Oct 012003

...These subcultures exist through various modes of propogation, antagonism, and symbiosis.This article has been on my site in a different form for a while, but it recently was published in Mix Magazine accompanied by Marc Ngui’s hilarious and brilliant microbial analysis of the sellout dynamic. Especially now that I’m writing a videogame column for the Torstar media conglomerate-owned eye weekly, it addresses issues I deal with on a daily basis. I invite you to read and comment on the piece.

Breaking the Laws of Punkland

When I sold out, it was to HarperCollins. I found the corporate ownership heinous but I decided that the political content of the book balanced it out a little — the good old Trojan horse defense. But having published a book myself a few years prior in an edition of 500 copies, I was also interested in the novelty of having someone else publish me.

I documented it in a zine called Holiday in the Sun: Surviving Exposure to the Mainstream as a way to share my corporate publishing experiences with other zinesters. One review called it a “guiltzine,” but guilt wasn’t a motivator (more often it’s a paralyser). If I was worried about people thinking that I’d sold out, I wouldn’t have consciously drawn more attention to my hypocrisy by criticizing HarperCollins owner Rupert Murdoch in the press and by writing smart-ass open letters to the media magnate.

Respected members of the punk community, in which I’d been involved for ten years, told me that publishing houses were “different” from the music industry’s vilified major labels. At first I figured they were just cutting me some slack. But looking at the exceptions to the rule proved revealing.

Most punks, for instance, don’t label the Sex Pistols and the Ramones as sellouts even though they were on major labels? that was “different,” too. Was it just a nostalgic soft spot? Are the grandfathers of punk exempt in the same way a racist grandfather might be exempt — because they came from a less enlightened time, without the network of dissemination and political awareness that the next generation of punks had?

I think it’s because the subculture has a more complex relationship with the dominant culture than it openly admits to. Punk doctrine teaches that the only relationship that exists between the mainstream and punk is a parasitical one — that the mainstream uses the dynamic images and music of punk to sell commodities, and thus drains punk of meaning for the authentic subculture. But there’s another, not often acknowledged exchange — most kids find out about punk via mainstream images of spiky mohawks, crowd surfing and sneering singers. With some of them, the idea of a community of rebellion leads them to seek out the authentic subculture, where they’ll learn to despise and disavow this watered-down representation. However, if it weren’t for this constant (if unintentional) replenishment, punk would have ceased to be a youth culture long ago.

But while it’s not a parasite-host relationship, it’s hardly a meeting of equals. In the same way that some countries have protectionist laws in an attempt to prevent exploitation, punk has its own laws. Imagine punk as a tiny country within a much larger country. In Punkland, yuppies are considered second-class citizens, musicians are philosopher kings, and eating from dumpsters is socially acceptable. (Hierarchy still exists, but by reversing many roles subcultures show that hierarchy is malleable and culturally created.) The economy is such that entertainment and consumer items are cheap enough for people to have a dignified and varied life making half of the money that people outside the country had to make, so more people make art for reasons other than money. Not having to consider their marketability or mass appeal spawns many innovative, risk-taking bands that in turn inspire other bands, and so on and so on.

One day one of these bands, for a variety of reasons, wanted to move out of the country. At the border, they said they had nothing to declare. The guard searched the car and found, on a guitar in the trunk, a string of influences that could only have been made within the borders of Punkland. “You know it’s illegal to take this out of the country.”

“Oh, that,” the guitarist said. “I couldn’t detach that from my own music. It’s totally in there, I couldn’t untangle it.”

“Uh huh,” the guard said indifferently, stamping their passports.

The guitarist looked at his passport, which was stamped SELLOUT. “Ah, dude! It’ll be hell getting back in with this.”

The guard nodded. “Sorry pal. It’s the law.”

Marc Ngui's diagram of the sellout dynamic.

And while it seems unfair at times, this barrier is there for a good reason: to prevent subcultures from becoming cultural sweatshops for the mainstream. The sellout law also draws attention to the fact that when a band sells their music, they’re also selling something that’s not entirely theirs. They’re profiting from not just their individual work, but the communal work of the anti-profit punk community — the bands that influenced them and the people that provided feedback. While it is a failure of the artist to acknowledge or understand this, it’s also a failure of the capitalist system to reward anyone except the person who brings the product to market. The individualist market system is incapable of rewarding collaborative, community-based endeavors, artistic or otherwise.

Although at times an all-purpose insult (almost as divorced from its original meaning as the word “bastard”) the call of “sellout” is still important. It’s an integral part of maintaining any sort of distinctness to punk rock — it’s the membrane of a cell surrounded by the dominant culture. Too much traffic will render it so permeable that the distinctness of the values of punk will become completely diluted by those of the dominant culture. Without the distinctness, it will cease to be an alternative where different artistic and cultural experiments can be played out — and this is a loss to everyone, since these experiments can have applications beyond the punk community.

For instance: punk broke the cultural monopoly that major labels had on music. By challenging the ethical and creative bankruptcy of the majors by releasing critically acclaimed and culturally influential music for decades, people now think differently about independent music. Punk didn’t do it alone, and it certainly didn’t do it irrevocably, but it showed by example what was wrong with the current state of affairs — and how to fix it.

So, with this model in mind, I decided to self-publish my second book even though I had the option to publish through HarperCollins again. My website describes the many practical and ethical problems I had with delivering art through a corporation, and spreads the message of “if you can make a zine, you can make a book” through do-it-yourself publishing articles.

Taking the credibility granted by being with a major publishing house and using it to undermine the credibility of major publishing houses appeals to me immensely. Even more tantalizing is the possibility that the DIY model could change the book world like punk changed the music world. Thinking about the sellout issue and my level of complicity with forces I dislike helps me put the moderate success I’ve been able to achieve in perspective: just because I’ve found a way to survive in a fucked-up world doesn’t make it any less fucked-up.

  3 Responses to “Sellout!”

  1. To me, selling out is a case-by-case thing. Just like punk rock. Any individual can define punk rock, and it’s a legit definition. In their own situation, at least.

    Also: Everyone should be forced to see the movie School of Rock. It seriously embodies my definition of punk rock. That, and there’s a scene with ten year olds discussing the White Stripes.

  2. I think what is often called “selling out” is really just people getting paid what they deserve for the work that they do. There are so few people out there who can make a living by writing alone. To begrudge a writer for attempting to do so through a major publishing company is just mean. While I respect Jim Munroe and others for going the independent route, both in books and music, I certainly don’t think anyone should be judged for not doing so. I agree with what I think is Jim’s point – that whether you go through a corporation or DIY is largely a matter of what you want to accomplish, your management skills (not all artists have business/self-promotion skills), and how much BS you’re willing to put up with from Company X.

  3. I just got into a discussion today with the owner(?) of Deep Elm records about this topic. We earlier discussed the idea of how an Indie label feels about ‘illegal’ music down loading. I took that discussion to make me realize that we were on the same page essentially, but it does hurt the Indie labels significantly; but i digress to the point at hand.
    As I get older the punk ideal painfully becomes more utopian and harder to reach. I praise those who maintain DIY/ Indie and scorn those who so willingly do it. The ‘Trojan Horse’ defence is a poplular reasoning for selling out. I really like this idea of the ‘horse being used to push ideas to folks who wouldn’t normally get exposure to anything other than Brittany Spears drivel if the majors didn’t pick them up. And i do like the idea of taking food from the hand that feeds to get strong enough to bite the hand that feeds. The idea of the author here using Harper to publish anti- major publisher ideals is fantastic. As Jello Biara eoqently put it, “don’t hate the media, become the media.”
    The growth of DIY labels and publishing will not likely make a dent in the pocket books or influence of the major labels. And the author makes an excellent point about the watered down bands influence those to seek the source of the watered down musicm, there by recycling the disdain for crappy watered down music. In a sense, i suppose that one influences the other in non- affecionate relationship. One lives because it can’t stand the way the other works; and the other feeds off of the ignorance of the people it sells to.

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