Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Cyclic Existence of Heavy Music - Part II, Other Than Metal

The eighties were also the height of American punk, but punk's inability to break into the mainstream forced the Do It Yourself (DIY) movement. Independent record labels started by band members and scenesters came into existence to distribute music that the major media wasn't interested in. An example would be SST Records started by Greg Ginn; then frontman of Black Flag. Ginn recorded a record with his previous band Panic and had no luck securing a record deal and decided to release it himself by establishing his own label. SST Records then began distributing music from it's home of Southern California's thriving punk scene.

Hardcore remained an underground music while punk experienced a revival in the nineties as 'Pop-Punk' with bands like Green Day. Punk resisted assimilation into the heavy music category by shying away from association with hardcore and especially metal with pop friendly branches like Ska. Granted, there are punk bands that remained true to it's roots but like any music that was taboo in it's heyday, it too had to give way to new music. An example would be when jazz faded from music played in brothels in New Orleans as music you heard while you got some 'jass' into easy listening AM radio stations.

Indie label's distribution was limited and did not have the clout nor financial prowess of the major labels to take advantage of traditional marketing techniques such as securing an end cap display at a retail chain. Instead of competing directly with the majors, indies took a community based approach such as releasing split records. The idea of a split record is to feature two bands, one on each side. The record typically has a few tracks from each artist and one of the bands would be the draw intended to entice listeners to try another band based on association.

It was through compilations from reputable indie labels that many fans heard new bands. Without distribution into retail locations, labels relied on the dying mail order system where you requested a catalog, picked items and sent a check for the merchandise (plus shipping and handling) then awaited its arrival; all correspondence via USPS. Some mom 'n pop record shops would carry these records but they were typically scene specific and traditional distribution was a thing to come.

How did these kids hear about these new bands before the internet? The answer is the under ground magazine, or zine to the initiated. Zine's were put out either by individuals who had close ties to the scene or by indie labels. Zines evolved to take on subscribers and some of these DIY publications were nationally distributed through the postal service. Other than the zine it was word of mouth and live shows that spread the word. As time pass and indies grew in national recognition, they began taking out ads in publications that fans read like Hit Parader and Guitar World.

Necessity being the mother of all invention, DIYers of the era understood the geographical limitation of a scene as well as indie labels. Where major labels planned tour logistics and offered support, these bands got a van and crammed as much gear, clothing, and merch as they could afford and hit the road. It was a slow process with no guarantee of success but it was those that braved it that paved the way for many to come. A great book on this topic is Get in the Van: On the Road With Black Flag by Henry Rollins.

During the nineties when pop punk was making the top twenty charts, the punk bands of the past began to resurface with their back catalog picked up by a new and younger audience who wanted to hear where it began. Bands like Bad Brains suddenly became a household name where in the past it lived in relative obscurity to the mainstream media during the peak of it's career. The punk revival was in full swing with it being used in extreme sports events, game and movie sound tracks, even ivy league colleges were having commencement speeches by political punk alumni.

Hardcore remains the underground redheaded stepchild of heavy music. The bastard descendant of punk diverged on it's own when it became too heavy for punk's liking where traditional punk fans shunned it while the new hardcore fans accepted it's roots. Built on the DIY ethos of it's punk roots and strengthened by the tight knit scene, hardcore thrived underground where it fostered the creation of independent record labels that distributed with fierce brand loyalty. Once upon a time fans could rely on Victory Record's brand to deliver true and good hardcore.

The broader reaches of the World Wide Web in the beginning of nineties combined with the DIY attitude exposed hardcore to new, previously inaccessible fans. The music being heard for the first time by those without a local hardcore scene found themselves becoming immersed into hardcore culture via the internet; giving rise to new momentum by giving indie labels and unsigned bands the tools to strike against major media with the ability to release music worldwide without the need for traditional distribution channels.

With both punk and hardcore heard by a global audience, we wait for those with new gripes, frustrations, politics and scenes to form a new voice to express what that local culture has to say. In part III we will be hearing how those voices will influence music to come.

Check out the next article; The Cyclic Existence of Heavy Music - Part III, Full Circle

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