This article originally appeared on the punk rock section of About.Com (formerly The Mining Co.) in 1998.
The word is the bane of any successful punk rock band. “Sellout!” And it’s heard, even if only in the backs of their minds, by any self-respecting punk musician that finds themself on a major label. The definition is simple enough to be universal. Any band that gives up on their struggling indie label, turns in their street cred badge, and makes money hand over fist with their snarling mugs in heavy rotation on video channels across the globe with fresh new haircuts. Every one of us knows what it means when someone is a sellout. Even their music sounds weaker. Palatable. Vanilla.
But is it really that simple? It’s important to remember that in the early days of punk rock, everyone was on a major label. There were no indies, at least none for punk. The first real indie label that courted punk was Bomp! and by their own admission, they just didn’t have that much money. Since those days, it’s become a badge of honor to be living in a glorified rat hole, touring in a van that breaks down every few hundred miles for the pleasure of playing in a shithole club or someone’s basement for free beer and the honor of crashing on some stranger’s floor. Anyone involved in the scene, really involved, has either done the touring or the hosting, exchanging minimal human comforts in lieu of currency, and feeling proud that they put on a show for the kids. That’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it?
“There comes a time in our lives when we all sell out.”
Sure, those shows are fantastic. Unbeatable in energy, the experience renewing faith in the human animal, showing that there are still people out there that believe in DIY. There are still people out there who aren’t in it for the fast buck. There are still people in it for the sake of putting it out their for the kids. We all go home with a warm feeling that we’ve done something positive. Something that mattered. Something punk rock.
Then, we either go back to our lives of squatting and spare-changing, or more likely, of a drone job, scowling at the normals while serving them french fries, commissioned “artwork”, computer programs or financial reports. What have we really changed? Who have we set free? Sure, some of those kids at the shows took back nuggets of knowledge to their suburban homes. They spread the word about this band and that ideology. They found the courage to stand up to authority in some small way, starting a zine and dressing like they didn’t care anymore. Shocking their parents with regurgitated diatribe. Or maybe they actually got it on a deeper level and it changed the way they think forever. Maybe it set them free.
But what about the rest of us? There comes a time in our lives when we all sell out. Maybe you never lose your integrity. Maybe you refuse to be normal. You still go home and put on your Crass records...sorry, CD...and think to yourself, “I’m not a sheep. I can think for myself. I know what’s going on. Fuck the man.” That is, before you plunge yourself into the stack of bills, knowing that the rent’s gonna be late, firmly believing that the next time you try to start your piece of shit car, it’s gonna sputter its last mechanical breath and sit cold in your parking space. You have to get to work somehow. The distro isn’t paying as well as it promised when you started, or your shows aren’t yielding enough cash to make ends meet. Your day job looms over your head like a prison sentence. But you go anyway. You have to pay for your internet access, your music habit, your zines and your tickets to shows. You have to pay.
But those fuckers, those guys that made it. Those guys that are doing exactly what they always wanted to do with their lives and getting mad money for it. They have agents, limos, accountants and hordes of mindless fans that will gladly fork over their hard earned cash to listen to those schlomos crank out pre-packaged punk for the masses. Those guys are about as punk as...as...Jenny Jones. They deserve your venom, your anger, your... envy?
“Those good intentions never translate onto record. The soundbites used in interviews never fully convey the thought, and their old fans, the ones who loved them so much, turn on them...”
First of all, let me slap a little reality on the table. Sure, bands on major labels may live comfortably. They don’t find themselves struggling anymore. But they live in a constant state of guilty surprise, as if someone is going to swoop down upon them and take it all away, saying, “It was all a mistake. Turn in your checkbook and get the hell out.” Or more likely, “You were our flavor of the month, but today is the 1st. Your contract is now a tax loss and the kids don’t love you anymore. Bye now, don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.” Poor babies, right? Well, we all have our problems. But those guys haven’t changed, fundamentally, from when they were on indie labels with all our love. Their ideals are still the same, they’re just surrounded by people who want a piece of them and they get a little cranky about it. So Joey Rockband blew you off at their last show? You used to buy him beer and now he’s all above it. Fuck that guy, right? Think about how tiring it was when your little brother’s friends hung all over you and tried to follow you everywhere. Multiply that by a hundred and then consider not sleeping in your own bed from night to night, guys in Armani suits smiling at you and calling you babe with a dagger in their left pocket ready to draw blood the second your sales drop, and guys that look like they might be normal guys, one of “us”, promising you the moon, total creative control, your pick of producers, when he really doesn’t have the power to get a stapler for his desk without filling out forms in triplicate first. Sound like a bad day? Make it 24-7 and you start to get the idea.
Most punks with major contracts get this idea in their head. A simple idea, really, but with many facets. “Ok, they wanted my band. We finally made it and I can stop working at Death Burger/Johnny’s Record Store/X-Mart and concentrate on my music. A lot of new people will be hearing our message. We’ll teach kids about politics and rebellion, kids that never would have heard that stuff before. We’ll use our money and influence to really make something happen. Organize benefits, motivate people. We’re not selling out. I’ve always wanted to try using an acoustic guitar but all the guys at Crustypants Recording Studio used to rag on me about it. Now I can try it out and they’ll see how cool it can sound. We don’t have to do just plain punk. We can express ourselves. Hell, we can even get that guy from that band I used to love as a kid to help us out on the record. We can afford to fly him out here now, afford to pay him. He won’t refuse. Shit, we can even start our own label and sign those bands we’ve loved for so long that the other guys won’t chance.” Doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
But those good intentions never translate onto record. The soundbites used in interviews never fully convey the thought, and their old fans, the ones who loved them so much, turn on them. Rag on them in chat rooms and at shows while secretly buying their albums and digging that acoustic guitar, though they’d never admit it. The bands are flooded with letters to the effect of, “Dude, you guys fucking rock. Anarchy! I set fire to my neighbor’s mailbox the other day cuz he’s a facist! WHOOO! Come hang out and we can have a beer.” or “You guys are the coolest! I want to have your baby. I cut my hair just like you and my mom freaked out. She’s gonna put me in rehab but I don’t give a shit cuz I’ll be listening to your tapes inside and when I get out I’m gonna do what I want. Here’s my phone number, call me sometime.” And we mustn’t forget, “You fucking suck now. You used to be my favorite band and now you’re a bunch of sellouts. Fuck you. Don’t come back to my neighborhood or I’ll punch your stupid face in.”
How the hell do I think I know all this? The short answer is that I work in the music industry, and even indie labels have this insidious shit going on to some extent. The majors, forget it. I’ve seen this shit happen in so many forms, with so many different faces that I quit the music industry in disgust about every three months or so. But something ropes me back in. The music. The inescapable thread tying us all together. The glint of hope on the horizon. Those guys can’t just quit anymore than I can, and I’m not bound by a legal contract. When a band finally gets fed up and issues a public “Fuck You” to your face or in print, think about why. Think about the offer of paying you to do what you love to do, footing the bill for your artistic expression and think about being tired of struggling and getting sick, eating shit food. Think about whether or not you’d take the offer. And think about the price you’d pay for it when it’s too late to reconsider. Then shut the hell up and put on the latest Rancid record and listen to it. Not bad, huh?
ZuZu is tendering for the position of busiest slacker on earth. When she’s not writing, she forces other people to do so for her main “main”, dangermedia.org. She also does a weekly radio show, runs two retail sites, a web design company, translation services and does freelance work in the independent music industry.