*except when it is. Which isn’t often.
More and more lately I’ve been hearing this argument, or discussion, or comment. Self-publishing is just like punk rock! Because anyone can do it. Because self-published authors are taking the bull by the horns and doing it themselves! Fuck the Publishing Man! Rock on!
And it’s something I’ve wanted to write about for some time, but it was this Genreville blog post in PW that finally inspired me to do so.
Yes, there are a few similarities, or rather, there is one way in which they are alike. But for the most part they are vastly different, and this is what irritates me and makes me want to pull out my hair sometimes. Because the differences are vast and wide.
Before I start, let me give you a quick run-down of my credentials to even discuss this topic. I was heavily involved in the punk scene for, oh, ten years or so. With an ex-boyfriend of mine, who was in a band, I ran a tiny punk record label; we sold records for a dollar each. I helped book shows; I had bands stay at my house; I slept on floors; I did a little touring; I watched recording sessions; I sang one line in a song that ended up on a Lookout! records compilation; I went to drunken all-night parties; I never paid to get into shows because I always knew somebody in the band; I traveled across country with the ex (he wasn’t my ex at the time) and his band to attend a three-day punk festival in northern California; I can play a few Ramones and Sex Pistols songs on the guitar; I started my own band with a couple of other girls, and we were getting ready to try booking a show when our drummer quit; and a whole bunch of other stuff I’ve forgotten. This was one of my favorite things about writing the Downside books, was being able to draw on those experiences and namecheck my favorite bands.
I say this just because I want to make it clear that I do in fact know what I’m talking about; it’s not to brag or say “Look how cool I am” or anything of that nature (I readily admit I am not cool. Perhaps I was at one point in my life, but now I sit around all day writing and pouring juice for my daughters).
The only self-publishing I can honestly and truly say is punk rock are zines. Zines are–at least they used to be–fully punk self-publishing. Handwritten pages (although now that we have computers it’s very possible they’re typeset or laid out using Pagemaker or whatever), usually full of personal essays, record reviews, jokes, show reviews, that sort of thing, photocopied and stapled together at Kinko’s or in your basement or whatever. Are you getting a sense here of what punk rock zines are about? Could it be, hmm, that they are about punk rock? (I haven’t seen a zine in a while, save some of my old copies of big ones like COMETBUS or SCAM. So forgive me if some of my zine info is a little out of date.)
The rest? Not so much.
Yes, self-publishing is punk in that anyone can do it, and that’s where the Genreville blogger is incorrect. With punk anyone can do it. To an extent. Just because anyone can do it, doesn’t mean that anyone can do it well. And therein lies the rub.
Here’s what happens when you self-publish, as far as I know: You write a book. It gets rejected by many agents or editors, or perhaps you don’t want to bother with that and want to do it yourself. Maybe you believe the myths like “an editor will make you totally rewrite the book so it’s not even yours,” or “Publishers do no promotion” or “You have to pay to be published,” or “You have to give back your advance if it doesn’t earn out” or any other crap. Or maybe you do not want a single one of Your Golden Words changed. Or you simply want to be totally in control of every step of the process; I don’t mean to imply here that everyone who self-publishes does so because they’re rejected, untalented, or stupid, so please don’t think that’s what I’m saying. I don’t at all believe that’s the case.
Anyway. You write a book. For whatever reason you decide to self-publish. Most of those who self-publish seem to go through a company like Lulu–which is a great service (I’m still loosely planning to use them to print copies of the Strumpet series for those who would like print copies). They take their ms, they load it in, they design a cover, and there you go. You have self-published a book.
Now let’s take a look at a punk band who decides to produce their own record. They save their cash. They rehearse (or maybe they don’t, but they probably do.) They hire a studio. An engineer–or maybe they have a friend from another band do that part. They get–again, this is from my experience years back so the actual equipment may have changed–a DAT, Digital Audio Tape, and send that on to the record plant, which converts it to vinyl (or CD, or whatever.) I have no idea if DATs are still the norm or if it’s more digital now.
So right away we have some difference, though. The self-published author does it all himself. The band recording its own record has, in addition to the (at least) three band members, someone to handle the recording and engineering. More ears to hear what’s happening. More hands to play and write songs. And every recording session I ever attended had still more people, too; the friends, the girlfriends. Doing hand-claps or backup vocals or whatever. Granted none of us gave our opinions unless asked, but we were usually asked. For their first record a friend of ours did the producing along with them, essentially. For the next one (I believe it was the next one) Joe Queer did it. They worked with even bigger names later; always on indie labels, but not purely doing it on their own. Because that’s not how it works.
Now let’s look at the bigger stuff. How does a band go about making a record? I don’t think I ever knew a band that made one without some guarantee that some of them would sell. I saw a lot of bands come and go. I saw a lot of bands playing their first or second or third shows. None of them had records. Why? Because it’s not the first thing you do. You play some shows. You gain some sort of following. And when people start asking if you have a record, that’s when you make a record. You have an audience ready to buy, so you give them something to buy. (I’m going to get to merchandise shortly.)
But if you’re good, chances are you actually aren’t making your own records. My ex’s band made their first record on their own–it was a tape, actually, if memory serves, just a little demo kind of thing. Then they recorded the song for the Lookout! comp along with four or five other sings for a different label in California. This is a huge difference, and it’s where the self-publishing = punk crew always seem to get it wrong. In fact, in the comments for that Genreville post, the man who made the original comment the post is about even manages to muddle his own argument without even thinking of it. It’s six comments down:
By “punk rock” I mean the spirit of much independent-minded music in the seventies through the nineties. If you listen to stuff on SST records, it’s not three notes and screaming.
Yes. If you listen to SST records. SST is a label, y’all. Just like Lookout!, or Alternative Tentacles, or Crypt, or V.M.L., or Fat Wreck Chords, or Sub*Pop, or Melted, or Porterhouse, or Boner, or BYO, or Recess, or Far Out, or Kill Rock Stars, or any one of hundreds of other indie punk labels around the world.
Recording for an indie label is not self-publishing your music. It’s indie publishing. There IS quality control. There IS a vetting process. In punk anyone can start a band, but not everyone can get recorded by a label, at least not one with a reputation for putting out good music. Anyone can start a band, but not everyone can get people to come see that band play live. Anyone can record their own record, but not everyone can get people to buy that record, or anything else.
Which brings me to another big difference, possibly the biggest difference. There is no merchandise. Punk bands have t-shirts; often they make the screens and print the shirts themselves. I saw a couple of bands collect t-shirts and addresses from people, then take the shirts home, screen them, and send them to the owners. I’ve seen over the years quite a few people with home-made Sharpie t-shirts, when they couldn’t get an “official” shirt. Punk bands have stickers and buttons and keyrings (I carried my Blanks 77 bottle-opener keyring for years and still have it somewhere). In punk, fans feel as if they’re part of the bands gang, to some extent. They wear the shirts and buttons and in doing so declare an allegiance, a “We’re all in this together” kind of thing, which is awesome and fun.
When is the last time you saw someone with a book title magic-markered onto their t-shirt?
See, punk is a culture. It isn’t just about music, it’s about a lot of things. It’s about beliefs; it’s a way of life. And punk bands are at the forefront of this, and that culture sprang up around them to support them. There are magazines devoted to it, to review records and give you some idea what’s happening in other parts of the country and other parts of the world. I remember on my first trip to London, being on the Tube in my Misfits t-shirt and spotting a cute Asian guy in a Teengenerate shirt. We smiled at each other; he asked if I knew where the punks hung out and I had to tell him I didn’t. But we KNEW each other. We could have gone and had a drink and talked. We were part of something, both of us, him from Japan and me from the US. We even knew we’d have similar tastes (I freaking love Teengenerate).
Pinks listen to punk music. We look for it. We watch for it. We see a record with an interesting cover and grab it to give it a try. We hear a new band is playing and we go to see them, and if they’re any good we buy their record. If the band is on tour and we can afford it we buy a shirt, too, if we liked the music, because they need that money to get them to the next show. We get recommendations from our friends and recommend things to them.
Self-publishing, in the main, does not have that culture. Self-publishing isn’t about labels. It’s not about social gatherings. Nobody lines up to hear the latest self-published author read out loud or buy shirts or buttons with his or her name on them. Self-publishing doesn’t support a culture and a culture isn’t built around it.
When you buy a punk record you generally have some idea what you’re getting, especially since most of them are on labels and you usually know what kind of stuff that label puts out. When you see a Lookout! record you know chances are you’ll be getting some East Bay pop-punk; not always, but usually. (Again, there are those LABELS. Because the majority of records you buy are on labels, unless you bought it at a show where the band was playing, or saw a great review in Maximum RocknRoll and decided to take a chance–in other words, you knew something about it.) But even if you don’t know the label, you have some idea of what type of music it will be. You know the production will probably be decent and the music itself will probably not be awful; again, because you’ve heard the band live or seen a great review in a magazine you read anyway because it’s devoted to your particular subculture. Maybe you saw it in an indie record store and asked the people working there–who you probably know–to play it for you. It probably has cool cover art, a picture of the band or a little cartoon of some kind. You didn’t stumble across it online and buy it without hearing a sample or hearing something about it.
With self-publishing, you don’t. It could be a funny coming-of-age story. It could be a spy novel. It could be non-fiction about ornithology. It could be fantastic and well-written; more likely it won’t be (not it definitely won’t be, but it’s more likely it won’t be). You’ve never heard of the author. You know nothing about the book. A punk record, at least a 7″, will probably set you back $5 or so; a CD may be as much as $10 or $15, but if you’re buying those, again, you probably know something about the band. A self-published book, which may have amateurish cover art, could cost as much as $25 after shipping.
Yes, punk has a spirit of independence. Sure, self-publishing does too, in some cases. But punk bands aren’t playing punk and releasing records on indie labels because they couldn’t get Warner to sign them. They’re not doing it because Capitol rejected them. They’re doing it because it’s their culture and what they believe in. They’re playing the music they love and want to hear and they’re not doing it hoping a major label will pick them up. Whereas it seems to me a large proportion of self-published authors self-publish because they couldn’t get an agent or a NY deal (again, not ALL, just most).
Yes, there are some self-published authors who simply want to do it all themselves. And you know, more power to them. I appreciate and respect that. But again, the majority of them that I’ve seen, even those who most loudly proclaim that they are INDIE publishing, are hoping that by going this route they’ll get a NY deal. Not so with punk bands.
The simple fact is, the two are not the same because the products are not the same and the culture is not the same. The emotions behind it are not generally the same. The goals are not the same. The process is not the same.
If you want to self-publish, more power to you. I think, as I have said a number of times before, that there are some genres and areas where self-publishing can work very well. But punk is its own platform; if you want to self-publish you need to build your own.
If you’re already punk, and you’re writing something and self-publishing it, you already know how to do that. You already know who your audience is. But if you’re not, don’t claim you are just because you’re putting out a book yourself. Punk isn’t just about DIY. It’s about a lot of other things, too. And if you know enough about it to know that, you should also know that most punk record labels aren’t equivalent to self-publishing. Aside from zines, really, the analogy simply doesn’t work. If you write and self-publish a tale of urban alienation, wasted youth, and your personal quest through it, you could probably call that punk publishing (assuming you are in fact punk yourself). Publishing your fantasy novel yourself and calling it punk publishing, not so much. It doesn’t offend me as much as that infamous Subaru “This car is like punk rock!” ad from the early 90’s, but it doesn’t endear me either.
I’ve ranted for long enough, now, I guess. Any and all comments welcome, of course.