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Punk Rock Theory
Comedian Chris Rock has a bit about forever listening to the music you listened to when you first had sex. He jokes that he’ll be an eighty-year-old man, still rapping along with Wu-Tang. Though he’s joking, he’s picked up on a pattern. People hang on to the rebellious music long after the rebellion fades. But it’s not that simple. Parts of the rebellion linger, only in different ways. Take, for example, punk rock. It’s been around a long time. The New York Dolls were a band before I was a being. The Ramones formed almost forty years ago. This means that the teenagers who went to those early CBGBs shows can join the American Association for Retired Persons. More and more, I see tattooed, gray-haired punkers wearing threadbare band T-shirts while they buy multivitamins at the local hippie grocery store. It’s strange. It also raises the question of what happens to the rebellion.
For me—a guy who has spent more than two decades listening to punk rock with his own gray hair and band T-shirts older than some readers of this magazine, yet whose musical tastes still haven’t expanded beyond punk rock—it’s not so much a question about the rebellion fading. It’s true that I don’t want to smash the state anymore. I work for the state. I rarely call police officers pigs anymore and cops never think to pull me over or harass me anymore. I haven’t raised my middle finger in earnest even once this century. Even so, two decades of punk rock isn’t about nostalgia. It’s about theory. In my mind, I’ve created a punk rock theory. By theory, I mean a way of looking at the world, a punk rock lens, so to speak. Every thinking person develops a process for deeply questioning the ideas that culture assumes as a given and actions resulting from these ideas. Punk rockers tend to examine these cultural assumptions and practices through an essentially punk rock ideology. Now, part of my punk rock theory is that there is no one unifying or official theory. You’ll notice that there has never been a single attempt to define punk rock in the sixty-five issues of Razorcake. That’s part of the point behind this magazine: you get to come up with your own definition. I may question that definition. I may disagree, but I’ll never act like I’m the bearer of the larger punk rock truth.
With that said, I do have my own punk rock theory. I think many punk rockers have developed similar theories. A big part of this theory is based upon a skepticism of not only large corporations, but the culture they create and the ideology they spread. This corporate ideology has come to saturate every aspect of contemporary culture. It has redefined freedom to mean the freedom of large corporations to exploit whoever they want in order to accumulate massive hordes of wealth. It has redefined democracy to mean a free market that is only free in the sense that the participants with the most wealth are free to do whatever they want, at whatever the cost. It has privileged the accumulation of wealth over any other human values. And it infiltrates everything we do. It becomes part of our unconscious thoughts. Yet, punk rock theory sometimes helps me to confront this corporate ideology and see how it operates in parts of our culture that have nothing to do with punk rock. That’s what I’m going to do here. I’m going to look at two things that have little to do with punk rock—soccer and book publishing—through a punk rock lens. Hopefully, at the end we’ll have a better sense of how our culture operates.
I’ll start with soccer. Whether you know it or not, there is a professional soccer league in the United States. It’s called Major League Soccer (MLS). It started in 1996. I remember that day. My brother and I sat in a bar called the Cattle Baron in Flagstaff, Arizona and watched DC United play the San Jose Clash. I rooted for the Clash. I had to. I’d been rooting for the other Clash since I first heard “Janie Jones.” The game was exciting in the sense that it was the beginning of professional soccer in the U.S. It was not exciting in the sense that the players weren’t very good. Still, through the late ’90s, I stuck with the MLS. I lived much of that time in Florida. Several times every season, I drove over to Tampa to watch the Tampa Bay Mutiny play. It was a mixed bag. On the one hand, the level of play had gotten much better since that first game. Tampa brought in one of the stars of the Colombian National Team, Carlos Valderrama. He made everyone around him better. The Muts also had a couple of younger players who showed a lot of promise: Frankie Hejduk and Steve Alston. Both guys ended up playing for the U.S. National Team and having great careers. Frankie Hejduk is still having a great career. On the other hand, the games were also dismal because they were held in the huge football stadium in Tampa. Twenty thousand people could show up, and the stands would look sparsely populated. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers moved into their new football stadium in 1998, they worked out a deal that essentially bankrupted the Mutiny. I stopped going to games for a while.
Then a strange thing happened. After a few years of living in Los Angeles, I finally made it down to a Los Angeles Galaxy game. The Galaxy play in a stadium that’s built for soccer. Unlike the narrow football field at the old Mutiny games, the soccer field in Los Angeles is the right size. It’s wide enough for the players to play the game the way it’s meant to be played. All of the seats in the stadium are good seats. Nothing goes up high enough to give a nose bleed. The whole stadium celebrates soccer rather than celebrating the Bucs. The other thing that surprised me: the stadium was packed. My first Galaxy game came during the low point for the franchise. They’d made some bad decisions, had some bad luck, and were having one of those seasons when everyone playing knows they’re going to be fired and replaced by players and coaches who have a chance of winning games. Still, the fans came out in big numbers. Three different sections of the stadium were reserved for supporter groups. The groups—the L.A. Riot Squad, the Angel City Brigade, and the Galaxians—sang songs, played drums, and waved flags throughout the game. I recognized some of the songs. In a couple of cases, they’d adapted lyrics from songs by The Business and Cocksparrer. Everyone partied as the Galaxy lost another one. It was everything I’d hoped for out of a professional soccer game. It would be too big of a stretch to call it a community of fans gathered around the game. Still, it was ninety minutes of a beautiful, shared moment between me and several thousand strangers.
I go to Galaxy games as much as I can now. Sure, I’m a Galaxy fan. It’s more honest to say, though, that I’m a fan of the experience of Galaxy games. I love when they play the Briggs song right before kick off. I especially love it when they start the song too late and the visiting team has to stand in the middle of the field and wait for the song to end before they can kick off. I love when the Riot Squad changes the lyrics of The Business song “Guinness Boys” from “Guinness Boys, we are here” to “Riot Squad, we are here,” yet they seem to keep the line “to fuck your women and drink your beer.” I love when the Galaxy score and the crowd gets so loud my ears start to ring. I love to see soccer having caught on in America because it seems to be in opposition to much of what corporate America stands for. And here’s where the punk rock theory comes in.
I’ve long heard people debate about when soccer will “catch on” in America. Conventional wisdom suggests that it will never catch on. But it already has. Take a look at a few statistics from the 2011 season. So far, several MLS teams have drawn a higher average attendance than Major League Baseball teams. This isn’t a surprise in Seattle, where the soccer team the Seattle Sounders consistently outdraws the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners have never been a big franchise. The Sounders have sold out nearly every game since they started. Over 35,000 fans come to nearly every game. MLS teams outdrawing MLB teams is more of a surprise when it happens in Philadelphia, where the baseball team is the Phillies, who have won their division the last four years. Still, this season, the soccer team (the Philadelphia Union) draws more fans per game than the Phillies. Around the league, games typically draw an average of 20,000 fans. Some of the biggest soccer players in the world now play in the MLS. The newest MLS franchise, the Portland Timbers, sold out of every seat with an unobstructed view of the field within a few hours of tickets going on sale. And they didn’t sell out for a game. They sold out for the season. Beyond the MLS, other big soccer games like World Cup finals and the European Champions League finals frequently draw huge television ratings. Nearly ten percent of American households watched the U.S. Women’s National Team play Japan in the Women’s World Cup final this summer. Think about that for a second. Nearly one out of every ten Americans watched women play soccer one Sunday afternoon. I’d say that’s evidence of soccer having already caught on.
Still, the conversation about soccer not catching on continues. I wonder why and I have my own theory. Because punk rock has honed my skepticism toward corporate America, I have to look at how they react to soccer and why they react the way they do. In short, the problem with soccer from the perspective of corporate America isn’t that soccer is not profitable. It is profitable. The problem isn’t that it doesn’t draw big TV ratings. It does. The problem is that it can never be as profitable as other sports, like baseball, where you have eighteen commercial breaks built into every game, or football, where an hour-long game is televised with two and a half hours of commercials in between. With soccer, the only advertising break is during halftime, when everyone walks away from their TV anyway. So, really, the only place soccer is not catching on is with advertisers. Sure, they can put their company’s name on the team’s jersey or they can put a banner up around the field. In the case of the MLS team the New York Red Bulls, a corporation can even buy a team and name it after itself. That can’t compete with football, which wraps 150 minutes of commercials around every 60-minute game. So it creates incentive for the advertising-driven media to promote the hell out of football. That’s where the money is. So they do. ESPN broadcasts a daily football show even through the off season. There are times when football games haven’t been played for months and won’t be played for months, yet you can sit there in the spring and watch a show about games that won’t be played until the fall. Yet, you can’t catch a single highlight of the nine MLS games that were played that day. And the reason is not because soccer is not profitable or is not popular. Soccer is clearly both profitable and extremely popular. The reason is because it is not profitable at a profit margin that satisfies major media networks, so it’s essentially blacklisted.
This problem that soccer faces is very similar to one that is occurring in the contemporary publishing industry. Just as conventional wisdom suggests that soccer will never “catch on,” it also suggests the book publishing industry faces two problems. The first problem is that fiction, and particularly literary fiction, doesn’t sell. The second problem is that e-books are taking over the market. Nearly every week, the New York Times—which is one of the few major media outlets that even talks about books—has an article about e-publishing. If you pick up any one of these articles at random and read it, you’ll notice something about the statistics that they provide. All of the impressive statistics are speculative. They’ll go on about a day when e-books will take over the market. That day could be any day now. Read between the lines of the article and make no mistake, though: that day is not today. The New York Times is not alone in this. Several publications have been parroting the same press releases. Sometimes, buried in the article, you’ll find the far less impressive but far more significant statistic: at the end of 2010, e-book sales accounted for about 8% of overall book sales. Stated another way, 92% of books sold last year were made of paper. Now, I don’t want to discount 8% of the market. That’s a lot of e-books. They are catching on, but 8% of something is not a majority and it’s not a trend that is taking over.
Surely, the book publishing industry will change. It will probably change much in the way that the record industry changed in the early ’80s. E-books are similar to the first cassettes. They are convenient in certain ways, yet they’re more temporary than the medium they seek to change. The e-books you buy today will be worthless in ten years. The delivery systems will have changed too much, the programming that drives the tablets will likely no longer read your old e-book files. Yet, like the records I bought in the early ’80s, the books I buy today will last me for decades. So e-books will survive and they’ll be an important part of the market, but paper books will be like records: the people who really value the art form will always buy them.
The other conventional wisdom—that fiction doesn’t sell—is even more questionable. We live in a time when entire generations have bought and read the Harry Potter series. No nonfiction book has sold as well as Harry Potter. Even more recently, we’ve seen the runaway success of the Twilight series. And, say what you will about the series, it was fiction and it did sell. Even literary fiction sells at the same 3% to 5% profit margin it has always sold at. Of all the entertainment industries, the book publishing industry—and specifically, the industry for literary fiction—has taken the smallest hit in actual sales during this current recession.
So where does this contemporary wisdom come from? Well, it comes from the corporate takeover of book publishing. Prior to the 1980s, book companies sought to make that 3% to 5% profit. By and large, they made it. For close to a century, they existed comfortably with that profit margin and that business model. In the ‘80s, big corporations—Disney, NewsCorp, and Bertelsmann in particular—bought out many of the old book publishing companies. For the big corporations, the standard profit model wasn’t enough. They sought to sell books at closer to a 15% to 20% profit margin. The publishing companies couldn’t make that money by using their old business model, so they changed. The change, again, moved toward advertising. Now, you can’t place advertisements in books the way you can in magazines or TV shows. However, like in movies, you can embed ads in books. I’ll explain this using an example I noticed while on my last book tour in 2008.
Nearly every city I stopped in, nearly every bookstore I read in, promoted the same book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t mine. It was a book by a former child actress who had lost a lot of weight by using a diet product. Now, to understand why that book was so heavily promoted, we have to understand the advertising aspect of it. The direct profit margin off this book is no greater than it would be if it were a book of literary fiction. However, the bookstores could use the visit from this (sort of) celebrity to bring people who don’t typically read into their stores. Thus, the book serves as an advertisement for your local big-box bookstore. Since the bookstore makes a much higher profit margin off the knick-knacks they sell than they do off the books they sell, bringing this type of crowd into the store is more profitable than bringing readers into the store. The parent company of the publisher could use the book as advertising for a new TV show starring this actress. The show, not coincidentally, was on a network owned by the same parent company that owned the publishing company. The weeklies that promoted this book could use their article to sell advertisements to both the television network and the company that sells the diet product the book promotes. And, in general, the book matches a corporate media profit model because it is essentially both a commodity and an advertisement in commodity form.
This has nothing to do with what readers want. In fact, the types of books that took the biggest hit during the recession were these trinket books like the one I just mentioned. The bookstore conglomerate Borders is currently going out of business. A big reason behind its fall lies in the marketing of trinket books. Several of the independent booksellers are surviving for the opposite reason. They recognize that certain books—political nonfiction, literary fiction—always sell. And I understand why. I’m a voracious reader. No matter how broke I have been in my life, no matter how tight money has gotten, I’ve always bought books and records. People like me—the fanatics—keep bookstores and record stores alive during recessions. People like me don’t go to Borders or buy the book promoted by the big corporate publishers.
Mixing It Together
Now, if we combine all of these elements, we can reach some interesting conclusions. First, examining industries that are only marginally connected to punk rock somewhat validates punk rock theory and the punk skepticism of large corporations. We can see that the so-called free market is nowhere near democratic. We cannot vote with our spending habits. Soccer and books demonstrate this. Both professional soccer and literary fiction are hugely popular in the United States. As a culture, we’ve spoken with both our money and our actions. We’ve said, we want soccer and we want literary fiction. Despite how much people want these things and despite the fact that we’re willing to pay the asking price for certain cultural industries, corporations will limit our exposure to these industries because the industries don’t conform to a very specific profit model. Further, we can see how deeply the advertising industry saturates our culture. In short, if you can’t advertise—and advertise to an excessive level—in this cultural industry, then the industry is worthless to corporate America. So, as a culture, we lose out. Our voice is largely silenced and our opportunities to share these beautiful moments are crippled.
Still, there’s hope. After all, literary fiction and Major League Soccer are surviving, just as punk rock is. All three demonstrate another model, one of resistance to consumer corporate culture. All three are built on a model of local and global communities. MLS was able to survive and thrive by building soccer-specific stadiums, like the one the Galaxy play in. These stadiums invite this community feel. They help to energize a local fan base. They encourage support groups. They break from the corporate model of always being bigger, of making everything conform to that which accumulates the most capital. Instead, they live with a modest profit, and they do it locally. They further utilize emerging technologies without being strangled by them. At this point, a soccer fan no longer needs ESPN or any station on cable TV. For a price, we can watch most of the games through the MLS website. We can watch daily and weekly shows about the MLS for free on the web. Most of these shows are mostly commercial free. I’m personally happier with this because I can follow the sport and support it in the one way that I’m cool with: by paying to go to games.
Likewise, the book industry is starting to see the rise of mid-list presses. These presses are somewhat reverting back to the old model of a 3% to 5% profit model, but they also embrace the emerging e-book technologies. The fall of Borders, the weakening of Barnes & Noble, the advent of e-books, and the prevalence of book blogs devoted to independent books all demonstrate hope that they can solve the problem of the big box monopoly that bullied the book industry for almost two decades. Any stats I give about this would be as speculative as the e-book stats I criticized earlier. Still, I have my prediction. I think books will become like records in a sense. Literary fiction will survive the same way punk rock (and hip-hop, for that matter) have: by selling the paper book and records to the types of people who have always bought them. And, while the corporate-controlled media will always be dependent on advertising dollars at the expense of our democracy and culture, it’s nice to acknowledge that alternatives not only exist, they are thriving.
In a sense, everything I’ve seen lately in soccer and the book industry is a well-worn path in punk rock. Major League Soccer and literary fiction are simply following a model that punk rock labels like Dischord and No Idea (and, well, punk rock zines like Razorcake) have used for years: focus on the local, help to build a community of like-minded individuals, aim for sustainability rather than opulence, benefit from the global advantages that the internet provides, but figure out a way to survive without them. In the end, it’s heartening. I may be too old and have seen too much to still believe that punk rock can save the world. Still, I can happily look at punk rock to show me alternatives to the destructive corporate ideology that makes living in contemporary America a bit of a bummer.
Visit Sean Carswell’s website.