “Ride the Limo,” maybe “No Personal Emails,” or their hit “Master of Profits” – Camaro is screaming, he is naked, the ceiling has begun to crumble, the kid standing next to you is bleeding from an elbow to the mouth, and you may wake up with a black eye.
Camaro is Ryan Durkin, who with Andy Slania runs the Chicago-based independent record label HWC Inc., (www.hewhocorrupts.com) and the label’s roster of hardcore bands like Tusk, 7000 Dying Rats, and Holy Roman Empire (a rare female-fronted getup) for little to no pay. A struggling label, HWC vies against the majors for survival. The label’s philosophy is a trimmed version of the band’s – like most independent labels, HWC grew from a band’s own musical interests – maximize profit margins by eliminating frills. Frills like melody, or the standard chorus/verse/chorus structure.
“The first time I saw HeWhoCorrupts,” Chicago-based music writer Mike Barron recalls, “was in a classroom at DePaul University.” They were playing an all-ages show on campus in 2004, and Barron thought it would be in an auditorium but found himself in what looked like a standard Econ 101 classroom. “Before the first song was over, there was a circle pit. Before the end of the second song, all five members of HeWhoCorrupts were wearing nothing but their underwear as Ryan Durkin screamed and growled about money and the financial market. At that, I looked around and realized that this was the man that I wanted to be learning economics from – not a DePaul professor.”
Such fan devotion was not unusual when the loud and raw music genre known as hardcore punk first came to popularity in the early ’80s. Now, though, word of mouth is just another tool of corporate marketing, and however much they sound like that stridently independent subculture, the goals of HWC are pure profit. The band plays loud and fast because, as Camaro remarked, “If we played any slower we would have less time to concentrate on our profit margin.”
While the audience may find the pro-corporate message confusing given, you know, the nudity, Camaro is patient with his marketing plan. It focuses, he admits, on “the package” – a juvenile double entendre that calls to mind both marketing speak and his genitals. Focusing on the package, he says, is the way to reel in customers. “Let’s face it: when you look at the demographics of our core audience you are dealing with 14- to 22-two-year-olds, many in high school or lacking a GED. So can I really blame them if they don’t know what positive cash flow is?”
At some point it’s all a joke. HWC, Inc., and their roster of hardcore bands, videos, live shows and releases – not to mention their ridiculously well-conceived merch, including branded ties and bags of shredded money – is an independent music label mocking the corporate approach to culture. Yet it’s a joke they take seriously, meticulously crafting their wares, songs, backstory and stage presence to convey a demeanor perfectly appropriate for the boardroom.
Like the Yes Men, HWC present themselves not as the artists and pranksters they are but as business professionals. So Durkin is sort of kidding when he says, “I’d like to think I was born with the corporate ethos,” but he’s also verifying what Naomi Klein and Alissa Quart have hammered home in recent years: that kids today are born sold.
Having grown up in an environment of sponsorship deals and youth branding initiatives, the 14- to 22-year-olds who form the core of HWC’s audience are post-ironic; they read The Onion for news. They want, like Mike Barron does, to learn economics from a screaming man in underpants.
Therefore when Slania describes their core audience, he adopts the derisive language megacorporations might confine to martini lunches. To maximize profit, HWC avoids reaching out to creatives, and critics. As well as “people genuinely caught up in the music world, because these types of people generally do not purchase music from any record label, including ours.”
Honestly, HWC’s hypermasculine posturing and (ahem) naked profiteering are offensive in every way. On purpose. (If they played any longer than 20 minutes, I personally couldn’t stomach them at all.) One wonders if, in this modern age, such a business strategy can pay off.
But Slania, a tall, clean-cut man with a genuine enthusiasm for his corporate lifestyle, argues it can. “I don’t think you can be truly independent and profitable. Some of these losers will twirl around in the flowers and have candy cane dreams and all that fruity shit and think they’re really making a difference in this world.” He pauses, scornful.
“This world is controlled by corporations and creatively fueled by the independents; it’s only a matter of time before both entities walk hand in hand in harmony.”
It’s a nightmare vision for the future – unless more corporations like HWC get involved.