Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Maximumrocknroll #295 December 2007

Bedtime for Mediocrity

Does punk rock inherently breed mediocrity? Looking at the glut of shit-looking, shit-sounding records that we manage to churn out year on year, I'd have to say it does. Obviously, not all punk records look or sound shit, and there are vast differences in aesthetic tastes. Personally I appreciate rawness in a recording and a certain rough and ready graphic style. But as a whole, I think we have learned to tolerate an unacceptable level of shittiness. Unintelligible flyers. Boring zines. Unimaginative (or simply stolen) record art. Shoddy musicianship. "It's cool, it's punk, right?" When did "punk" become an excuse for doing something half-assed?
There are, of course, often very valid financial reasons for doing things low- (or no-) budget. One of the best things about punk is that you don't need a lot of money or a lot of musical skill to get started, but just because something is cheap doesn't mean it has to look or sound that way. I know you've got a shitty guitar and borrowed amp because it's all you can afford. It costs nothing at all to figure out (or ask someone) how to get a good sound out of what you've got. "Nah dude, it's punk." Turn up two minutes before your band is supposed to play, ask to borrow someone's amp, plug in a crappy Metal Zone pedal, and you're good to go.
This attitude is crippling us. No wonder attendance at punk shows is dwindling. People are reluctant to spend even a nominal fee of $5 because let's face it, the chances are three out of the five bands on any given night are probably going to be mediocre. The preferred venue for punk is now the basement or house party, because while the crappy bands howl and squawk away to their five friends, everyone else can drink their 40s in the backyard or kitchen and talk about single-track bikes or some new trust-fund art-gallery-slash-clothing-store that their friend opened or something.
And that five dollar thing. People complain that $5 is too low these days, what with the price of petrol and everything. I couldn't agree more, but bands are lucky if they can even get that much now. The best they can hope for is that someone at the filthy punkhouse they're playing at has the wherewithal to aggressively hit up the crowd for a "donation for the touring band." People's expectations for punk bands are so low now that bands play not for a guarantee, not for a cut of the door, but in the eager hope that they will please a group of jaded underage drinkers enough that they will spill a few coins from their beer fund into a hat at the end of the night. That's not touring, that's busking.
For other styles of music, people queue up to buy tickets in advance. They get excited about going to shows. They don't toss the bands a couple of crumbs as an afterthought.
I dunno what the answer is. In the long run the good bands seem to do all right and the bad ones either break up or keep plugging away without really going anywhere. Again, they're not really harming anyone but they are diluting the gene pool, know what I mean?
I feel like I get quite curmudgeonly in this column. One could get the impression that I don't like punks or punk rock. Far from it, I just think we should hold ourselves to a higher standard. I judge myself the harshest. I've come to realize that I have accepted mediocrity in my own life for far too long. All my life I felt different, and then punk came along and showed me there was another way. I didn't have to follow the established path. I successfully avoided the pitfalls of a normal life but along the way I defined myself by what I didn't want to be. So I never became a square, so what? Now what? Everything I learned I taught myself. Never went to school, never had a career. I'm approaching middle age with little to show for my years than a woefully inadequate record collection. "What did you do with your life?" "I was a punk". What does that mean? Am I an idiot for wanting it to be something to be proud of, instead of feeling like I'm (we're) selling myself (ourselves) short?
It's confusing when you devote so much of your energy to something that most people get into, pass through, and get out of in the space of a few years, graduating to hipster bar DJ nights. Those punk tattoos used to keep you out of the corporate workplace but now coolhunting ad agencies, design studios. etc fall over themselves to show how edgy they are.
I never picked punk up like a new outfit to try on and throw away when fashion changed. It was already well out of fashion by the time I found it (or rather, it found me). Punk was there when I had nothing else so it's not something I can easily forget about. I don't know what brought on this crisis of confidence. I'm trying to start speaking up for myself. When (non punk) people ask what I do, rather than mumble something about whatever dead-end job is currently paying the bills, I'll say I'm a musician, and a writer. Eagerly, they'll ask about the music or the writing. "What's your band called? I'll look for the records in the shops!" "You're a writer? Where have you been published?" "Ermm, well, the records are all out of print because we only pressed 300 but it might be available either through the post from some distro in the Midwest or maybe on a stall at a twelve-band thrash festival in someone's shed. The writing, well, all fifty copies of the last issue of my zine are sold out but I've still got the originals somewhere so I can photocopy it for you if my mate is still working at Kinko's..."
I'm being negative, I know. On the positive side, I'm extremely lucky that I've even managed to put out records at all, and been in bands that have toured the US and Europe. I guess right now it just doesn't feel like it's adding up to much. I'm not sure what's missing but stick around with me while I try to find out. And above all don't accept mediocrity, from yourself or from those around you.
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