Cafe Witness

Friday, November 09, 2007

Why Punk Rock *IS* the Blueprint for Social Media

I saw the documentary Punk's Not Dead at the Three Rivers Film Festival this week and it got me thinking about why punk is the model we social media creators SHOULD be following.

Major Similarities Between Punk and Social Media

Punk was a medium created by the disenfranchised youth who sought to rebel against the corruption and groupthought inherent in "the system."

Punk had a low barrier of entry -- most "musicians" had zero training or experience (or, often, talent), but their passion and presence is what made them noteworthy.

The punk scene relied on word-of-mouth, grassroots marketing and DIY production values.

Punks regularly refer to themselves as a family, bonded by a philosophy and shared experiences.

Punk, like social media, is primarily the playground of white men.

Major Differences Between Punk and Social Media

Social media requires more expensive equipment to create than punk rock does.

Social media relies upon digital distribution.

Social media can reach anyone, anywhere, at any time -- if they have a computer.

Social media is looking down the barrel of the "money vs. passion" argument much earlier, and much more publicly, than punk ever did.

About the Film

Punk's Not Dead is an insider's look at how and why punk has survived for 30 years. Director Susan Dynner grew up in DC during the birth of the punk scene and has been involved with it ever since. The interviews she conducted for the film mirror the kind of "passionate desperation" found in today's social media movement, and offer a LOT of correlations for our potential success.

Among them:

* Henry Rollins makes several great points about the hand-to-mouth lifestyle led by even the "top" bands. Everyone looked up to Black Flag as the epitome of punk success, but in reality, they were sleeping on fans' couches and floors and living out of their tour bus -- which, he insists, could never stop moving.

"We were like sharks," Rollins says. "If we stopped moving, we wouldn't eat."

* Ian MacKaye built the Dischord label from the ground up, based primarily on the reality that the mainstream recording industry saw no value (or marketability) in the punk scene. But instead of scheming to find ways to make the MSM notice them, the punks said "fuck it" and created their own labels to sustain their momentum.

(Dynner was on-hand at the 3RFF showing and, during the post-film Q&A, told stories about hanging out at Dischord in the early years, where she - and everyone else on-hand - taught themselves how to hand-package the records and ship them out, one by one.)

* To the people *in* the punk scene, the musicians were both larger-than-life and completely accessible. Casual fans could wander backstage and have a beer with Bad Religion or Sham 69 almost by accident. That kind of "peer" mentality involved the fans of the music in ways that MSM could never hope to achieve.

* Throughout the whole punk lifeline, the scene has consistently resembled a "family" or artists who distrust MSM intervention or any attempts to control or repackage their original intentions.

On the other hand, the nature of speaking truth to power, as punks often did, was seen as the most *mainstream* concept in the world -- far moreso than the antiseptic POV of the MSM.

* The seminal punk bands were (and still are) happy to play a room of 5 fans or 50. Numbers weren't the driving force; the need to be heard, and to meet new people who shared their POV, was.

* Again, from Rollins: "We were (metaphorically) standing outside, screaming [pantomimes a loud voice], but to the record labels, it was like [pantomimes tiny, muted voice]."

Until, of course, the "cool kids" noticed, and suddenly punk mutated into something marketable... but *ONLY* after the punk pioneers carved out their own (relative) success.

* To this day, bands like Subhuman, The Adicts and The U. K. Subs tour incessantly, sleeping in fans' houses and selling their own merch from tables and vans -- 30 years after they first took the stage.

Despite the fact that bands who have come along well after the forefathers started the scene are now enjoying exponential success, while the legends who lit the fire in the first place are still living hand-to-mouth, they carry on because they still derive so much pleasure from the endeavor that they couldn't imagine NOT doing it.

All of Which Makes Me Wonder...

Will social media have this kind of longevity?

Why are some of us so eager to model our work after MSM -- or to garner their attention in the first place -- rather than refining our specific brand or shade of originality?

Are modern media creators so passionate to have their voices heard that they're willing to push through all obstacles, sleep on floors and "tour" endlessly, just to ensure they're heard by the audience that's seeking them out?

What think you?

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  • Interesting perspective, Justin. There are some bloggers who would keep doing what they do for fun, regardless of whether or not they could monetize what they do - but presumably, their blogs don't put food on the table (they have other income sources). So that group doesn't fit your question.

    Looking back to how I started working online, I see similarity there too. Creativity, in and of itself, was a driving force. I spent hours and hours designing a website that got all of 8 page views a month.

    Along the way, something changed. Today, I won't invest 2 hours of my time into an online project without being sure it would pay off at least $250 over the next year or two. ROI became a major determinant of action.

    I still won't do something I'm not passionate about just for money - but the converse is true too. Of course, I am not representative of the audience you're asking about, but there might be similarities.

    Would be interested to watch how the conversation continues. Interesting question and comparison.

    All success

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:21 PM  

  • Without reading and studying deeper, the title of this one captured me.

    Yes Justin, social media could be or should be percieved as a punk culture, and this is possibly why I enjoy it so much, being a child of punk.

    The point is that social media can operate anarchically, there is no one authority to answer to, there is no governance or over-bearing policy or rule of conduct... If there were I'd opt out immediately.

    But why don't more people say "fuck it" and just say what they think?

    In my opnion the hideous opposite end of the spectrum to punk in social media is what I could call "brown nosing", that is to say people patting each other on the back for a job well done, kind of insestuous... I dispise that in a community.. dig this for me, add this, stumble this and that..

    I'm sorry but NO, if it is not something I believe in go fuck yourself and stop begging.

    Long Live The Punk

    I don't agree with your "money vs. passion" issue though, I mean sure my business is internet based so obviously I have an eye on my accounts and that includes the small social media element... BUT that's not for all, many people just enjoy goofing around with it, in fact most from what I can see.

    Good post though.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:30 PM  

  • I couldn't agree more about ignoring MSM and inventing new ways and models of distribution and revenue. Why let yourself be dragged into that quagmire that is based on the presumption that money and power control the channel? That's not true anymore. Why act like it is?

    By Blogger Joe C, at 3:11 PM  

  • Justin, I really liked this post and I agree with your idea that Punk makes a great model for Social Media creators to follow. I disagree with only one statement and that is "Social media requires more expensive equipment to create than punk rock does." At a minimum, social media requires a computer which can be had for free at any public library. Punk musicians require, at a minimum, instruments and amplification. They also need transportation (vehicle and gas). These things aren't free so I guess you could say social media has a lower barrier to entry.

    Regarding whether social media will have the same kind of longevity as punk, I think so. Of course, just as elements of punk were adopted by more mainstream musical styles, elements of social media are being adopted by MSM.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:31 PM  

  • "social media, is primarily the playground of white men." Please explain.

    I'm not too familiar with social media so this must be something that has skipped me.

    By Blogger Teresa, at 12:17 AM  

  • Thanks, all, for your comments.

    Chris: More people don't say "fuck it" and speak their minds because they're afraid of a) alienating people or b) rocking the feel-good boat. This is "social" media, which suggests agreeability and polite discourse. Those who stray from the party line are chastised.

    Not very punk, I'll agree -- but then, ask classic punk bands if they think Sum 41 or Green Day are "punk" and you'll see schisms of thought there, too.

    Doug: Cost as a barrier to entry is arguable in both directions. Social media requires a computer and a microphone, camera or keyboard, plus some editing software and a working knowledge of the internet; punk ("simply") requires a guitar (or bass or drums or microphone), an amp and a place to play. Gazebo, gazabo?

    Teresa: Fortunately, social media is a bit better at diversity than punk rock is / was, but it's still a bit tight at the top.

    "A-List" bloggers? Scoble, Winer, Rubel, Arrington, Calcanis, Godin... all white guys.

    Podcasting opens the doors a bit wider (Casey, Irina, Zadi, Amanda, Grammar Girl, etc.), but there's still a noticeable lack of color / culture beyond white suburban North America being portrayed regularly.

    Still, we're doing a little better than punk, which -- when it comes to diversity -- offers such noteworthy examples as L7 and...


    By Blogger Justin Kownacki, at 2:57 AM  

  • Interesting analogy, I like to see these comparisons brought up.

    As someone who has been & is still somewhat involved in the DIY community spawned by the punk movement, I think a more interesting way to look at this isn't modeling social media after punk, but how social media is being (or should be) utilized by and it's impact on the punk community. Social media is a tool, one the DIY community is uniquely qualified to utilize based on the network that has been established and kept since long before social media was even a phrase.

    Also, to be fair, there's a much larger example of women in the punk scene, but to find them one needs to look beyond where punk music has gone (mainstream play) and where the punk movement has gone. The punk movement/DIY ethic is still alive and well outside of the realm of MTV/hot topic/radio airplay. It supports a massive diversity of bands and performers, and while the role of women is still not as large as men, there is a larger presence than there once was and it's definitely larger than the media definition (this documentary included, I suspect) allows.

    By Blogger Joe, at 4:07 PM  

  • As an aspiring musician AND new media dude, I took a lot away from this one. In both cases, I'm trying to figure out how I can just do one or the other, instead of working for "the man." And then the parallels from punk music to the underground music scenes today, be it Nerdcore(MC Chris, Zealous 1, Scrub Club Records), Horrorcore/Wicked Shit(ICP, Twizid), Punk Rip Hop (Kottonmouth Kings), they all open themselves up and are accessible and relatable to their fans. Not some big rockstars on stage above everyone.

    And then we get to hang our with our own "rockstars" in the producers we read/watch/listen to everyday at Podcamps, blogfests, and the like.

    By Blogger Sorgatron, at 11:41 PM  

  • By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:54 AM  

  • I dont really now much about the social media analysis, but lets face it, punk music rocks the house, is so awesome and provides a big pump in the heart when you dance the notes.

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  • Pretty worthwhile piece of writing, much thanks for the post.

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