Punk Record Labels and the Struggle for Autonomy: The Emergence of DIY: By Alan O’Connor, 145 pgs. By Todd Taylor

Nov 19, 2008

O’Connor, an associate professor in a cultural studies program at a Canadian university, provides an interesting, intellectual, sociological view of DIY punk record labels.

It’s a new take on an old chestnut. He eschews focusing strictly on the business model of finance to delineate between major and DIY operations. (The old maxim of “What’s the difference between an independent label and a major? Money.” It has become a contentious grey area, due to the likes of Victory, Vagrant, and Doghouse: self-claiming independent labels that deploy major label tactics without impunity.) Nor does he examine DIY punk in a purely philosophical framework. (One person’s version of punk can easily be another person’s justification for bad behavior: an endless, far-from-scientific argument.)

Instead, O’Connor examines how DIY record labels behave socially, then plots, graphs, and explains his findings. It’s an interesting take. I have to tip my hat to O’Connor for contacting and doing the fieldwork on a vast array of DIY labels, from the well-known, like No Idea and Jade Tree, to the lesser known, like Accident Prone and Tankcrimes, using all of that data to plot out the behavioral characteristics of this wily DIY beast. He researches, among a host of other elements, what the occupations of label owner’s parents are, years of schooling completed, the size of the music pressings, how many promotional pieces of music a label sends out for review, and then analyzes his findings in the framework of “social logic.” O’Connor wraps it all together by stating, “It is tacit knowledge based on a social background (family, school) and on experience in the punk scene.” In the end, I believe he comes up with a tidy, correct summation that being DIY is an endless series of options, not a single, binary choice. DIY is an active interpretation of each single factor that comes a label’s (and artist’s) way. All of that, I’m totally cool with.

Here’s what’s I find problematic with the book: O’Connor’s contextual framework, outside the checks and balances of sociology, too closely follows the Maximum Rocknroll axis. Undoubtedly, MRR is a huge player and commentator of DIY punk from the late ‘80s/early ‘90s through when O’Connor finished his research for his treatise in 2006. The saturated referencing of MRR in favor of a wider and deeper examination of DIY’s variegated voices covering the same culture—Ink Disease, Rock’n’Roll Purgatory, Slug and Lettuce, Suburban Voice, Go Metric, Fiz, Insight, Genetic Disorder, Flipside, and, yeah, Razorcake—is, at best, disarming and disappointing. (Razorcake is mentioned once. O’Connor got a hold of an issue to contact labels that advertised with us. Being that Razorcake’s both DIY and the only full-fledged non-profit music zine in America, it’s hard not to take umbrage on this point.) Many of these music and culture-based zines are given minimal critical weight and value in O’Connor’s overall worldview of DIY. As a result, O’Connor’s overarching narrative and play-by-play of DIY punk seem flat and “party line,” in contrast to his nuanced, closely scrutinized, and research-backed sociology of the labels themselves. If this book sees a second print, I’d urge him that the least he could do is give the same care and attention to the people who were and are contextualizing DIY on the ground level in the present tense as it evolved/evolves as he did to the labels he is examining. It seems only fair. (PS: I’d also like to see the next edition cover the buyout of Mordam by Lumberjack to under-the-table dealings with a major. It, in effect, was one of the largest wholesale buyouts of independent culture in the past decade.) –Todd (Lexington Books, 4501 Forbes Blvd., Suite 200, Lanham, MD20706, www.lexingtonbooks.com)

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