underground since'89

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Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Jigsaw Underground, 2009

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


elDave said...

Hi tobi, This is an interesting subject that i think it happens around the world. I don't know how it's the underground scene and movement in Olympia, but here in Barcelona it's really isolated and reduced aaaand very hard to enter, because there are more guettos and one sector isn't friend of another, This happen in the same undergound. Antoher point i think that the undergound don't persists it's because more bands and people only go to the friendly shows or the "cool" band, and don't let oportunities to another people that would have a lot of things to say. personally i'm with you when you the word "indie" or another called "punk" means today a simple picture into their myspace to look cool and have a cool friends and play fashion music in fashion bands. This is the situation in Barcelona (the focus of the undergound scene in Spain). I must say that it's not all bad because exists a good scene, a good people that have interesentings things but the most frequented by hardcore bands. Playing hardcore today is not breaker, because i think that hardcore dies in the 80's and today it's only a nostalgic memory that not fits in this days... By the way I love Black FLag, Bad brains... but today not say anything screaming without reason

Tobi Vail said...

screaming without reason...yeah.

Tobi Vail said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tobi Vail said...

so, off blog people are also/still questioning whether "underground" is still a useful way of framing this...also whether "resistance" is a useful way of framing things...I would guess that hesitancy is coming from not wanting to see things in opposition terms...I don't know...I think if we are going to challenge the way society is organized via our creative work...or play...that we should take a stance against the forces that create and maintain "the way things are"....how else is there to look at it?

I guess I'm wondering if people are conservative, they don't care, they don't see how or maybe why things should change....or do they just not believe it is possible to change things?

CO said...


I was one of the people who questioned whether underground and resistance are useful ways of framing things when i hastily wrote this on facebook; "i agree with the beliefs people discuss here... But i wonder if 'underground' and 'resistance' are good ways of conceptualizing/promoting/furthering these beliefs." I didn't, however, write this "from not wanting to see things in oppositional terms." I wrote it because I wonder if 'underground' and 'resistance' are the most accurate and strategically effective ways to be oppositional.

I pose these questions on the basis of the following thoughts;

If we take a classical conception of the underground to be mainly two things; (a) an oppositional form of culture/ cultural product that (b) exists under mainstream culture, I wonder if (a) the underground is still underground in the sense of existing under mainstream culture. It seems to me that the internet may have changed this so that this type of oppositional culture is no longer under the mainstream but exists alongside and within the mainstream even using many of its platforms like myspace/youtube/facebook etc. to promote itself. (b) if this shift to existing alongside-- or even within the platforms-- of mainstream culture has fragmented the underground into niche undergrounds that exist in isolation from each other. so i wonder if the first aspect of the definition of underground is still an accurate description. If it is not and the underground is located within and in opposition to the meainstream is there a new topographical name that can be used that might be more accurate and effective in theorizing a collective oppositional subject that is readily and easily acessible to many people?
or might even the counter-culture be a better description?

CO said...

The second aspect of underground as oppositional culture/ cultural products relates to my concerns about the concept of opposition as resistance which are scattered and perhaps contradictory. I question whether resistance is a good way of conceptualizing opposition because (a) I don't like the word itself. it makes me think of opposition consisting in reacting to forces that are so immense they are unbeatable or unchangeable to the point where all you can do is resist. I don't think this is true. To me this also seems different then --"challenging the way society is organized via our creative work...or play...that we should take a stance against the forces that create and maintain "the way things are"-- which seems more active, empowering and offensive.

(b) I think the term resistance might muddy the issue of who we are opposed to. some people who identify with underground culture and resistance see it as coextensive with resisting mainstream culture, chain stores, corporations and buying fair trade and organic etc. others, and i include myself here, think these are good and better then the alternative but don't entirely account for the nature of capital which implicate us in its continuing function making resistance in terms of choices of consumption ineffective and something different then changing the system.

These two issues lead to my contradictory feelings on resistance: (1) it doesn't seem like a good description of opposition. If practices are oppositional and effective they shouldn't be described as resistance. i'd prefer something like counter-hegemony but (2) if the word resistance does muddy the issue between different forms of actions that are both seen as resistance perhaps a distinction should be drawn; perhaps practices of consumption should be described as resistance, but as resistance to corporate mass culture. this would fit the qualm i have with resistance because capitalism in the form of resisting mass culture can't be beaten by consumption. But this would be seen as different then opposing capitalism, which would use a different form of oppositional cultural practices, practices that really do "challenge the way society is organized via our creative work...or play...that we should take a stance against the forces that create and maintain "the way things are". Here the pressing question is how we form counter-hegemonic practices, politics, that unite punks and others against capital.

so anyway those are my thoughts.

Tobi Vail said...

chris, thanks for taking the time to write all that...it's a little abstract and hard to follow, or maybe i just need coffee--but maybe you could give some examples of how you think things could change? how would things look different it they were conceptualized differently, what would be an example?

I think creating values that support a community of working artists, such as sustainablity, is something to strive for--as it takes money to go on tour and make records and all that--so if we want groups to be able to do this without selling their songs to a major or licensing them for commercials (or video games for that matter, to implicate myself) then really we need to pay independent artists for their work.

We already have values locally, such as the touring bands get paid, the local bands don't (which I actually have problems with occasionally) and letting people crash at your house--but why can't that include being willing to pay more than $10 to see a show by a band that's on tour? Why is that too much money to go see a band, but not too much to spend on drinks or a meal?

If we don't have that value we are creating a situation where the only people who can tour are those that can afford to lose money --in a situation like this is it any wonder that young "DIY" or indie groups sign to labels owned by majors like Sub Pop that will give you a big advance? I won't go into why signing to Sub Pop is a bad business decisions here because I understand the motivation too well. Independent labels should be able to offer groups a source of income, but if you are in a group where everyone is going to download your music for free, i.e. a group whose audience is under 30, then really that is not sustainable and we will see more young people licensing their songs to ad companies.

So here we have a discussion based on economics...you may see that as a contradiction and there are those who will say that trying to get paid and trying to dismantle capitalism is a contradiction. I see it as part of the same struggle--one of survival. If we are wage slaves (is that the Marxist term) and have to sell our labor for a wage in order to function in this society, then those of us who are not squatters and dumpster divers really do approach this on a day to day existence.

Do we need to develop funds or grants or even banks where we can borrow money to go on tour? Do we need investors to get the capital to press our own records? What can we do to create the economic conditions for sustainability.

Another contradiction as Ian points out, is that "anyone can do it", so really why should only some of us get paid? My response to that is that if people are listening to your group and you are able to find your audience then you are going to be able to make money for someone--whether that is a bar, a venue or a label or a corporation--so why can't we just ensure that those groups get paid without having to compromise their ethics?

Dougal said...

"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!"

This appears to sum up the problem: those people who claim to be "underground" seem to have the mentality of yuppies. Is it really necessary to regularly eat out? Aren't "alternative" people the kind who would live cheaply so that they can work less and have more time for their art/lifestyle?

I don't agree with high show prices, though, as the idea is to make them accessible to everybody, including some -- kids for example -- who might not have much money. (The idea is also to be able to go to more shows/events, thus helping build a community...)

"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"

Hmm. This seems to include a bit of a cultural problem.
I've read plenty of interviews with punk bands where they talked about how in Europe they are treated much better than in the US: the locals always cook them nice meals and put them up. This, to me, seems like a basic part of the idea of DIY/an underground. (When we had bands coming over here on tour, we would not only put them up and feed them etc. but also make sure to find a place for them to sleep before caring for ourselves. I.e. the bands sleep in the beds and the locals sleep on the sofa/floor! The idea being that one rough night will not kill you, whereas the band are doing it for weeks.)

Your last paragraph actually references the real problem, though, and where most people fail miserably (and hence the "underground" was killed):
"what it means to be underground in the digital era"

The political punks of the 80s were actually critical of things: they questioned the validity of major labels -- and started their own ; they looked at the actions of corporations -- and started boycotting/protesting against them etc. ; they looked at the actions of their governments -- and tried to expose the dirty things they did ; they created this "underground" that the 90s generation has been working on destroying...

Today's "punks" seem like they've just inherited a rulebook written in the 80s -- there's no critical thinking, no discontent with the state of the world, it's just another club to join... kids who would like to be jocks, but are too fat/ugly to be accepted.

Anyway, the point is this: things have changed, right? The "digital age"? Well, the same critical thought should be applied to it: there are people/corporations behind the "virtual" world and you need to decide who to support.
Do you pay the Microsoft Corp.? The Apple Corp.?
Do you use Facebook? (Are you aware of the insane privacy implications??)
Have you joined the "microblogging" trend? If so, do you use Twitter or a freer alternative such as identi.ca (http://lwn.net/Articles/340505/)?
The list is endless.

As far as I can see people prefer to just ignore all these things and just blindly consume (it seems like the first thing every new "punk" band does is to go sign up with Rupert Murdoch...) -- that's the easiest thing to do, right?

Dougal said...

Postscript: It seems like not all the kids have been rendered braindead by sitting in front of the computer.

These folks: http://defianceohio.terrorware.com/
are not on Myspace of Facebook, post their music for download under a CC license and even provide Ogg-Vorbis downloads.
They get my support.

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