SANTA CRUZ, August 20, 2013 — For most rock bands and musicians, a major label contract is the ultimate goal. The chance to enjoy international fame, radio play and a music video in regular rotation are the dreams which motivate thousands of fledgling acts every year.
For punk bands, however, the goal is often very different. For these bands, major labels are the enemy and any interactions with them, no matter how trivial, could create an ugly backlash from fans and the punk scene as a whole.
What constitutes selling out? Some will point out that early punk acts like the Ramones, the Clash, and the Sex Pistols were released on major labels. For most punk fans, the music is incidental. It is but a small part of a lifestyle built around questioning authority and rejecting the status quo. Punk music has often been more than mere entertainment. Starting with Margaret Thatcher’s England and Ronald Reagan’s America, punk bands were the voice of dissent, questioning foreign policy and domestic issues. Punk spoke truth to power and never much cared whether it made the charts.
Members of punk bands were often activists first. Over time, they honed the musical side of their approach but, in the beginning, only the most basic rudiments were necessary. The music served as a vehicle to carry an urgent message, nothing more. The speed and aggression of punk music spoke to the anger and desperation of a generation who felt their world was being compromised by greed and apathy.
Mainstream rock acts had no such scruples. They were trying to entertain, to sell records and to achieve some Dionysian fantasy of stardom. As the mainstream music press latched onto these more commercial friendly bands, they summarily ignored the broad, cultural movement taking place right under their collective noses. This, more than anything else, fostered the level of animus punk bands felt towards any agent of the accepted rock music world. Major labels were not to be trusted. They were in the business of anesthetizing people to the issues of the day.
In the 1990s, California punk band the Offspring had a song which found its way onto heavy rotation on MTV and, seemingly overnight, the punk world was turned upside down. As if for the first time, major labels suddenly realized they had been ignoring a massive opportunity. In no time, A & R agents were cutting their hair, getting tattoos, and showing up at punk shows all over the country trying to find the next Offspring for their label. Many punk bands were sadly naive about the machinations of major labels and, with the cool A & R guy whispering in their ears about how they were so amazing, they let their vanity trump their ideals and they signed.
This epidemic of defections ruined countless bands and splintered the punk community. There were so many aspects of it that people just did not get. Punk bands are not designed to produce radio hits.
Newly signed bands absently gave all rights to their names and likenesses to the labels. They were shuttled off to vastly overpriced studios with expensive producers who knew nothing about punk music. As the bands struggled to write hits, many of them simply imploded from the pressure. Those who managed to finish an album found themselves staggeringly in debt, as the recording process invariably took longer than they were used to.
This debt is always recoupable by the label and, sadly, most punk bands were never going to sell enough records to pay it back.
The common scenario was that of a band who owed thousands to their label and who no longer owned their own name or likeness (logo, artwork, etc). They would head out on tour only to find that half of their fans hated them for signing to a major and were not showing up to the shows.
Frustrated and destitute, many bands broke up. For the labels, it was not a problem. They could write off the loss and move on to the next sucker. Major labels have historically survived by finding a popular form of music, buying up as much of it as possible, bleeding it of anything that made it remotely vital, and then discarding it when it is no longer profitable.
The lesson would have to be that punk bands are right not to trust major labels or, at the very least, that the two do not make good bedfellows. Punk music is at its best when it is produced on a minimal budget and is accountable to its fans. Major labels never figured that part out. While many punk bands are successful and able to pay their rent and bills, punk does not follow a traditional for profit business model.
Maybe it is best if punk rock and mainstream music go back to ignoring each other. They are like oil and water, two completely different worlds.
Russ Rankin writes about hockey, music & politics. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter. He also sings for Good Riddance and Only Crime. Find out what he’s up to by checking out his website.
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