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This was a depressing year for punk and independent music / by Joe Steinhardt

Goodbye 2013. You were a good year for me and a good year for my label, and I’m grateful for that. But you were kind of a sad and depressing year for punk, for DIY, and independent voices. 

Most of what I am about to write about didn’t start in 2013. For all I know, this has been happening since before I was born. But for me, for whatever reason, this is the year I’ve become keenly aware of it, and it’s disgusting.  I have no interest in pinpointing its start, just sharing my disgust.   

I have been involved in punk and DIY communities for my entire life. I started self-releasing music in the early ‘00s, and eventually started a small label to release my friends’ music. In our communities, the terms “self release” and “small label” meant something important. In any truly independent and DIY community, the terms "self release" and "small label" are powerful, and provide purpose. Self-releasing music, or working closely with your friends, should be empowering. It’s a way to take your creative work into your own hands. It’s a spit in the face of a tightly controlled system of major labels and major indies.  

Over the past 12 months, I’ve watched these words and phrases become stripped of their meaning more so than ever before. In my mind, I will always remember 2013 as the year I saw artists using “self release” and “small label” as a marketing strategy. This year, I watched these truly subversive and independent ways of releasing music being used as stepping stones to majors and major indies, with a goal of building hype and mystery rather than as a mark of independence.

And that is truly disappointing. 

The worlds of “major label music” and “independent music” have been growing closer and closer together for a while now; it’s blurry and confusing and growing harder to tell which artists are actually independent, and which ones have teams of managers and lawyers with major-label dollars in their sights them round-tabling the best ways to keep up their faux-DIY aesthetic and when best to shed it.

And that is truly disappointing.  

2013 for me, will be the year that I saw major label corporate bullshit successfully marketed to independent music lovers like never before.  The ironic appreciation of pop-music in the past seems to have been replaced at some point by a pseudo-academic appreciation of this bullshit to the point where lines are so blurred that people can’t seem to distinguish between a catchy song, and something of importance to independent music fans, critics, and artists.

If you run an independent music blog, if you are an independent artist asked to make a best of list, you shouldn’t be anywhere near artists that are up for a fucking Grammy this year, because (1) that’s embarrassing, (2), that’s doing a huge disservice to your readership, and (3), to put it bluntly: if you’re an independent artist or journalist writing on an independent music website no one cares what your opinion on pop and pop-rock is. No one cares what your favorite pop records are right now. Wanna listen to it? Fine, go ahead and enjoy it, but promoting it is embarrassing and unproductive. Imagine asking the owner of a local independent coffee shop for a recommendation on where to eat a vegan meal and them telling you Chipotle.  

Being independent means something. Independent journalists, artists, musicians, promoters, and labels should either be supporting each other, or what’s the point?  

This is truly, really, very disappointing. This needs to stop. We can all do better than this.  

2013 for me, will be the year that I saw even more independent artists give up traditionally independent anti-commercial values in favor of a quick buck.  Selling a song to a commercial is not something to be proud of if you’re not a jingle writer.  Getting a van bought for you by a sneaker company is not something to proud of if you are not a sneaker delivery person.  Having your record put out by a car company is not something to be proud of unless it’s a spoken word record about auto-safety.  All of this stuff is not just embarrassing, but it degrades what little importance is still left in the idea of being an independent artist.  Independent of what? What is the point?

I’m sick of hearing excuses about doing whatever it takes to survive as a band.  I’m sick of hearing bands say they have “no choice” but to give into this corporate bullshit. Stealing bread to feed your family is one thing, getting money from a shoe company to play a show in Los Angeles is another.  One is essential, the other is something where maybe you should weigh your values and integrity over a single fun day.  

The line between essential vs. fun seems to have been conflated recently at the expensive of whatever it means to be independent. And fans of independent music cheer artists on through these decisions rather than shame them like they might have in the past because they simply don’t know any better since there are no more outspoken bands anymore about these values because that might be embarrassing.  

And that is truly disappointing.  

But all is not lost.  2014 is a new year.  And I’m optimistic. Happy Hunger Games!

Joe runs the best record label in the world, Don Giovanni Records. He recently put out one of the best records ever, his debut self-titled as Modern Hut. Joe is a good dude to talk to if you want to chat about New Brunswick punk bands, Prince, Lucinda Williams, or apparently the TV show Girls.

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