Grace Ambrose is currently a content coordinator of Maximum Rocknroll, the world’s largest and longest-running underground punk fanzine. Living in Maximum Rocknroll’s San Francisco compound, Ambrose wears many hats that range from managing ads and invoicing to facilitating the 100+ volunteers that put labor into each issue of the monthly magazine — coordinating writing assignments with contributors from around the world, music reviews for all submitted material that adheres to MRR guidelines, and sending the entire operation to print before the deadline. None of this is salaried work. Rent at the MRR house is free for the magazine’s coordinators, but Ambrose also works at a museum to subsidize the additional expenses of living in a majorly gentrified city like San Francisco.
My introduction to Maximum Rocknroll came from reading archived online columns from writers like Layla Gibbon, Osa Atoe and Marissa Magic. Their primary scopes of writing interest — punk that was weird, politically grounded, and made by women, queers, and people of color — is a space Ambrose has preserved and expanded in her tenure at MRR. She is a staunch advocate for independent publishing and its political necessity in today’s internet-centric cultural landscape. We debated the existence of underground culture in 2016, discussed corporate music publications, DIY as a brand identity, a working definition of punk, and the means to perpetuating a vital resistance to capitalist cultural cannibalism.
DIY™ or diy? Feminism or feminism? Punk or punk? We're quietly offered these branded versions of ourselves every day. Everybody has to sell you something in order to pay bills, and it’s not even their fault. Right? I was talking with some friends recently and we decided there is no more underground. The world has changed shape with the advent of the internet and rise of social media. Nothing is safe from the content machine anymore.
There absolutely still is an underground. Anyone who says otherwise has been duped by the Noiseys of the world — their cred-building strategy worked! You believe that they’re clued in. There are dozens of great groups in Austin that aren’t Institute, lots of mutant musicians in Northwest Indiana that aren’t the Coneheads, hundreds of teenage punk bands operating on the fringe, punk scenes all over the world who haven’t bought into or been bought out by the Western Internet Media Hive Mind of Culture and its idea of what Social Capital looks like. The international DIY movement is alive and well and much of it is still completely underground and safe — it’s proven to me by the dozens and dozens of tapes and records that come into my office every month that won’t ever end up in the pages of corporately-owned media.
A small part of the mainstream media — specifically the corners of the mainstream media that disguise themselves as independently minded like Vice and Pitchfork — have more closely covered the underground in recent years. And it's easy to feel like that part of the world is bigger than it actually is. When news of Vi Subversa’s passing broke, the writer who wrote the Pitchfork obit downloaded a PDF of the recent MRR interview with Poison Girls before filing his story. Bands like GLOSS won’t talk to Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, so those publications are left to quote their interviews with us. I wrote a one-sheet for a band in a freelance capacity and an editor at Noisey quoted it and attributed it to the coordinator of Maximum Rocknroll, but failed to mention that the quote came from promotional material. My gripe with that was that he would never do the same for a music writer not tied to the popular idea of the underground.
At the end of the day though, only a very small fraction of the bands covered by these corporate conglomerates and MRR will overlap, though they’re often the same bands that we (as an underground subculture) ascribe “importance" to. What does it mean that the bands that we elevate are the same ones who are then commodified by the Vices of the world? Are they leeching off of us? Or are we subconsciously valuing these bands for the same reasons, for their incidental brand? That’s the frightening and frustrating part for me, how we (as a magazine, as individuals) end up somehow mimicking the strategies of the content generators — on our personal social media, in what we cover — and how we give them undue attention and importance — when we allow ourselves to get frustrated with their reductive and essentialist coverage, something that I’m definitely guilty of. In those moments I try to remind myself that I work in a space that offers an alternative, and has done so for almost forty years, a different sort of content machine, one that is driven by human interests, not business ones.
I don’t begrudge the individuals who make a living writing for these publications, who contribute to the endless media-as-marketing onslaught, who write for outlets that ultimately prioritize the bottom-line over telling meaningful stories — for the most part, they aren’t the problem. They’re being exploited, too. If I simply wanted to write about punk music, I could have a much more comfortable existence doing it in just about any other way than being the coordinator of Maximum Rocknroll. I didn’t become the coordinator of Maximum Rocknroll because I like writing about punk music (though I do). I became the coordinator of Maximum Rocknroll because I believe in the power of independent media outlets and I believe that publications should answer to their readership and not media conglomerates, that corporations have no business being involved in politics and culture, and that any structure where a few people are making a lot of money off of the work of a great many is an inherently fucked one, whether that is a tech company or a music blog.
How is the independent music media landscape different in 2016 than it was before we were around? Say, when Maximum started in 1982?
Maximum may no longer feel like the singular punk news source it was in the pre-internet days (though our coverage of punk records remains the most extensive in the world!), but the core of its identity remains the same. Maximum is still a publication made by the people it is made for and about. This is in direct opposition to a publication like Noisey or Pitchfork. I'm not crying "What we do is secret!" and demanding that corporately-owned publications cease writing about Good Throb and Vexx and GLOSS and Lumpy and the Dumpers. If musicians or artists or writers put something like a record out into the world, that gives whoever wherever license to comment on it. It's part of the social contract of cultural production. I am demanding that musicians, artists, label artists and writers who are invested in independent culture beyond what it can offer them in terms of social and monetary capital actively resist feeding the content machine.
Vice self-describes as “the world’s leading youth media company specializing in creating, distributing, and monetizing original content globally...We not only create the content but we also distribute, promote, and sell it via our network of advertorial sales." (Emphasis mine.) In addition to the obviously Vice-branded platforms like Noisey, their advertising arm, the Vice Digital Network, works with a group of 500 or so websites, targeted to the lucrative 18-34 “influencer" demographic. Advertisers go through Vice Digital to place ads on brand-appropriate platforms in the network, including sites like The Quietus, Impose, Dangerous Minds, Fact, Consequence of Sound, Paste and other outlets that people reading this probably visit on a regular basis. Looking at the list of sites is startling — a complete flattening of interests and audiences. It’s extremely illustrative of the fact that Vice has a) convinced advertisers that they have exclusive access and insight into a young, “alternative" demographic across a wide variety of platforms and b) that that demographic means little more to them than views and clicks that can be turned into dollars. Who is seeing that money? Certainly not the writers or the bands being featured.
I recently got in an argument with a friend whose band was interviewed on Noisey. I asked him, “What did your band want to get out of it?" A place like Noisey capitalizes on the the false promises of capitalism — if we do this interview our band will sell more records, will play bigger shows, will achieve greater notoriety. I understand being duped into thinking that any of that is true to any real extent. It’s not a new tactic. He told me he didn’t know why they did it. To me, that’s even worse than buying into the idea that an interview there will do much more for you than generate a few clicks on your Bandcamp. In an interview in fall 2014, Vice said that its ad space — across all platforms — was sold out for the next eight months. If you don’t know why you did it at all, then you’re just giving them something to slot in in between those ads and not even demanding anything in return. They’ll make more money in a day off of the ads on the page than your band will ever see from your record — and your interview will be a home for those ads and new ones in perpetuity, long after its relevance fades. Beyond the feature on your band, being complicit in their coverage only helps to fuel the alternative identity that makes the Vice brand so appealing to advertisers in their extended network, that makes them trust Vice Digital with their advertising dollars.
I don’t want this interview to turn into an anti-Vice screed (but really, fuck Vice). I’m merely attempting to illustrate just a little bit of how tangled and wide the web of corporate media is, and how methodically and persistently these outlets are trying to commodify and monetize alternative culture. Every time a so-branded DIY punk band grants an interview to these kinds of media conglomerates without carefully weighing what they will get in return, it’s a slap in the face to places like MRR and The Media.
What is punk to you? Is there ever a difference between what is punk to Grace Ambrose and what is punk to MRR?
One of the first things we do every month is listen to all the records we received in the mail and decide what is eligible for review in the magazine. There are lots of “punk!" / “not punk!" moments in that marathon listening session, and sometimes a few arguments (“too metal!" “too rock!"). There, it’s sonic distinctions. It’s like obscenity — you know it when you hear it, ya know? The basic rules for us: must contain drums, must contain vocals, must not have some sort of embarrassing corporate connection to a place like Converse Rubber Tracks. We reject a lot of music played by people who identify as punks that doesn’t sonically seem like punk to us and we get a lot of grief for that. We don’t review any music released on major labels (Warner, Sony, Universal) or their subsidiaries (many more labels than you think!), or records that are exclusively distributed by major-owned distributors. A common misconception is that MRR doesn’t think people should make any money off of their music or be famous — that’s not true and that’s not why we set up these rules. Major labels care about shareholder profits, not art or politics or money for artists, and are part of larger corporations that are often actively engaged in arms production, oil, and other insidious industries. The major / indie distinction might not feel as pressing as it once did (i.e. when a sanitized punk brand was having a huge explosion on majors and the market in the 1990s), but it’s still a core part of the distinctions we make in our coverage.
I think it’s important to say that we review everything that is sent to us that fits within our (fairly wide) parameters. Everything we review gets the same size font, the same placement in the magazine, the same editorial process. You don’t have to make a case for yourself for inclusion in our mag. We are gatekeepers in a sense, yes, but we’re up front about what gets through and what doesn’t. The parameters are printed in every issue. For the purposes of the magazine I agree with those parameters and I’ve learned how to recognize the value in things that I don’t necessarily like or agree with or that don’t resonate with my individual, personal experiences within the world of DIY punk — an essential coping skill for surviving this job.
There have always been punks who were interested in politics and punks who didn’t give a fuck; punks who were good at their instruments and played fast, punks who didn’t know how to play and played faster. The title should be taken somewhat literally — is it maximum rock’n’roll? I think there are a lot of things that are punk-adjacent or punk in spirit that don’t fit the confines of this magazine, and I’m okay with that. I’m a multi-faceted person who likes a lot of things outside of punk and I don’t need that term to encompass all of my interests or lifestyle, and feel sorry for the people who feel as if it should.
What excites you about punk in 2016 and what makes you barf about punk in 2016?
I’m excited by punks carving out space, working to building venues and community centers that promote intersectional and interesting ideas about what an autonomous space can or should look like. A life with no bosses! I think cities worldwide are in a moment of crisis and I’m interested in figuring out ways for freaks to survive and cultural production to thrive responsibly within them. We’re trying to figure it out in San Francisco.
I’m deeply suspicious of any project that brands itself as DIY or independent. (DIY Space for London excepted, the best example of a new and exciting autonomous space I can think of!) DIY is an ethos that exists in many forms, within and outside of punk, and I think anything that capitalizes on the idea of DIY rather than just doing the damn thing and getting on with it is something to be kept at an arm’s length.
My distaste for the men who pit women against each other, ostracize and humiliate marginalized people who dare to speak up, and use the units of punk communities (records, gigs, bands) as stepping stones in their personal pissing contests is well documented.
The social media internet era creates a necessity to communicate through performance, a rise of the visible Product that is shaped like a resistance community, a political movement or idea in music and general art, but it's not actually resistant at all. It's replicating the shitty power dynamics it, in name, aims to dissolve. In this flat politi-cultural landscape where there is potentially no more underground (your argument otherwise is convincing -- that there is underground if we make it), how do we continue to subvert? I'm gonna get a little “Politics 101"/collegiate here and paraphrase a Noam Chomsky quote, where he was asked what would an anarchist society look like to him, if it existed, and he simply answered that he didn't know because one has never existed before and experiments of such have only been a yolk living in the greater egg of the world of capitalism.
It is of course naive to think we can opt out of capitalism in any widely transformative way. I think the choices and stakes and forms of resistance are different for individuals and institutions. Take Maximum — if we were forced to either shutter or accept major label or corporate backing, we would close. No question. That’s an easy one to me.
Other choices feel more complicated — an individual, or a band that doesn’t have nearly forty years of brash ideology backing it up might have a less clear path. I think the question I asked my friend, “What did you expect to get out of it?" is a good one. Everyone has a price — and that price might not be purely monetary. That’s a dark way to think of it. Reckon with yourself about why you do things, if what you gain is enough to make up for what you lose. Generally, I think you’ll find that it isn’t. What was it my friend E. Conner said on twitter the other day? “I believe in compromise for survival [but] I have yet to see mutual and collective success under capital 4 anyone other than THE MOTHERFUCKERS." That kind of sums it up, right? Do what you have to do in order to survive, but beyond that, think critically about who you talk to, about whose words yours will sit next to. Be intentional in the ways you leverage your band’s social and creative capital. Save the best parts of yourself for media and publications and writers that you love and respect. Be willing to draw hard lines. Saying “No" is good. People don’t get enough credit for saying no. Don’t let your choices be motivated by just what you get credit or recognition for. Resist letting your ego drive your creative production. It can certainly be satisfying to see a link to an article lauding your band fly around the internet for a day but it’s a empty satisfaction, a temporary salve that masks deep-seated insidiousness.
Of course, Maximum participates in the micro-capitalism of punk. DIY communities have built up robust economies, small amounts of money trading hands dozens of times over. I have to say, I often resent the ways the exchange of goods and money have infiltrated our communities — how many 7"s have I bought because not enough people turned up at the gig and I wanted to help the band get to their next stop? It’s important though. Participate in these micro-economies in the ways that you are able. The vast, vast majority of punk lyrics and zines are not explicitly political in content. What is political is the means. There is radical potential in what we do. Use your love of loud noise and sick riffs as a framework for pushing back, use the ritual of the gig as an entry point for figuring out how we can actively resist the closing in of the city around us, harness the catalytic space-making potential of DIY and punk communities as we build a new vision of the future. The hows and whys are what is important and that’s what distinguishes us — Maximum Rocknroll, the punks — from the cool hunting publications that specialize in chewing up the underground and selling a declawed, regurgitated version of it back to people who think that’s what they want. Don’t forget it.