Underground refers to music that has a different purpose and orientation than mainstream bands. Keeping underground as an ongoing description illuminates that there is an under to the over -- a distinction that implies motivations other than money and fame. To reduce underground to a description of current trends diminishes its potential power. I guess there are now indie bands on major labels, diluting the reason there were indie bands. Indie is now a genre where previously it was a stance. Maybe we'll have "undie" bands in the mainstream and the history of underground culture will likewise fade.
-Jean Smith, Mecca Normal
I started writing about The Jigsaw Underground as an entity in my fanzine Jigsaw around 1991. I would define it in each issue, but basically I would pick a different selection of bands to write about that existed for reasons other than "to make it big"....bands that I thought were culturally and/or politically significant...bands that symbolized what it meant to be independent or punk at that particular point in time. Looking through the back issues, this is something I was deliberate about from the beginning. Through the creation of my fanzine I hoped to be able to change the direction youth culture and punk was going. In the late 80's/early 90's when I started writing my zine, I felt a lot of people were into blatant marketing and career goals. Sub Pop symbolized this to me with their limited edition 7"s, insult-your-intelligence and tell you what to do ad campaigns and "professional" looking logo/graphics. From today's vantage point, it's a little hard to refer to what I was thinking at the time without writing a whole essay about it, but hopefully you can get the picture.
When I decided to start Jigsaw as a blog version of the fanzine one of the things I wanted to focus on was the "underground" part, particularly because of how the internet has changed things. Like Jean Smith, I don't think the idea of an underground has lost relevancy just because the internet has changed how we access information. I think the concern now, is to get people in bands to stand for something and to stand together against multinational corporations, global capitalism and consumer culture. How can we use independent-punk-underground music culture as a site of resistance? How do we define ourselves in opposition to the mainstream, when the mainstream is everywhere?
One of the challenges that I see in this era, as both a working musician and someone who works at an independent record label, is rooted in economics. On the one hand, I resisted turning punk rock into my job and try not to approach music from a careerist or commercial standpoint. On the other hand, as someone who has toured extensively and is dedicated to distributing independent music world wide, I want working musicians to be able to make a living wage and get health insurance. This is a tricky issue, because it involves capitalism, market forces and art making and so there is going to be some degree of compromise involved. Some would say there are irreconcilable contractions at work. But I don't think that just because bands are forced to navigate economic concerns we should abandon ethics. Part of this is about supporting touring bands when you go see them by buying a T Shirt or a record as an ethos. Why do so many people think it's totally ok to spend $20 going out to dinner and $20 on drinks and then totally freak out when they have to pay more than $10 to go to a show? Make a sandwich! Drink another night--or not at all, how's that for radical! Put your hard earned money back into the community don't fund the consumer bar culture and support the beer and cigarette companies. Let's make economic sustainability a value to work towards, something similar to "buy local", but in this case "buy underground music", "pay generously to see touring bands" "fund independent culture"...you get the drift.
I strongly believe that if there are people who are listening to your music and coming to see your band live that you should be compensated for your work. I also believe that you should not have to sign to a corporately owned major label in order to do so, especially not today, with digital music being a growing percentage of total sales. Of course with free downloads, it is harder for bands live off of royalties. Unfortunately, economic reality has made it difficult to make money on tour as well. This is largely because although the cost of gas, food and lodging has increased exponentially in the past 20 years, punk bands are still expected to charge the same amount at the door--locally, under $10, usually $4-$6. In Olympia it is actually really hard to get people to pay for shows at all because there are so many shows happening all the time and a lot of them are free. While on one level, this is really cool, it has a real, negative economic impact on touring bands. (Incidentally, this is largely the reason most bands that are trying to make a living off their music skip Olympia on tour, no one can get paid enough here to make it worthwhile.)
When asked about the economics of touring as an underground band today, Ian Svenonius (Chain and the Gang, Make Up, Nation of Ulysses) said:
I guess touring is harder now but I also think maybe it was always pretty untenable. Unless you're the hot band of the moment, its pretty ridiculous proposition. Four or five people hauling gear around in a van hundreds and thoudsands of miles to perform something that, by its own design, can be made by anyone (i.e. "punk"). The big diffrence now is that so many bands are touring all the time and that so many have promotin, tour support, and publicity or are internet savvy (i.e. phenomenon bands like "Wavves") in a way that some of us are not. But yes, the punk politics have disappeared but the inherent cheapness of that scene is still with us (i.e. everyone wants everything for free).
This begs the question, how do we change this, how do we bring "the punk politics" back or update it for the present/future? What would that entail exactly? What is our political platform? What needs to happen? What tools do we have available? What do we want to change? How can things be improved?
When I asked Jean to clarify what she meant in her original quote when she said "the history of underground music will continue to fade" if underground becomes another mainstream marketing category, she replied:
The history of the word indie continues to fade. People who hear it, and use it, forget that it meant independent from major labels. Now indie is mostly a description of a sound, like alternative is a description of a sound rather than an alternative to how the music industry operates. Alternative was a description of the way bands operated -- putting on shows, working with a label to get your music out as opposed to being a rock star on a major label with staff to handle such details. Both these terms -- indie and alternative -- have been assigned new meanings that relate to the descriptions of the sounds associated with them. I'm sure if there were "undie" bands it would almost immediately turn into something to do with underwear. Bands would play in their underwear. Calvin Klein would start making music videos in its newly formed record label division. The history and meaning of underground culture would no longer be there when the word "undie" is used. I don't believe people think about independent culture, independent from major labels and corporate concerns, when they hear the word indie. Grunge is a sound and a look -- perhaps a city and a handful of bands. Indie is a political stance whose history is being replaced by a sound, a look and an era.
I am tempted to make a joke about Hawnay Troof, who often do play in their underwear, as a proto-undie band here...I can imagine people writing dissertations on the intersection between "undie" and riot grrl based on outfits alone...but what I'm seriously getting out of this discussion so far, is that "underground" is now, more than ever, a political stance more than a location. If that's the case, let's keep talking about what it means to be "an underground band"... the interactive nature of the blog format makes it possible for us to talk about this here in the fanzine at the moment it is being made. I am happy to provide a forum where we can have this conversation.
I leave you with this encouraging statement from California based punk singer Robin Indar (Black Fork, Severance Package) about how touring in a lot of ways is easier now than ever before. I also asked her what it was like to go on tour as parents:
Well, from what I've seen, there's not too many people out there in our predicament (parents of two/ rock n' rollers) but I know of at least one couple here in town that does, but they're at least ten years younger. Without the added chaos of small children, I would say touring is easier than ever. You can post flyers on the internet instead of mailing them or hoping people will post them in their towns and you can make flyers easier, faster and in color (ooh!) without having to know someone at the local copy shop. Most of the booking can be done online as well so you save on all of those long distance phone calls from hand written wads of paper your friends lent you from their last tour. I'm especially fond of the option of burning a CD demo in 20 seconds versus dumpster diving old cassette tapes, covering the holes up and recording over them so you'll have demo's to sell at the show. We used to get the occasional customer that would return saying "that demo I bought was all psycho Christmas rap songs".
I've been really surprised to see bands on tour with van rentals that have GPS systems. That was completely unheard of ten years ago. Think of all of the combined hours of lost punks driving around on the wrong roads. For those without GPS, there's always google maps which will give you the exact directions, and weather.com to tell you exactly what to expect weather wise and what the road conditions are. Basically, anyone who complains about tour being hard in this new century is either riding a donkey with an amp on their back or they just have no idea how hard touring USED to be.
The only thing different for Josh and I, and any other parents out there rocking together in a band is that you have to have someone to watch your kids while you're away and you have to work with their school schedule too. Even our drummer Steve, has a teenage daughter so we're a pretty unusual band as far as responsibilities go. The van is too small to bring anyone but us at the moment so luckily, my mom has gone beyond her call of duty in taking the boys while we attempt small tours. She can even call us on our cell phones should the need arise, oh what I would have given for one of THOSE 15 years ago when we broke down in the scalding hot Arizona desert!
ok thanks to everyone who participated in this week's discussion about what it means to be underground in the digital era. you can read my earlier post here.
coming soon: interviews with marissa magic & joey casio