Is there anything still to be said on the subject of major labels? – From Punk Planet?

Of course by the time you read this it will be May, but I’m writing this more than a month earlier, in the midst of a trip to Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, the kind of places where it’s only too easy to understand just how cruel April can be.

More than one observer has noted that the torment of an unfulfilled promise is infinitely worse than abject surrender in the face of clearly hopeless causes. That’s something midwesterners, who every year see spring dangling enticingly before their winter-weary eyes, only to see it snatched away and buried beneath yet another late-season snowstorm, can relate to in a way we pampered Californians will always find it hard to grasp.

But there’s also a beauty, as profound as it is elusive, to be seen in the still brown fields beneath which one can barely detect the first green shoots of another year’s renewal, just as one can find a muted eloquence in the deserted back streets of the rust belt’s decaying cities, where only a handful of artists and fanatics find anything resembling hope or a future.

It’s a  beauty that I’m especially attuned to. Though it’s been twenty-five years since I left my native midwest, there’s something in the drabness, the flatness, the matter-of-factness, that will always resonate in my soul. Even the horrid, despicable, abominable climate that midwesterners inexplicably endure has its charms for me – in great moderation, of course. When an unexpected snowstorm brought an abrupt halt to April’s first genuine warm spell, I was practically dancing down the streets with excitement, while my friend Beth, who had just lived through one of the worst Michign winters in memory, looked as though she were pondering whether to strangle, bludgeon, or shoot me.

Anyway, I’ve been having a splendid time in these unlikely vacation destinations – seriously, do you know anyone who would deliberately travel to Ohio in search of amusement? – and am barely, if at all, in the mood, to engage in yet another discussion of punk ethics and economics. But it’s an important subject, no doubt, and on many minds these days, so let’s give it one more shot:

Is there anything still to be said on the subject of major labels? As I search my thoughts for something original on the subject, I can’t help thinking of the preacher who, every Sunday, year in and year out, has to come up with new ways to denounce Satan. Uh, dude, he’s like really bad, and he totally harshes your soul, OK?

Unlike many people in the punk scene, I can’t get that exercised about major label influences. For me, it’s very simple: if you don’t like a record company, don’t buy their records. If you’re mad at a band for signing to a record company you don’t like, don’t buy their records either. End of story; if everyone simply followed that principle, none of this brouhaha would be happening.

I myself went through a period of about ten years where I didn’t buy anything released on a major label except for a few really old things like Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra, who I didn’t think would be coming out on DIY labels anytime soon. In the last couple years I’ve relaxed my standards considerably, or maybe another way of saying it is that I’ve broadened considerably the sorts of music I’ll listen to.

As wonderful and exciting as it was to be fully immersed in punk and hardcore for all that time, I’m kind of resentful toward myself for being so narrow-minded that I missed out on a lot of other great music that was being made during the 1980s. Some, though not most of it, was on major labels. The way things are going these days, I suppose many of you are going to be questioning your assumptions as one after another of your favorite bands signs on the dotted line.

Whether they’re on a major or an indie, it’s my opinion that with few exceptions, bands usually do their best work on their first couple albums, and then steadily go downhill in almost direct proportion to how popular they’re becoming. I first noticed that about my favorite bands way back in the 60s, and things haven’t changed much. I think it has something to do with the way popularity and financial success isolates the band from the audience who originally gave them much of their inspiration.

I’ve seen the same principle at work in all the arts: whether with authors or movie directors or TV writers, once they hit on a formula for success, they’re afraid to tamper with it, and the more successful they become, the more bloated, self-important, and removed from reality their art becomes. Witness the fabulously successful rock bands who can’t come up with anything to write about except how lonely it is at the top or how tough it is being on the road promoting their latest album.

One other thought I’d like to share about major labels vs. independents: Ever since Green Day went to Warner Brothers, I’ve heard a lot of opinions, both for and against that decision. But many if not most of those opinions have been based on misinformation. The principal misconception is that Green Day’s move was based mainly on money.

Again and again I hear people defend them by saying, “Why should they have to to struggle and starve just for the sake of staying on an independent label?” and people attack them by saying, “All they care about is money, that’s why they went to Warner Brothers.”

No doubt money was a factor in their decision, but, as I and others have often tried to point out, major vs. indie is not a simple equation of big money vs. little or no money. Most bands who sign to majors never see any money except (if they get one) their initial advance. Out of the handful of bands who do make money on a major label, even fewer make any truly significant amounts.

Those few, of course, become fabulously rich, just like the handful of athletes or movie stars who make it to the big time. And it’s from there that most misconceptions about being on a major label arise. But let me puncture some of your preconceived notions with a couple facts.

One of the guys from Green Day stopped by last week while on a break from their tour and filled me in on how things were going. As of then, their major label record had shipped 140,000 copies to stores and actually sold 60,000. So already the record had outsold both of their releases on Lookout, which have each sold about 55,000.

Want to know how much money they’d made on the Warner Brothers record? Nothing. It still hadn’t sold enough to cover its initial costs. On the Lookout records? Well, it’s not my place to reveal personal financial information, but let’s just say it’s been enough for the band to live on for the past couple years.

Another interesting major label fact: the tour that Green Day was on had been fabulously successful. Nearly every show sold out, a thousand or more fans at each one. And how much did Green Day make on tour? Less than nothing. In fact they lost money, a lot of it. Not because anything went wrong; in fact they expected to lose money going into it. That’s the way Warner Brothers does things: tours are seen more as a way of promoting the record. By contrast, on their last couple of independent tours, playing less shows and to smaller audiences, Green Day made a lot of money.

By now you’re probably asking what the point is? If being on a major label is so awful, why are so many bands anxious to do it? Are they all just plain dumb?

No, of course not, and especially not in the case of Green Day. You may not agree with their decision, you may even hate them, but they’re no dummies. Unlike most bands who go to a major label, in the long run Green Day will probably make a great deal of money and, at least at the rate they’re going, become fabulously successful.

But they’re the exception to the rule, a rather large exception. And what’s more, they’re sufficiently talented that they would have become fabulously successful even if they’d stayed on an indie label, though their success wouldn’t have come so fast and might not have been quite so fabulous.

For example, we don’t have the ability to get them on MTV or onto all the commercial radio stations or into every record store in the land. Depending on your own beliefs, that might be an advantage or a drawback. But undoubtedly a large factor in Green Day’s choosing the path they did was the fact that they wanted those things. Fame is a powerful drug, and I don’t think it’s a wholly bad one.

Like any powerful drug, it needs to be handled very carefully, and whether Green Day use it wisely or foolishly is up to them now. Which brings me back to my original point, and its obvious corollary: if you don’t like what Green Day or Jawbox or Samiam or Shudder to Think or god knows who else signed this month are doing, don’t buy their major label records and stop worrying about them. They’re big boys and girls and can take care of themselves. The only place you have in the decision making process is in whether or not you want to go along with it.

And if you don’t, the logical conclusion is to go out and do something better of your own. If you can’t sing or play an instrument, start a label, or a zine, or figure out some other way of insuring that the music you truly believe in reaches the ears of those it was intended to reach. If you’re just going to sit there whining about how so-and-so sold out, pretty soon nobody is going to be listening.

And with that, I make the transition to a much more difficult and personal topic. Two issues ago I said that I was considering discontinuing this column and asked the readers for their opinions. I was surprised at how much of a response I got.

As of now I’ve received a total of nearly 100 letters and e-mail messages. The great majority, all but about 5 of them, urged me to continue writing for MRR. The only problem is that the few writers who urged me to quit seemed to have better arguments.

One of the most convincing arguments came in the first letter I received, which was from a fellow MRR staffer. Essentially this person attacked me for being a “liberal” (look it up in your dictionary and then try and figure out why someone would consider such a word to be an insult) and an “elitist.”

The writer went on to make the point that MRR was “not a democratic institution,” and that I was a “reformist” for even thinking that it should be, that the only struggle that really mattered was a society-wide revolution. And I thought to myself, what kind of society would we have after such a revolution if it were based on non-democratic institutions like the sort this writer was content to have MRR be?

Now this is only one person’s opinion, granted, and I don’t think it reflects the opinion of all, or probably even the majority of MRR staffers. But what was significant to me is that this person, whose politics I consider to be both delusional and dangerous, is still involved with MRR, while Jeff Bale, who I often strongly disagree with, but can hardly be called delusional or dangerous, is not.

That’s one point. The other is this issue of MRR deciding who and what is or isn’t punk. It’s not that I disagree with most of the decisions being made; I myself probably wouldn’t listen to many of the records being rejected for review or advertising (on the other hand, I think a large number of the records that are accepted are pretty awful too).

But what’s really important is the issue of open versus closed-mindedness. When standards are established as to what is or isn’t punk, punk has ceased to be a relevant art form. It’s just like (and I’m indebted to a reader for this analogy) born-again Christians. You don’t look to them for original ideas about God or Jesus for the obvious reason that they’re not allowed to have them. Everything is judged only in relation to how well it conforms to the established norms of the bible and the church.

When punk started, it had nothing to compare itself to. Now it’s got the weight of 17 years of tradition. If MRR wishes to remain a valuable part of the punk scene, it has to do its best to break down old patterns and leave room for new ideas to emerge. Instead it seems determined to do just the opposite.

By now you’ve probably guessed that my decision has been to leave MRR. It’s been a terribly hard decision to make. In a way it’s like leaving your family, or your home town, or your loved ones, to set out into parts unknown in search of you don’t know quite what. Being an MRR columnist has been such an important part of my identity for so long that it’s kind of scary to contemplate not having that title. “Hi, I’m Larry, I used to write for MRR” just doesn’t have the same sort of cachet.

On top of that, and all the letters I received have only served to remind me, I’ve formed something very close to a personal relationship with my readers. Some of you who were only 14 or 16 when you started reading me are now college graduates. I’ve lost track of how many of you have told me that you started your fanzine or band or record label at least in part because you were inspired by me. Some of you have done truly great things already and are still not even half my age.

So the circle continues: not that awfully many years ago, I was in turn inspired by other artists and writers and musicians, many of whom I first encountered in this very magazine, and that’s what first made me realize that I might be capable of far more than I had ever imagined.

But actually, I don’t see it so much as a circle, but a spiral, just as I don’t believe history repeats, but rhymes. Each time we appear to have come around to the same old place, we’re really a little farther in, or out, depending on your choice of metaphor, from the center of understanding. That’s why, despite our great desire for things to remain constant, we have an even greater need for change.

At every stage of my life I’ve found it necessary to leave behind the familiar and easy ways and to set out into uncharted territory. It’s been a lonely and sometimes harsh existence, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I would have stopped growing and started dying 20 years ago if I hadn’t been willing to constantly reinvent myself. Each time, I go through a stage of thinking: now look what you’ve done, you’ve thrown away everything you’ve accomplished so far and you’re out here all on your own again.

But eventually, though sometimes not till years later, I realize that not only have I got a whole new life, and a whole new set of accomplishments and values to go with it, but that the people, places and things that once seemed absolutely essential and irreplaceable now exist only in the dim and distant shadow world of memory, which itself exists only at a very slight remove from retroactive imagination. Sometimes on a moody, rainy day, with a fire burning close at hand and the windows opaque with fog, I’ll pull these images out from the musty cabinets where they dwell, and treasure them with the fondness we reserve for old lovers who no longer have the power to wound us.

But if I encounter them in the street, or at a party, or across the terrace at my favorite cafe, there is an awkward, strained quality to our meeting. It is clear that they no longer understand me or the world into which I have entered, and I find myself shaking my head in wonder that I could have ever been so much a part of theirs. That doesn’t mean I fail to appreciate what they have meant to me, nor that whatever feelings of love or compassion we once shared have lost their meaning.

But ask yourself: where are the simple joys, or for that matter, the inexpressible delights, of last year’s romance or last week’s day at the beach? Or, for that matter, the hideous tragedies of lost love or unjust death that so scarred your existence that you saw no reason or purpose in living any further? Though they made you, shaped you into what you are still becoming, they themselves exist no longer, except to the extent that you allow them. Your life itself is brand new, every time you draw another breath.

And in parting, I would like to tell you about one very special man, who, though I’ve only spent a few hours in his company, has illuminated my life in a way only a very tiny handful of people have been able to.

I met him a couple years ago, in Lafayette, Indiana. The Queers were getting set to record an album with Mass Giorgini at his Sonic Iguana studio. When we showed up, I was surprised to find Mass’ father there. Not too many dads hang around watching punk rock records getting made, especially not dads who are also distinguished professors at a major university.

But more surprises were to come; I soon learned that not only was Professor Giorgini a fan of many punk bands, but that he was also an avid reader of MRR, and more knowledgeable on some aspects of the punk scene than I was.

Not that he was exactly a punk rocker; in fact, his interests encompassed nearly anything and everything that crossed his path. For instance, though he already had two Ph.D.s (you college students will be well aware that earning one Ph.D. is an incredible and rare accomplishment), he had just taken a third doctorate, in physics, just for “fun.”

In addition to that, he was a world-renowned sculptor and artist, and a font of information on nearly any subject you could imagine, and when it came to those few subjects with which he was unfamiliar, he was all ears for what he might be able to learn from you. For those of you familiar with the concept of “renaissance man,” here was one in the flesh.

Yet his enormous, nearly mind-boggling intelligence was far from being his most distinguishing characteristic. In fact, it would be very easy to forget that you were in the presence of one of the smartest men you were ever likely to meet, because more than anything else, what shone forth from Professor Giorgini was his enormous love for life and all humanity. It didn’t matter if you’d only met him five minutes ago; you’d sense that he genuinely cared about you, that he valued you as a fellow human and friend, and before you knew it, he’d be smothering you in a bear hug and inviting you to come and share some dinner.

You might get the mistaken impression, by the way, that because I have been writing in the past tense, that Professor Giorgini is no longer with us, or that he is no longer so wonderful. Nothing could be further from the case. Yesterday, I went to Lafayette to see him again, only the second time I had ever visited him. I was rather flattered that he even remembered me at all, let alone that he thought it worthwhile going to considerable difficulty to come across town to meet me.

You see, in one of those cruel tricks that nature seems to delight in playing on us whenever we begin to trust her, Professor Giorgini had been struck down by a massive brain tumor. Despite the damage done, he was still very alert, and capable of moments of eloquence and brilliance that made it seem almost as if nothing had happened.

But by the way he had to be helped across the room and into his chair, by the way he had to take long moments to sort out what he wanted to say and to find the proper words to express it, it was painfully clear just how much had been lost along with “the half pound of brain” that he joked about having been extracted during his recent surgery.

We sat there for a couple hours in a cheesy pizzeria. A television blared in the background, and some heshers kept feeding quarters into the jukebox. Outside one of those astonishing and sometimes terrifying spring thunderstorms set in; amidst blinding flashes of lightning, the parking lot quickly turned into a lake.

But inside, at our table, it was incredibly tranquil, as we talked of one thing and another. Remiscences of a trip taken twenty years before, the problems of awakening students’ desire to learn, the time Professor Giorgini had gone with his son Flav to see AC-DC and was outraged by how Angus hogged the spotlight with his clichéd guitar wankings. It should have been sad, but it was beautiful; one of the most astounding afternoons of my life.

And so, Aldo Pasquale Giuseppe Giorgini, this column is for you. More than perhaps any person I’ve ever met, you’ve reminded me that while art is one of life’s greatest treasures, the truest art of all is life itself. Even if I never see you again, my own life will have been immeasurably enriched as a result of knowing you.

And to all the rest of you, you’ve been pretty rad, too. Thanks for reading this far, whether this is the first time you’ve ever seen my column, or if you’ve been with me through the whole seven-plus years I’ve been writing this thing. I’ll try to keep in touch with you through my own magazine and occasional contributions to other zines. Write me in care of Lookout if you want to keep up with what I’m doing. That’s it for now, so long, maybe I’ll see you in the funny papers.

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