Maximum False Consciousness: The Political Economy of American Punk
Issue #14, May 1994
All work is honorable, yet art is just a job,
Let me spend a paycheck on a beer
No heroes no, no leaders, no artists, no gods
I'm a worker, you're a worker,
Would you like to be a worker too?
— The New Bomb Turks, 'Born Toulouse-Lautrec,' 1992
The Cold War defense buildup created the economic infrastructure and cultural imperatives that gave birth to rock'n'roll. The affluence of the permanent wartime economy of the post-war period provided the largest generation in American history with the purchasing power to make rock the quintessential feature of modern mass culture, providing it with hegemonic possibilities lacking in all cultural mediums, except television. By the height of the war in Vietnam, the recording industry's productive output reached an all time high that was not approximated again until Billboard magazine changed the surveying system by which it calculated the progress of new releases, and Nirvana and Pearl Jam reached the top of the charts in early 1992.
The resuscitation of the hegemony of the American recording industry is difficult to explain because the economic and cultural conditions which facilitated its rebirth in the early nineties were entirely different than those conditions which preceded its initial implosion during the height of the Cold War. America had already experienced two recessions, first in the mid-seventies as a result of the Arab Oil Embargo, and the crippling inflation caused by the Nixon Administration's mishandling of the economy; second, in the early eighties, due to the Reagan Administration's radical deregulation of the market, and its lowering of interest rates. Followed by massive cutbacks in defense spending as a result of the termination of the Cold War, and an extraordinary surplus of weapons, munitions and spare parts, rock'n'roll's cultural hegemony could no longer be attributable to warfare state generated affluence, or economic productivity in other fields spurred on by defense spending.
The two primary factors responsible for the revival of the recording industry were new techniques in the production, distribution, and promotion of new music introduced to the market by punk, and the consolidation of the economic hegemony of already established musical acts left over from the heyday of American affluence during the sixties in the form of the Classic Rock radio programming format. Unknowingly conspiring with one another to create a renaissance of production and consumption, punk and Classic Rock came together for the first time with the introduction of grunge to the mainstream music market in the form of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, The Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden.
Grunge was instrumental in restoring the recording industry to its previous levels of production precisely because as a genre it brought together sixties and seventies rock burned into the collective unconscious of the American public by Classic Rock radio programming, with the aesthetics and grass roots, community based market strategies pioneered and developed by punk record companies. As a result, the recording industry was allowed to expand its already massive institutional infrastructure into the intimate, local sphere of economic activity opened up by small, independent labels.
It is strange that it took so long for punk to become incorporated into mainstream, massed produced culture in America given its success in reviving a declining industry. The economic downturn of the mid-seventies and early eighties are largely responsible for the initial marginalization of punk from mainstream music production, promotions and sales. Despite several successful experiments with groups like The Dead Boys, The Sex Pistols, Richard Hell, The Gang of Four and the Buzzcocks, major labels were disinterested in producing and marketing punk bands because they lacked the promotional imagination necessary to make investments in borderline groups to sufficiently pay off in a large and segmented music market.
By 1986, the minuscule financial success of independent labels convinced major label executives that an economic infrastructure had been created which could support their expansion into a once controversial, albeit fringe market for new music. Initially signing groups with long sales histories such as the Replacements, Husker Du, and Soul Asylum, major labels had a great deal of difficulty in turning any kind of profit except great record reviews by a new generation of rock critics, such as Greil Marcus, Gina Arnold, Ira Robbins, Gerard Cosloy, and Ira Kaplan, all of whom in another era would have ended up writing poetry reviews for The New Yorker, The New Republic, or The Nation.
It was not until staunchly independent punk groups like Sonic Youth, economically embittered by their experience of the corporate world on the independent level, began to entertain the idea of signing major label contracts. Their reasoning could not have been better. What was the point of remaining poor and impoverished on an independent label when they knew they could be receiving better pay elsewhere. At the least, they would be able to devote more time to their art even if it meant taking the risk of going into debt by prematurely accepting too large an advance on predicted future sales. It was worth it, the post-Cold War period of economic downsizing had begun, and they had to preserve their livelihood. Acutely aware of the effects that the economy was having upon small businesses, groups began leaving independent labels in droves, and the signing process, abetted by an increasingly worse economy has continued unabated since 1989.
The movement to major labels has sparked several years worth of intense debate, name calling, and cries of betrayal within the punk and otherwise bohemian music establishments. While no one seems to be clear what the precise reasons are for branding a previously beloved act a traitor, or even worse a sell out, the artistic and political climate in which American punk emerged during the early eighties provides many answers to an otherwise ridiculously easy to put together puzzle.
The major label rejection of radical American punk groups such as The Dead Kennedys and Black Flag centered around the cancellation of their contracts with IRS and A&M over censorship of artistic content. Neither label was interested in promoting groups that appeared to promote radical politics, though Black Flag were merely articulating upper middle class resentment against low forms of consumer culture, whereas the DKs were fueled by a quasi-Marxist, anti-fascist political program centered around a critique of everyday American life, defense-based economics, and religious revivalism. As a consequence of their marginalization, both groups started their own labels, SST and Alternative Tentacles, and subsequently began to develop a critique of mass culture, a theory of entrepreneurial economic decentralization, and a theory of semi-proletarian 'do it yourself' aesthetics tailored for class conscious, anti-consumerist middle class adolescents and college students.
The loss of these egalitarian ideals is what is mourned for in the discourse about selling out. Unfortunately, these ideas are transposed into a discourse about radical aesthetics, and how it is compromised by major label, multi-national relations of production, and disapproval of disproportionately high salaries for anti-establishment musicians. The danger inherent in remaining unclear about what the real stakes of selling out are is that it obfuscates understanding punk's compatibility with capitalism, particularly its modes and relations of production, its cultural institutions, and their administrative function in modern society. In order to make this problem clear, it is necessary to go back to the concept of labor and mode of production that lies at the heart of American punk ideology.
As a result of having been shut out of the productive process of mainstream American popular music, punk intellectuals such as Jello Biafra and Maximum Rock'N'Roll editor Tim Yohannon formulated an economic strategy by which they were able to help construct their own artistic institutions and markets within which to create and disseminate their own music and literature. The strategy which they adopted to accomplish this is paralleled by the New Social Movements strategies of the sixties and the seventies, which attempted to politicize cultural institutions to counter state intrusion into the public life of individuals engaged in the pursuit of unrestrained economic interests. The goal of such forms of politicization was to make institutions into resources which could help facilitate political reflection in response to an increasingly interventionist state bureaucracy which progressively limits the capacity of individuals to think for themselves freely in association with others.
The adoption of New Social Movement strategies by American punk was not a conscious decision. It was formulated as a political response to an economic form of marginalization imposed upon artists within a fairly conservative and aesthetically unsophisticated popular artistic tradition. What is not coincidental, however is how these influences became channeled into the construction of the punk community, particularly in the San Francisco Bay Area where Yohannon, a member of the Communist Party and a former student activist at Rutgers during the nineteen sixties, set about putting together Maximum Rock'n'Roll with precisely these goals in mind. He deliberately politicized an industry which he saw as having a critical function for young and old people alike in American culture that could be a place to reconstruct the political idealism he was fed as an adolescent during the heyday of the student movement.
The primary facets of the new punk ideology as disseminated in Maximum Rock'N'Roll was very simple: Write music for oneself and one's friends, produce it independently, utilizing all the means at one's disposal that one did not have to contract out to someone else to do, and manage one's own business affairs in order to retain control over the creative and political aspects of one's own work. As this ideology took hold, small record companies such as Alternative Tentacles eventually grew larger, signed other artists, and for the first time developed a class of music bureaucrats who fulfilled the administrative and productive roles that artists within this community had been taught to assume themselves. Subsequently, the whole notion of aesthetic, productive and administrative autonomy went out the window, and what emerged was a petite-bourgeois imitation of the economic and social organization of a larger business community whose purpose was to produce and disseminate popular music on a mass scale.
The co-optation of the new punk counter-hegemony was inevitable. In their struggle to establish themselves as autonomous institutions, punk record companies and magazines had to rationalize new aspects of the music market previously ignored by major labels and larger entertainment conglomerates. Having identified exploitable shopping outlets such as privately owned record stores, clubs, mail order catalogues, and L.L. Bean style 1-800 credit card order services, punk institutions began to compete with the very firms they were seeking independence from. Accordingly, larger labels began looking at the possibility of taking over such markets as a legitimate response to the competition posed by punk having opened them. By virtue of their own superior financial resources, larger entertainment consortiums could eventually take over these new markets without much expense at expansion, and eventually take punk producers and consumers away from the institutions they had grown up in and educated by.
Economic facts aside, punk was co-opted because it lacks a coherent critique of capitalism. Instead of advocating the overthrow of capitalist relations of production, punk insists on reverting to an early form of capitalist development which emphasizes the necessity of the imagination, skills and hard work of the entrepreneur as opposed to the blindness and stupidity of the corporation and the bureaucrat. In this light punk appears as a critique of mass culture instead of a critique of capitalist culture. Subsequently, punk becomes an apologetic aesthetic defense of high culture in opposition to culture's lower, less authentic, proletarian forms such as heavy metal, rap, country, and rhythm and blues.
The transition that punk has made from entrepreneurial capitalism to mass production does nothing to influence the entertainment industry to become more self-reflective. Instead, mass produced punk has the function of helping mass culture adapt itself to critiques leveled against its authoritarian administration of culture. By giving the system the appearance that it is able to tolerate artistic and political novelty when it cannot, the capitalist superstructure cancels out whatever reflective possibilities punk could inspire.
Mass culture in and of itself is not wholly oppressive. If it were, there would be no way to even imagine that it restricts our capacity to think about art, society, and politics. The notion that mass culture restricts reflection to the point that one is unable act in their own enlightened self-interest anymore is precisely the foundation upon which the punk critique of mass culture rests. In light of the big takeover, it is fair to conclude that the punk critique of mass culture was generated by its economic marginalization during a period of recession. The ideology of aesthetic and administrative independence emerged as a result of the brief ownership of the means and forms of production by artists who during another, more fortunate moment in history, might have been on someone else's payroll.
Joel Schalit is a Ph.D candidate in the Programme in Social and Political Thought at York University in Toronto, Canada. He is currently writing his dissertation on the critique of secularization in The Frankfurt School. When Joel's not being serious he makes crank calls to Christian talk radio shows and loops muzak records backwards as a member of the anti-rock 'band' The Christal Methodists. You can prank Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the Methodista's webpage for some real inspirational calls about overeating, Satan and more at http://www.kolazhnikov.com.