Sunday, November 21, 2010

Meat Puppets at Grand Targhee, Wyoming

Here is a link to a review I wrote of a 2010 Meat Puppets' Gig.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Interview with Steve Albini, 1993

Interview with Steve Albini; recording engineer (Nirvana, Jesus Lizard, P.J. Harvey, many others); member of Big Black, Rapeman, Shellac; interview takes place at his house on April 14, 1993.

Matt: Can you give me a mini-biography of how you got into the music. . .

Steve: I grew up in Missoula, Montana. And sometime around 1978, it might have been ’77. . .

M: How old are you now?

S: I’m 30 now.

I was on a school field trip, and on the school field trip somebody on the bus had a portable cassette recorder which was, at that time, a novelty. He was playing this tape of the Ramones which I thought, everyone on the bus thought was the most hilarious record ever made. The first Ramones album. We all thought it was totally hilarious. No one took it seriously at all.
A friend of mine and I were enthralled by this concept of the Ramones; this really terrible band that were making records. That was the first record that I ever actually ordered from a record shop. I went to the record store and I placed an order for the first Ramones album.

M: Were you into music at all?

S: Not even in the slightest. Not even marginally interested in music. Over a period of weeks I became religious about going to the record shop to see if the Ramones record had come in. When it showed up it was. . .we threw a little party and played the Ramones album.

Anyway, I lived by the record for about six months. Initially it was comedy, it was a gag. We just thought, “oh, this is that goofy record.” But then it did develop into. . .it developed to the point where I thought. . .suddenly it made sense to me. I thought, “yea, this is the perfect form of rock music.” I was totally rabid after that. I bought anything that anybody called a punk rock record. I bought anything that I could find in the record shop. Used, new records that didn’t look familiar, that looked punk rock. I just completely immersed myself. And when I came out here to go to school, that was an opportunity to go see live bands which I’d never really been able to do in Montana.

M: Did you pick Chicago knowing that there would be a lot of music here?

S: No. I had no idea that there was any kind of a music scene here. I just figured it’s a city, there’s gotta be more stuff goin’ on there than there is in Montana. I was kind of wrong, because there wasn’t a whole lot going on except for a few scattered bands during that era. But those few bands turned out to be some of the more remarkable ones that Chicago’s ever produced: The Effigies, Naked Raygun. A lot of those bands were bands that were really inspirational to me.

M: I’m trying to remember the name of an album which came out in the early ‘80s which was a compilation of Chicago punk bands. .

S: There was one called The Middle of America. It was a hardcore compilation. And before that there was one called Busted at Oz. That was a live record. It was recorded at the Oz Club. That had the Effigies, and Naked Raygun, and Da, and Silver Abuse. That was an amazing record. Some of the sound quality was pretty lousy, but some of the stuff on that record was pretty amazing. The Effigies stuff on that record is amazing. Just a furious, just amazingly great sounding fuckin’ live, raw punk record.

So the early 1980-82 was sort of when I was learning what a live music scene was about. I had formed a band as soon as I got here. Just a goofy punk rock band.

M: What was the name?

S: Small Irregular Pieces of Aluminum. Then I joined a . . .a friend of mine introduced me to some friends of his that were this sort of arty new wave band, sort of like Joy Division, or Magazine or something. I played bass in their band for three or four months and they kicked me out. And when they kicked me out I decided to try and start my own band, and I messed around with some people for awhile, trying to find musicians to be in a band with, and I wasn’t really comfortable with anybody. I didn’t know that many people, so I couldn’t really just put the word out. I had to try putting up flyers.

M: Were you going to school all this time?

S: Yea. I wasn’t very successful finding anybody to play with, so I just. ..

M: Did you live on campus?

S: No. My freshman year I lived in a dorm because, at that time, they required you to live in a dorm your freshman year. I think that was because they had to justify all these new dorms they’d built in the seventies. So my freshman year I lived in a dorm, and after that I lived off campus. I didn’t really live in Evanston after my freshman year. I lived in Chicago.

So I was looking for a band, and I failed. So I decided I was gonna try and record some stuff on my own and see if I could use that to find people to play in a band with.

M: Di you go through the usual channels, such as the Reader?

S: Yea. I placed ads in the Reader, and I answered ads in the Reader. I met people who ultimately went on to do other things, but there was nobody I was really comfortable playing with. From there it gravitated to being quite satisfied doing things by myself. I did the first Big Black record by myself, recorded on borrowed equipment. By the time that record was ready to come out, I had become friends with the Effigies and Naked Raygun and some other people in town that were involved in music on a larger scale. From the release of that record, those people helped me put together a live band. The band was fairly stable. Initially it was Jeff Pezzati from Naked Raygun playing bass, and Santiago Durango playing guitar, and me.

M: And you used a drum machine live?

S: We used a drum machine.

After a couple of years of operating that way, Big Black started to become more serious as a band. It was obvious that Jeff had too many things to look after. He was in Naked Raygun, and he had a girlfriend, and he had a job, and he had other responsibilities as well. I just asked him if it would be easier for him if I didn’t expect him to be in the band anymore, and he said it would be.

So Santiago and I had both like this band, a surf-punk band called Savage Beliefs from Chicago. And the bass player in that band, dave Riley, was a prtty good bass player, and Savage Beliefs had broken up, so we asked him to join. And that was the last of the line-up changes. It stayed that way until we broke up in ’86 or ’87. . .’87.

M: When did the last album come out?

S: The last Big Black album came out in September of that year, I think it was ’87. That was about a month after we had broken up. Our last show was in August of ’87.

M: Did you play the regular clubs in Chicago?

S: At that time there were quite a few clubs that you could play goofy punk rock gigs at. You could play at the. . what’s now the 950. It was originally the Lucky Number bar. The Lucky Number was one of the earliest punk rock joints in the city. And Tut’s, which was on Belmont where the Avalon is now. A place called C.O.D., which is in Roger’s Park on Devon Avenue. And a place called Misfits, which is on Sheridan Road just north of there. The Metro would have gigs, but there was also a group of punk rocker kids that were putting on shows in a rented hall on Broadway and Irving Park.

So there were quite a few places to play whereas now there’s really only. . .for a band of that size, a band that got it’s land legs but isn’t famous yet, there really very few places to play. The Czar Bar, or something of that caliber is about the best that you can play if you don’t have records out.

M: Were clubs receptive to you if they thought you were a punk rock band?

S: It was kind of cool in that the people who ran the clubs had no fuckin’ idea about what was goin’ on.

M: So like in L.A., if they found out you were a punk rock band, you were black-balled from many clubs.

S: Well, L.A. is such a weird universe anyway. I don’t even consider that part of the world. If you leave this plain of reality and go into an alternate reality, that’s where you’d find places like Los Angeles. Because the club owners didn’t know what the hell was going on, they would turn it over to somebody else and say, “find me some bands to play here.” So usually there were people who were eager to do that sort of thing. People who worked at record shops or people on college radio were eager and excited to be booking bands someplace. So you could call one guy and he could get you into the Lucky Number, or you could call another guy and he could get you into C.O.D., or call another guy and he could set up an independent show for you. That person, the independent middle-man show arranger, doesn’t really exist anymore. Local independent promoters are few and far between. Sean Duffy is a holdover from those days. He still does shows in Chicago on rare occasions.

M: Why are they gone?

S: Because there are clubs now that specialize in alternative music. And they’re generally speaking run by people who are fans of the genre and they can pick and choose which bands they want and make contacts with booking agents. And booking agents is another fairly recent phenomenon. That there are people that make a living just booking tours for punk rock and odd ball bands I pretty amazing. That was inconceivable as little as ten years ago. That was just absolutely inconceivable that you could make a living doing nothing but booking tours for rock bands. Or that you could make a living being in a rock band. That was virtually out of the question for virtually all punk rock bands. It was never, from the time that I recall its inception, to very very recently, it was never even a consideration. . .it was never even in the realm of possibilities that your band could pay your way through life; that your band could be your living. As far back as I can remember, and for virtually every person that I can think of involved in the music scene, having a straight job was considered part of the price of being in a band. You have to buy guitar strings, and you have to buy an amp, and you have to have a straight job.
And now it seems as through the attitude of the bands that are coming up now is that of course eventually they’ll make a living at it. And of course they’ll find someone else to give them money to put out a record. And of course they will find someone to book shows, book a tour for them. It’s as though that machinery is part of the birth right of every musician.

M: I’m not sure they think of it as an “of course” thing. I think they see it as a legitimate thing to strive for. The possibility that if you are a good band this will come for you.

S: Right. My definition of a good band is broader than “popular.” Popular band is not by my definition a good one necessarily. And that is all that matters as far as the rest of the music machinery is concerned. If you are a popular band, then you are viable. If you are viable, then there are any number of leaches that will try to take parts of your money in exchange for making you more popular, or so they claim.

M: What’s a good band?

S: A good band is a band that makes music that I respect or admire, and behaves itself honorably. Does things within the band, and within the interaction of all the bands that it deals with, and all he people that it deals with, does things in a way that it has no reason to be ashamed of. If you’re looking for specific examples, a real good example would be someone like Fugazi. They are the pinnacle of the integrity ladder. They do everything themselves, they deal directly with the people. They don’t go through middle-men or agents or crew or anything like that. They handle their own affairs, and they demonstrate how easy it is.

There’s a sort of religion of fear that’s built up around being in a rock band. If you don’t have a booking agent then you’ll get taken advantage of when you try to book shows. If you don’t have a record label, then no one will take you seriously if you try to put out your own record. If you don’t have a manager, then the record labels won’t take you seriously. If you don’t have a lawyer, then your manager has no clout. All of these steps. . .all these peripheral parts of being in a rock band are now considered an organic part of the scheme, when they’re very recent developments as far as punk rock music goes.

M: So you don’t think they’re necessary?

S: Absolutely not! Admittedly it’s been three or four years since I’ve been in an active rock band, but in the entire time that I was in a rock band, which was over ten years, I never once dealt with a booking agent, never once had a lawyer, never had a manager, never had. . .we took. . .Big Black categorically never took an advance from a record company. We paid for our recordings ourselves. That way we would be careful about how much money we spent. And as a result we ended up making quite a bit of money off the band. Whereas a band that spends its money in advance recording or whatever, has virtually no chance of making money off of its record label. . .I mean off of its records.

M: Big Black has probably made more money since you broke up.

S: That’s true. Since we broke up before our most successful record was released.

M: Songs About Fucking.

S: And then that record and all the previous records continued to sell really dramatically.

M: They were all just rereleased, right?

S: The ones that were out of print were just rereleased. The records that were rereleased sold geometrically more in their rerelease than they did originally.

M: So just recently.

S: Yea.

M: Weren’t they just rereleased in the last month or so?

S: About three months ago. I think in total numbers of records sold, I think we sold something. . .the reissues, the combined sales of the reissues was something like 80,000 copies. And the total world-wide sales to date of those records is something like half a million records. That’s if you take every copy of every record that’s ever been sold and add them all together it’s about half a million records. We made a substantial amount of money on those. If we had been on a big label and sold that many records, we would probably still owe money.

M: Were you ever approached by a major label?

S: Yep. We were approached by EMI. We were approached by Capital, by RCA, and by Warner Bros., and Rough Trade in England. And the point when Rough Trade. . .

M: And you categorically told them to get lost?

S: Umm hmm. Actually, Rough Trade were still, in name, an independent, so we did. . .the guy that started and ran the company, Jeff Travis, wanted to meet with us and we had a meeting with him. And he explained the way he did business and it seemed so shaky that we weren’t interested. And ultimately they went broke, so I guess that was a good decision.

M: So if you put yourself in the shoes of a young unsigned band, eighteen or nineteen year old kids, especially in the post-Nirvana signing craze, which I imagine is a reality. . .

S: It’s now to the point where any band that wants to get signed to a major label, I do not care what style of music you play, what the personalities in the band are, if you are willing to sign a contract, any contract, then you can get signed to a major label. It is not as though that is an unattainable thing at this point. Not only is it not difficult, in a lot of cases it’s easier to get on a major label than to be on an independent label. To be on an independent label you actually have to be worth something. A major label will take a band that no one has ever heard, and sign them. An independent label, for it to be worth their effort to put out your record, they have to be certain that somebody likes you. Either that, or someone at the record label has to take a personal interest in you and thing, “yes, I really love this band. I’m gonna champion this band.” And that is something that never happens on a major label. Major labels, by and large, sign bands based solely on whether or not they think they can be successful.

M: It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a bad band though, does it?

S: Not necessarily, although there’s a very very high correlation between bands that sign to major labels immediately, and bands that are terrible. There’s a very high correlation.

M: But what about bands that go from independent to major? Like Nirvana, for example.

S: I don’t think Nirvana are any worse a band now than they were when they were on Sub Pop. I do think Nirvana, in terms of the way that band is structured and the way their money is handled and things of that nature, I think Nirvana are in a far worse situation than they were when they were on an independent label. It’s a good example. And this is from published figures, this is nto me spilling the beans on anything, or making stuff up. Geffen, as a result of the Nirvana albums, this is the figure that they have publicly given, made $55 million off of that album, off of the Nevermind album. The band were paid $3 million. So there you’re in a situation where the record company is making $55 million and the band is making $3 million. That means the individual members of the band each made, probably, about $1 million. They lost half of that to taxes, of course. They probably had to pay out an equal amount of that in terms of management fees and percentages that they lose to collectors and that sort of stuff. When it boils down to it, they made about as much as, each of them made about as much as a lawyer would. The difference being that a lawyer in a good position in a firm, can make better than a half million a year for thirty years. And that’s from the perspective of the most popular rock band in the world, Nirvana. The band that sold more records than any other rock band that year. The most popular rock band in the world. Eight million records down the pipe.

Ting! There’s that band.

They are probably in the situation where in five years they will have no record income. No income from records. Or a measly income. The sort of income that Styx has nowadays, or the sort of income that, you know, Chicago would have. Where there are a few diehard fans, but that’s about it.

And if you compare that with a band like the Jesus Lizard who’ve already had five years of phenomenal success in artistic terms, there’s really no reason to. . .I don’t see any reason to strive for the sort of chaos, and the sort of piddling that goes along with being on a major label.
I can’t think of a single thing that a major label can offer a band that will offset the negative aspects, being the amount of meddling and the amount of lying to and all that sort of stuff. And the ancillary costs that are associated with being on a major label. Major labels flatly will not allow bands to make albums cheaply.

I’ve been at odds with record labels—major labels—about albums that I’ve made for people. And their chief complaint is, “You didn’t spend enough time, you didn’t spend enough money.” The more money that a band spends initially on a record, the better the record labe’s position with that band. Because then the band is dependent on the label for every cent that comes after that. They can’t earn any money ‘cause they’re in the hole. And as long as they can keep them there, in the hole, then the record company can dictate the terms of everything that the band does from there on out.

I can show you mathematically how a band can make no money, and a record label can make a lot of money, and as far as the record company is concerned the band is still in the hole. Basically, the pre-expense percentage that a band is paid of the retail sale price of every album is generally less that twelve percent. So less that twelve percent of the retail price of an album is credited to the band. Generally speaking, if the record company has, in standard fashion, insisted that the band use a main producer on the record, that main producer will get from 1-3 of those percentage points. . .of their twelve percent. Which would put the band, let’s split numbers and say that the band then is in a position where they’re getting ten percent of the retail price of the record. If the band has a management company, the management company will take ten to fifteen percent of their income. And depending on the deal, depending on whether the management company is talking about their royalty or their income, then they would be taking an additional ten percent off of the band’s net income.

M: So the record label is making eighty-eight percent?

S: No. The record label is making. . .that’s off the retail price. The record label is probably wholesaling that record for about sixty percent, or seventy percent of retail price. So the record company is not making eighty to eighty-eight percent compared to twelve percent. The record company is making something like seventy or sixty percent, from which they have to pay twelve percent. It’s more like, something like sixty percent of the gross income of the record goes to the record company, and ten to twelve percent of it goes to the band.

M: And out of the ten to twelve percent the band. . .

S: The band has to pay all of their recording expenses. That is, the money that the record company advanced them to record the record, that has to come out of the band’s ten to twelve percent.

M: And at the same time the label dictates who they should use, and how much they should spend on it?

S: Exactly.

M: That’s fucked up.

S: Yea. That’s why I have categorically said that any band that signs to a major label out of the underground is fucked.

M: But you still work for bands that are on major labels.

S: I work for bands that have chosen to go to major labels, yea. I get paid significantly more than I do for working for an independent band. For a couple of reasons, I justify that to myself in several different ways. One way is, these bands are fucked. They’re never gonna get paid. So the money that I’m paid is not coming out of their pockets, it’s coming out of the record company’s pocket, because the record company is gonna cheat them anyway. That’s one way of looking at it. The other way that I justify it is, it’s sort of punitive. If you think that you can be a big shot by being on a major label, you’re going to have to pay me considerably more than somebody else does.

M: Do you tell them this?

S: Yeah. I’m totally above board with this to everybody. The other thing about it is, using me to record a record for a major label, they will get stuck far, far less, if they do turn a profit, than if they use somebody else. Virtually everyone, and I should actually state it as, everyone that I know of, except me, that records records as a producer or engineer, is paid a royalty on a record, on records that are sold. One point, two points, three points. That is the producers fee for making the record is a percentage of the retail sales. The way I structure my deals is that I’m paid a flat fee, and that pays me. . .I’m paid for the job that I do to make the record. So I have no interest in whether or not that record sells one copy or a zillion. I’m pad a flat fee. Period. The advantage that give the band is, any money that they do earn from their record, they get to keep. They don’t have to keep shelling money out to me.

There are situations where a band is in an unfavorable contract, and the record company, the record company dictates that they use a certain producer, and the producer gets paid a certain number of percentage points out of the band’s income. And it is possible to stricter a deal, I know that this has been done in many cases, where for every record that the band sells, the band goes deeper in dept, because the have to pay the producer. They’re paying the producer out of their income. They’re still in the hole and unrecouped from the record label, and they have their marginal costs that they have to keep paying. They’re daily operating expenses, and their expenses for management, and their expenses for. . .

M: But there must be bands that are making money on major labels.

S: Why do you say that?

M: It just seems that there must be.

S: There are probably a very very small number of bands, of the superstar elete status, that make money. When yo speak of bands on the underground scene that have graduated to, in their eyes, graduated to the major label circuit, I would be shocked and appauled if I. . . I would be shocked if I found more than a half dozen of them.

M: REM must be making money.

S: REM are a superstar band.

M: They supposively came from the underground.

S: They were never really, strictly speaking, in the underground. Their first album was on IRS. IRS was a division of Warner Bros. records. They were not, strictly speaking, from the underground. If you’re talking about bands that work their way up from being on independent labels playing punk rock clubs and stuff. . .

M: Sonic Youth?

S: Sonic Youth are not making money on their records. They make some money touring. And they make some money from royalties. Broadcast royalties. And in European royalties. They’re not making a buck on their records. They spend way too much money on their records to make any money.

M: Were they making more money before they were on a major label?

S: They were getting paid for sales of records, yea. Not immediately before. Immediately before they were on Geffen, they were on. . .signed to a company called Blast First. And Blast First had a deal with a label in California called Restless, that also had a deal with a company called Capital Records. That arrangement pretty much precluded them from ever getting paid from anything. Because the money had to pass through so many hands. Their English record label before that did pay them. And their American record label, SST, was in really bad financial straits, but was paying them as much as they could.

M: What do you think of SST?

S: It’s not really a label to be taken seriously at this point.

M: There’s the stuff going on in the press about them not paying people. . .

S: I wouldn’t be surprised at all. There was a period when that record company made a lot of money. They had a lot of good bands. . .Husker Du, the Minutemen, Sonic Youth. . .

M: Meat Puppets.

S: Meat Puppets. I didn’t particularly like the Meat Puppets, but they had quite a few bands, and if they had not managed the company poorly, that is if they hadn’t taken on too many employees, and too many expenses. They had a whole fancy ass suite of offices that they built and all that sort of bullshit. If they didn’t do stuff like that, then they could be in a position that Touch and Go is now. That is a record company that’s been around for a long time, been doing things honorably, and pays everybody. But they’re not.

M: So you’ve making money.

S: As what. . .off record royalties?

M: Doing what you do.

S: Oh sure. I make a good living as a recording engineer. I make a good living. I could make a good living just off record royalties. Because I don’t deal with big labels. Big Black and Rapeman records still make money. If I had a band that was in the public eye now, and the band sold records consistent with the other bands I’ve been in, I could make a living off of that.

M: Are you gonna be in a band again?

S: I’d like to. It’s not a priority. Because. . .for a lot of the reasons we’re talking about. I’m’ not interested in being part of that scene. I’m not interested in being thought of in the same breath as Pearl jam. That very notion makes me want to give up.

M: They’re probably making money.

S: Pearl Jam are very, very wealthy.

M: They’ve stayed on the charts whereas Nirvana came and went. Anyway, what do you think about local scenes?

S: They’re very important. That’s where all the good music is being made. There are small and interesting communities of bands all over the place. I don’t think that there’s anything holy about bands being small and inexperienced, but that’s obviously where new ideas are gonna come from, from people who have never played music before.

M: Do you think there’s any way for a band to keep that attitude even as they being making records?

S: Sure. That’s not a problem. The primary evils in the music industry are people other than musicians who want to make money off of bands. Managers, booking agents, lawyers, record companies. Any time somebody says, “Let me take your band and give you some money so that I can make more money,” that person is evil. That’s all there is to it.

M: So you must be part evil.

S: No. Bands come to me and buy my services. That’s an enormous difference from a record company saying to a band, “You have to have Steve Albini produce your record.” I would never work with a band under those circumstances. And it’s never come up.
Generally speaking, the bands that want to use me for recording their records are either bands like this band here, Heyday, band that haven’t got enough money to do it any other way and they come to me because they know I’m cheap and that I do a good job. . .

M: How much do you charge?

S: Independent bands I charge $150 a day, and big shot bands I charge by the project. I did a P.J. Harvey record, I happen to like. . .I happen to have a fondness for her as a person, and for the band for their music. . .I charged $30,000 for that record. The Nirvana record that I just did I charged $100,000 for.

M: Because you know that they have more money?

S: No. Well partly because I know they have more money. But mainly because they offered me $100,000.

M: They chose you?

S: Yea. They said, “It’s worth it to us to give you $100,000.”

I said, “Okay. Sounds good.”

M: They must be worried about their next album, looking as if they’ve sold-out.

S: You would think that except that, for example, we just recorded this album in February. They were ecstatic with it. I thought it sounded great. I though I did as good a job as I possibly could. They, at the time seemed totally thrilled with it, and the record company is not arguing, trying to convince them not to release it. The record company does not want them to release that record. Principly because they didn’t spend enough money on it. You might think that paying me $100,000 is. . . that means they must have spent a lot of money on the record. They spent $130,000, roughly, on the record. That’s far less than their last record cost them. And the record company knows that I’m not getting paid any points. So the band is gonna make money on this record. And that scares the shit out of the record company. They want them to spend six months and a million dollars on the record. That’s what they want. That’s ultimately what they would be happiest with. So that when the record came out, it would be the talk of the town, but what an ordeal it was to make the record, and that would be more hype. They’re guaranteed of selling a couple million. They could put out a blank record that says “Nirvana” on it and sell a couple million.

M: This album will sell no matter what, but their next one is the one. . .

S: Exactly.

M: That’s why it would be bad for them to come to someone like you who has a reputation of independent alternative stuff, rather than Bob Rock. . .

S: You would think that, if you were from the underground scene. But they’re not from that scene. These people. . .this is the record company that gave us Nelson for Christ’s sake! This is the record company that gave Neil Young a contract that said, “You can do whatever you want,” and then they sued him, and the ground for their suit was that he did! That’s the mentality of the people you’re dealing with here. You’re not dealing with punk rock fans. You’re dealing with people that want to maintain tight control while seeming to be with it and hip. Because the with it and hip quotient is what sells some of their records.

M: But the three members of Nirvana must be thinking, they must be a little worried about the album looking as if. . .

S: I don’t think that’s a. . .their lives are so weird now. They can’t live like normal people, and I doubt that they have normal people thoughts. Personally I got along with them great. I think they’re nice guys. But they live in such a weird universe now, where I can’t even begin to imagine what they’re thinking. It’s not like being in a band anymore. It’s like having a whole. . .it’s like having an enormous industry that exists merely to suck your blood. My dealings with that band confirmed my suspicions about all the people that work with them. Everybody associated with that band, other than the actual band, every member of the entourage. . .the publishing company. . not the publishing company. . .the managing company, the record company, the legal people. . everybody associated with that band is a piece of shit. They’re scum. They’re pure fuckin’ thieving robbing pieces of shit. They will indulge any infantile whim that the band has. They will extend any infantile paranoia that the band has. They will do whatever yes-man type thing it takes to get the band in a position where they feel dependent on them. And whenever they can exploit an insecurity, whenever they can exploit a drug problem or an emotional problem, or anything like that, whenever they can use any of that stuff as another means of making a little scratch, they will. And I think that is totally criminal. To prey on people’s weaknesses like that. That’s awful.

M: So that’s a larger economic question dealing with capitalism vs. other economic forms. . .

S: No. there is a way that you. . .all the functions that those people server for these bands, and I’m speaking in general terms now, I don’t want to pick on Nirvana, all the functions that these people do could be handled by the band themselves, or by people that dealt with the band honorably. It just isn’t done. It could be, it just isn’t.
There’s a good example in town. There’s a booking agent, a buy named Dave Vaichelle (INTERVIEWERS NOTE: I’M NOT SURE THIS IS HIS NAME. IF ANYONE DOES KNOW, PLEASE LET ME KNOW). He deals only with un. . .small bands, independent bands. And generally speaking pretty good bands. And he’s got a good reputation with the bands for setting up tours that are reasonable. That is, where the band is not being paid too little to make it worth their while, and not being paid so much that the clubs will lose money and they won’t be welcome again. He’s very straight foreword about his business dealings, he’s above board with the clubs, he’s got good relationships with all the bands he deals with. I think he’s doing it in an honorable fashion. That begs the question, should anybody be doing that at all for anybody else? I think there are some bands for whom. . .bands that tour a lot, have straight jobs, or don’t have straight jobs, and want to tour full-time, and don’t want to be bothered with trying to set up itineraries for touring. For those bands, I think having a booking agent is reasonable. The band that I was in, I always thought it made more sense for me to do that. I think these things can be done for people in an honorable way. Cory Rusk, head of Touch and Go, runs a record label for all these bands, and he does it honorably. He accounts for every penny that’s spent on the band’s behalf. The band and he split all the expenses down the middle, as opposed to them being the band’s responsibility as is the case on major labels. The money that comes in is divided among the expenses and the profit. And the profit is split evenly, 50/50 with the bands. I think that’s a very honorable, equitable way to run a record company. And he had made it a . . .there are people that would argue, “You can’t be a financial success doing that. You can’t make money.” He’s done it for fifteen years. Cory Rusk has run a record company at a profit and has dealt honorably with all the people that he deals with. I think that. . .just the evidence of his existence by itself is evidence enough that you can be an honorable businessman in the music business. It’s just very rare.

M: Because most people get into it not from the music side of things.

S: Exactly. Most people that run record companies. . .the vast, vast majority of people that are involved in this whole scene—press people, management companies, booking agents—never played a note of music in their lives, don’t know what it means to go on stage scared out of your mind and have beer cans thrown at you and get paid $20, if that. They have no conception of what it is to be in a rock band. They see it as this big pinwheel of money going around between an audience and band, and they’re just snatching a few dollars off the pinwheel. Mathematically it works out that all these ancillary people, all these secondary people, the players make way, way more in every instance. . .they make more money than the bands that the whole thing revolves around. It’s pathetic that such an industry exists. The industry exists specifically to exploit the popularity of the bands. But that’s the case.

M: What do you consider the real “alternative” music? It’s obviously not rock.

S: There is rock music being made on an independent level that is truly and vehemently independent. I support most of that music in principle if not. . .even if I don’t like the way it sounds. There are plenty of bands that are still releasing their own records. And there are bands that don’t even bother releasing records, that just exist as a social entity. I think that is perfectly valid.

M: Do you look for bands?

S: I’m a fan of music. I buy records. I go see bands that I don’t know anything about.

M: Do you ever look for bands to produce?

S: No. I made it a tenet of my behavior that I won’t thrust myself on anybody else. If people decide that they want me to work with them, they’ll get in touch with me. And there are people that are so out of touch that they don’t’ have any idea how to get a hold of me, and if it’s somebody that I’m particularly interested in, I’ll make of point of letting them know how they can get a hold of me if they want to. But I’ve never pressed myself on any band.

M: So you go to shows around Chicago?

S: All the time.

M: What bands to you like in Chicago?

S: Well, obviously, the Jesus Lizard, the greatest rock band in the world.

M: But can they really be considered a local band? They live here, but they never really played the scene.

S: That’s not true at all. They’ve built themselves up through the same network of, you know, opening gigs with friends’ bands. . .

M: I thought they just came up here from Austin.

S: No. David Sims was in Rapeman, the band that I was in. And he lived here for two years before the Jesus Lizard got started. And so did David yow. He lived here for two years before the Jesus Lizard started. Duane moved up to start the Jesus Lizard, but he moved to Chicago. So did Mac. As a matter of fact, I think the first ever Jesus Lizard gig was at. . .they were opening for Slint at a Thai food restaurant. Slint was having their album release party for their first album.

M: I’ve never heard of Slint.

S: Slint are an amazing band. They don’t exist anymore. When they did they were a phenomenal band.

M: What other bands do you like?

S: I like Shorty. I like Tar. I like the Didjits, they’re not really from here, though, they’re from down-state Illinois.

M: What about bands that aren’t signed?

S: Shorty aren’t signed to anybody that I know of. I like Dolomite, I think they’re a cool band. I’ve seen Burnout a few times, I think they’re okay. They’re not my favorite band in the world, but they’re kind of okay. There’s a guy who’s just a guitar player, who I think is really cool. He’s a really funny guy, writes really goofy songs. His name is Robby Fulks. He has this combo called Trailer Trash.

M: I think there was a write-up in the Tribune.

S: Really. That’s surprising. I like him. He’s a friend of mine from years ago. I think he’s doing things I a kind of neat way. He doesn’t really care if anybody likes his stuff or not. And he’s not playing the kind of music that’s at all popular. He’s just writing goofy songs, and playing them.
There are personalities in town that occasionally put together bands that I think are really cool, kind of intreging. A guy named Camilo Gonzalez who’s been in bands for years. He was in Naked Raygun when they first started. He was in Silver Abuse, arguably the first punk rock band in Chicago. And he’s trying to put together a new band now. He’s looking for a guitar player, I think he’s a really cool guy. Whatever he does I’m sure will be great. There are other bands that are. . .that I believe in, that I have some faith in, that I don’t necessarily think they’re gonna do great things in the world.

Phone rings. Steve answers. Tape goes off. Then on.

S: There are bands that I think are worth support, even if they’re not necessarily a lot of fun to listen to. A band called Super Duty that I like. And another band called Buzz Muscle that I like.
It’s not necessarily that a band is successful or even any good that makes them supportable for me. There’s a band from Milwaukee that I have a real fondness for, called Dis.

M: I was emailing a guy from Dis. . . he goes to Marquett.

S: Two of them work at the Marquette library.

M: Are they a pretty good band?

S: They’re derivative musically, and they’re not an amazing. . .They’re good musicians. Their music is not totally riveting to listen to yet, but it might be. I’m completely in favor of the way they do things. I like them a lot.

M: Most of these bands you mention I’ve never heard of, and I go to a lot of shows in Chicago.

S: What sort of shows have you been going to?

M: To the Avalon. . .

S: The Avalon. That’s a whole. .

M: and Metro on Wednesday nights.

S: A lot of those bands are bands that will exist for six months and then disappear. They’re not really committed musicians or anything. A lot of those are sort of goof off bands.

M: But these are bands that have been around for awhile. Like Rustbucket.

S: I’ve heard Rustbucket.

M: You don’t like them obviously. Charming Beggars.

S: Don’t know anything about the Charming Beggars, although it sounds like. . .just the name invokes an image of a certain era of bar bands that I really couldn’t stand. Sort of like pop, hippy, like vaguely ethnic pop hippy rock music.

M: Skid Marks, from the Way Moves, is the singer.

S: The Way Moves! Now you’re reaching way back into the horrible band era.

M: He’s completely different now. They’re a pretty good band.

S: Don’t know anything about them.

M: Why don’t you like Rustbucket?

S: They’re just awful. Some bands defy any kind of. . .If a band is derivative, and they’re young, that’s one thing. Because young bands tend to be derivative. If a band is horrible and young, that’s excusable. Young bands can be horrible before they find their way around. If they’re derivative and horrible and persistent, they get no excuse from me. I can’t put up with it. A band like Big Hat, for example. I can’t fathom a reason why they shouldn’t be just guillotined. They’re awful. They’ve been around for too long. They’re horrible. They’re derivative. And they take up space. Fuckin’ kill them; get ‘em out of the way.

M: What do you mean by derivative?

S: Derivative means playing music of a genre, rather than playing music of inspiration. Playing music that stylistically fits in with the bands that are their favorites. That bugs me.

M: Everybody has their favorite bands, and they’re bound to be influenced by their favorite bands.

S: Not necessarily. My favorite bands, I know, don’t influence the way I play, or didn’t influence the way I played after the first hour or two. The first couple of weeks I owned a guitar, I tried to play Killing Joke and Public Image riffs. After that, it was just a matter of. . .you can appreciate what somebody else is doing, but it doesn’t mean you want to do it.

M: This band you were just recording sounded a bit Public Image to me.

S: This band is horrible. They’re an example of an inexcusably bad band who’s been around for too long to be apologized for. I really don’t like their music. And they’re really annoying people.

M: So why do you produce them?

S: Grit my teeth and get through it.

M: Do you try and make them sound better?

S: I try to do a good job, yea. It’s my obligation to do a good job, even if I’m not a particular fan of the band.

M: They must have sent you a demo.

S: No. They just called me up and booked the time.

M: That doesn’t bother you?

S: I explained it to them. I said, “If I know that I’m gonna hate the session, if you familiarize me with your music and I hate it, then I won’t do it. But if you just want to book the time, and not give me the option of turning you down, I’m fine.” The problem is that he booked the time under the name Heyday. The band is called Heyday now. They used to be called Hollow Heyday. And I have a Hollow Heyday record that’s awful. If he has said, “This is Bob from Hollow Heyday,” I wouldn’ve said “Oh, yea. Sorry, I really don’t think I’d enjoy it.” But I wasn’t perceptive enough.

M: So you don’t see yourself as a prostitute?

S: Not in the slightest. Prostitutes do things. . .if you consider prostituting yourself to be doing something just for the money, now, I do not do that, period. I’ve never done that, and I can’t imagine doing it.

M: But you don’t like this band. But you’re doing it anyway, ‘cause they’re paying you to do it.

S: No. I’m doing it because they asked me to and because no one else would. There’s no place they could go to get a professionally made record for this little money. I would feel horrible if I put myself in the position of being arbiter of taste. If I said “no no no no no. You are not good enough to work with the almighty Steve Albini. I do not consider your band worthy of me.” I couldn’t imagine behaving that way. So I cut them the slack. I’ll say, “Sure. I’ll work with anybody. Anybody on the lower rungs, no questions asked. I’ll work with you.” But if it turns out to be horrible, I’m not gonna do it again. And if they turn out to be dicks. . .

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Talkin' Rock Talk

This is a paper I presented at the meetings of the American Sociological Association, Washington, D.C., 1995

Talkin’ Rock Talk: Definitional Talk among Indie Rockers


Howard S. Becker (1982) writes that “Art worlds consist of all the people whose activities are necessary to the production of the characteristic works which that world, and perhaps others as well, define as art” (p. 34). One of the activities necessary to the production of art, although not immediately and obviously practical, is the construction of conventions which delineate individuals and group-s as the type of people who produce the kind of art in question. An important way that such conventions are constructed is through discourse, or talking.

In this paper I discuss the talk which members of a specific art world, the world of indie rock music, use in defining themselves and their music. In actively constructing the world of “indie rock” the people I discuss here elaborate upon what they consider to be integral elements of their art. Indie rock “definitional talk” about sounds, vocals, and visuals contains conventions which distinguish indie rock from other genres of rock; and indie rockers from other types of rockers.

Indie Rock

The indie rock world does not exist in a vacuum; it is historically and structurally connected with the larger world of rock music in general. Historically, the indie rock world is closely related to the world which Rachel Felder (1993) calls “alternative rock.” It is a world which is a direct descendant both musically and structurally of punk rock both in 1970s England and in the in the 1970s and eighties United States.

Punk rock, argues Felder, was a musical reaction to “the slick, overproduced music of the seventies records by bands like Genesis, Yes, and Abba” (p. 3). By the early seventies, writes Alan di Perna in Guitar World magazine, mainstream rock music had “become pretentious, self-important and insufferably boring” (1995, p. 49). Punk rock, as a reaction to the mainstream music of the seventies, “proved that all you need to rock is three chords and a bad attitude (di Perna, p. 47).

But punk rock encompassed more than just a musical reaction to the rock of the seventies. It was also a reaction to the very structure of the mainstream music industry. Punk rock emphasized a rejection of major recording and distribution companies and embraced their independent recording and distribution counterparts.

In Star-Making Machinery (1976) Geoffrey Stokes writes that with the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the early fifties independent recording labels were well represented in the top selling record charts; major labels felt that rock ‘n’ roll was just a fad and virtually ignored it. By 1958, however, major labels became aware of the tremendous financial potential of the music and took firm control of the rock ‘n’ roll market. With the birth of “rock” in the early sixties, as distinct from rock ‘n’ roll, the major labels had learned their lesson and began signing bands “almost as fast as they could learn to play their instruments—and in at least some cases, it seemed, quite a bit faster (Stokes, p. 6). Major labels have been in control of the rock music market ever since.

There are a number of ways, writes Stokes, that major labels control the rock music market; all of which have to do with the amount of capital it takes to run a record company. One way is through the ownership of record distribution companies. Independent labels must pay distributors from outside the label to get their product to the public. Major labels, on the other hand, own their own distribution systems.

According to Stokes, major labels gained control of the rock music market in two more ways during the sixties. The first is what he calls the internationalization” of the music market. As the “English Invasion” of rock music, led by the Beatles, hit the United States, American major labels “benefitted almost willy-nilly” by exercising their royalty and distribution agreements with their major European counterparts.

A third way that Stokes argues major labels took control of the rock music market in the sixties was through the popularity of the 12-inch vinyl, 33-rpm Long Play (LP) record. Prior to the sixties the most popular format for rock ‘n’ roll records was the 7-inch, 45-rpm single. Because of the increased initial investment required to produce the LP, independent labels found it more difficult to compete with the majors.

So by the mid-seventies—through ownership of distribution, the internationalization of the market, and the increased popularity of the LP—major labels had gained firm control of the records which rock music fans could purchase. According to Stokes, “two companies, Warner’s and CBS [both majors], held half of the domestic market in 1974” (p. 9).

Punk rock was an explicit reaction against this centralized, major-label-dominated, record market. In its reaction to and refusal of mainstream music and the mainstream music industry, punk laid the foundation for the indie rockers of my study. Indeed, the term “indie” is simply an abbreviation of “independent;” and as I just discussed, independence from the major label music industry was a major achievement of punk rock.

Major labels dominate the record market now in the same ways they did when Stokes was writing in the 1970s; and the indie rock world is as much a reaction to the major labels as was punk rock’s initial reaction. Financially sound independent distribution companies are a way that indie records make it to some retail stores; and those stores are likely to be independently owned. Independent labels have also struck distribution deals with independent labels in other countries as a way of combating the domination of major labels in the international market. Finally, in response to the overwhelming popularity of Compact Discs (CDs) over vinyl records, independent labels have found a profitable niche marketing vinyl in both 12-inch LPs and 7-inch singles.

The huge success of the band Nirvana’s 1991 album Nevermind, however, threw the indie world into flux. Nirvana, a band with strong indie credentials, was suddenly the most popular rock band on the planet; and the band appeared to be taking advantage of the financial success which only major labels can provide.

Before Nirvana indie credibility was evidenced by a band’s relationship with independent music partners. Following Nirvana’s breakthrough, a plethora of indie bands released records for major labels. So the post-Nirvana indie world is characterized by an ambiguity among indie rockers as to the meaning of a band’s relationship with the music industry. The core defining convention of being indie, dealing with independent labels, has been thrown into question.

Although the indie rock world consists of a strong network of independent labels, radio stations, clubs, and fanzines, the mainstream major label music industry does have an influence upon indie rock bands. Because of this influence the indie rock world is not a static, well-defined world; rather, it is perceived by many indie rocker simply as a rung on the ladder to success in the mainstream music industry. With a few limited exceptions, membership as an indie rocker is temporary; bands either move up (sign a contract with a major label) or our (they disband).

Definitional Talk

Indie rockers constantly engage in a type of discourse I term “definitional talk.” Definitional talk is an element of what Becker (op cit) calls conventions; “agreements that have become part of the conventional way of doing things in that art” (p. 29). In the context I outlined above—indie rock is a reaction against the major label music industry while the same industry continues to have a strong influence upon those who claim to wish to stave it off—definitional talk concerning the latest indie rock conventions serves three purposes. First, in the post-Nirvana ambiguity about bands’ relationships with major labels, definitional talk serves as a means for identifying which bands are truly indie and which are not. Second, because most bands either move up or out of the indie world, new bands must constantly be socialized. Third, definitional talk serves to keep commitment to the indie world high among those bands which do not disband, yet do not advance to the major label level.

Indie rock definitional talk is a pervasive discourse about the specifics of their art. As I will show, definitional talk centers around conventions concerning the sounds, vocals, and visuals of indie rock “music.” Because their structural identity is ambiguous, and their membership tenure is temporary, indie rock bands must continually engage in definitional talk about their art as a means to maintaining the boundaries of their world.

Data and Methods

The data for this paper come from more than two years of participant observation field work in Chicago’s indie rock music world. I began my research I the Summer of 1992 by observing the routines of a single Chicago band. I attended their rehearsals, went to their live shows, and spent many non-band related hours with the members of the band. From this base I began a snowball interview schedule from which I formally interviewed 43 members of the rock world. In addition, I spent 19 months, from the Summer of 1992 through January of 1994 going to rock shows, writing for a Chicago-based fanzine, and as a Disc Jockey at Northwestern University’s student run radio station.

There are aspects of my data which should be specified. Forty of my 43 interviews were with people who are full participants in Chicago’s rock scene. Next, because my interviews consist of people whom my interviewees recommended (snowball sampling) my data are a non-random sample of rock world members who commonly refer to their world as the “indie rock world.” They speak of “indie records,” “indie bands,” as well as “indie rock” in general. Thus, although I feel that many of the points I make can sensitize us to processes happening in social worlds beyond that of the one I am describing, it is important to remember that the world on which my assertions are based is the world of Chicago Indie Rock.

Finally, because my argument centers of the talk of indie rockers, doubt may be cast about the congruence between the data and findings of my interviews and the ways rockers “really talk.” Because of the informal nature of my interviews, and because of my extensive observations in virtually all segments of the lives of indie rockers, I feel that what I talked about with interviewees is very close to what they talked about when I was not around. In fact, some of the quotes which I include in this paper are not from interviews at all, they are from my observations of indie rockers talking to one another in “natural” settings.

Indie Rock Talk

Musically, indie rockers actively define their music in much the same way that heavy metal rockers do in Deena Weinstein’s book, Heavy Metal (1991). Indie rock
has a code, or set of rules, that allows one to objectively determine whether a song, an album, a band, or a performance should be classified as belonging to the category “[indie rock]” (p. 6).
As I have mentioned, however, the world of indie rock in inherently problematic. As conflict exists between being perceived as a “good” indie band and being successful in the major label market, it is not always easy for indie rockers to “objectively determine” whether other songs, albums, bands, or performances are indeed indie rock.

John P. Hewitt, in Dilemmas of the American Self (1989), argues that discourse, or talk, is one way in which the problematic aspects of culture are made visible. He writes:
. . .the surest path to the understanding of a given culture is an examination of the discourse in which it lives. The things about which people talk reflect the matters about which they worry, and their discourse both embodies and reflects their culture. Although no single mode of discourse or single text can tell us all there is to know about a culture, those things people talk about most—and especially those persisting oppositions, arguments, and tensions in their discourse—may speak eloquently about their most important ways of thinking, feeling, and acting (p. 11).

Because of the conflict which exists between good indie music and major label success, much of an indie rocker’s everyday time is taken up in the pursuit of discourse centered around answering the question, “What is indie rock?” In what follows I will examine the discourse of indie rockers. I will describe three conventions—sounds are catchy yet taste for them is acquired; music and vocals are valued over lyrics; and a non-look is valued over a consciously contrived look—as they are imbedded in definitional talk concerning indie rock sounds, vocals and visuals. Such definitional talk about the art of indie rock is one way in which indie rockers define their world and minimize the problematic nature of their situation.


A key convention in the definitional talk of indie rockers concerning the way their music sounds is “catchiness.” Catchiness is that quality of a song which makes it more or less singable. For example, I overheard one guitarist being complimented on the quality of his band’s tape because the listener was able to sing along to the songs on only his second listen; the songs were that catchy.

Although the above was a compliment to the songwriting and playing of the band as an indie rock band, it really only serves to place the band’s music within the larger encompassing genre of rock music. As Felder (op cit) mentions about alternative rock, bands incorporate much of what they are reacting against into their own music; they turn their enemy’s music on its head. In this sense, most rock music is considered catchy, and indie rock is no exception.

One way that indie rockers talk about their music which sets it apart from other genres of rock is through a vivid vocabulary of adjectives that are only learned through extended participation in the indie world. That is, indie rockers discuss their music with each other in ways which suggest that to understand good indie rock one must acquire a taste for indie rock. Those outsiders who don’t get indie rock are not going to understand a music described using these adjectives.

In this vein, the vocabulary of adjectives indie rockers use are related to conventional ways of speaking about easy or hard to understand things in everyday life. So, for example, indie rockers often refer to mainstream rock bands as “smooth,” or “candy coated.” These are adjectives which suggest the easy-to-digest nature of mainstream music.

But one must learn to like indie rock. The language indie rockers use, then, in describing their music is of a qualitatively different flavor from that used to describe mainstream music. They use adjectives like “rough, harsh, viscous” and “grungy and slammin’” to refer to indie rock music. These are terms which suggest caution should be taken, especially by non-indie rockers, in listening to indie bands. To understand and enjoy music described in such a way is a learned and acquired taste.

Indie rockers are defining, in part, what indie rock is when they discuss a song or band based upon its catchiness or its acquired esthetic. The former is a convention shared with many other genres of rock music, the latter is a convention which is inter-subjectively constructed among indie rockers.


A solidly agreed upon convention of any rock genre is that the music must have lyrics. Ultimately, however, indie definitional talk focuses on the importance of music over lyrics. Rock, after all, is music.

"If all I was interested in was lyrics, I’d be a poet, or read poetry, which I don’t. So the music is more important. That energy, that spirit is more important than 'that’s beautiful, what he said.'" (personal interview; drummer/vocalist)

The convention of music over lyrical content is a reaction by indie rockers to their perception of mainstream rock lyrics as simplistic and uncreative. Mainstream rock songs, according to this talk, stick to what indie rockers consider standard conventions of love, relationships, sex, dancing, and partying.

"One thing that annoys me about rock in typically the lyrics are not really in depth. They’re typically about love or relationships. Which is fine, but there’s too much of that." (personal interview; guitarist)

This guitarist is suggesting that the lyrical content of mainstream rock music tends to be formulaic. It’s a lyrical style which has been done many times before. Thus, if indie rock is going to be distinguishable from the mainstream it must react against such banal lyrical content.
The bind that indie rockers are in, however, is that they do recognize the convention that a rock song, even an indie rock song, must have lyrics. The indie rock alternative is to stress the importance of “vocals” over lyrics. The convention of vocals over lyrics emphasizes that indie rock vocals need not be distinguishable as words or lyrics, but instead only as utterances and sounds; or as nonsensical strings of words.

One way the convention of vocals over lyrics comes out in indie rock definitional talks is through mention of other bands that demonstrate the convention; bands which, implied in the definitional talk, are considered members of the indie rock world.

"I like stuff like Iggy Pop or James Brown where the lyrics don’t really mean anything; like Funkadelic or something" (guitarist/vocalist).

This musician is pointing out the above mentioned convention which gives importance to vocals, whether or not they are distinguishable as words or lyrics. He suggests that Iggy Pop, James Brown, and Funkadelic are all artists he respects more because of their vocals than their actual lyrics. In fact, this musician is echoing what rock journalist Lester Bangs, in a record review from Creem magazine in 1970, writes about Iggy Pop’s vocals, from a time when Pop was with the Stooges.

And just when you least expect it he flings out one of the bizarre, bestial-sounding nonverbal expletives which are one of the album’s hallmarks: wildcat growls (after Roy Orbison?), hawking caws, whoops and shredded gargling threats (Bangs 1987, p. 49).

The above two quotes give evidence to the long-standing nature of the indie rock convention of vocals over lyrics. Although the quotes are 22 years apart, they are quite similar. Lending support to my statement that indie rockers definitional talk about such conventions consists of allusions to past members of the indie rock world, Bangs makes reference to the “growls” of Roy Orbison.


As with the lyrical content of indie rock, definitional talk concerning visual presentation tends to subordinate the importance of a “look” to the primacy of music.

"On the one hand I really don’t care for bands that obviously spend a lot of time cultivating their look and their image. Where they spend more time on that then they do on what they’ve got to play. I don’t like that" (guitarist).

But as with the convention of music and vocals over lyrics, the convention of music over look is complicated by indie rockers’ understandings that what they do is a performing art; general rock music conventions emphasize the performance aspect of the art as consisting in large part of a look. Because of this understanding the definitional talk of indie rockers concerning visuals is usually linked to how they think their audience wants to see them. The previous musician concludes his remarks on visuals in the following example.

"But on the other hand, people want to see a band. They want to see what they look like, what they’re wearing. They want to see how they act" (guitarist).

As with the convention of vocals over lyrics, indie rock’s convention concerning visuals is a reaction of concession rather than a reaction of rejection to the visual conventions of mainstream rock. The guitarist is conceding the fact that if an indie band is going to have at least minimal success, even if just in the realm of the independent music industry, they will have to give some amount of thought to their look.

Indie rocks’ convention downplaying the visual yet recognizing its general importance is incorporated in definitional talk as what the next musician calls a “non-look.”

"You’ve really gotta walk a fine line with that. It’s best to show yourselves somewhat but not too much. The whole idea behind punk was sort of like a non-look. A lot of bands were just very plain. There were some bands that didn’t make it ‘cause of their look. All they had to sell was a look. It’s a fine line. It has to be the music first, the look second. You look at bands like the Minutemen, they weren’t much to look at" (bassist/vocalist).

This musician suggests that, just as the convention of vocals over lyrics is a concession to music over lyrics, the convention of a non-look over a look is a concession to the convention of music over a look.

The above musician emphasizes the non-look over look in the same way that the earlier musicians emphasized the convention of vocals over lyrics; he refers back to a genre of rock, punk rock, from which many indie rock conventions derive. Some punk bands, he suggests, had nothing more than a look to sell. These bands did not succeed and, consequently, are conventions of indie rock talk only in so much as they point out what not to do. He also refers to a specific punk rock band, the Minutemen, as a band that illustrates well the non-look convention he is discussing.


In this paper I sugget that a contradiction exists, from the perspective of indie rockers, between “good” indie music and mainstream music industry success. People who consider themselves part of the indie rock world engage in what I have termed definitional talk as a way to deal with this problematic situation. I outlined three purposes which definitional talk serves for indie rockers: in the post-Nirvana rock industry definitional talk reduces the amgiguity of membership in the indie world; it socializes new members into the constantly changing membership of indie rock; and it keeps commitment to the indie world high among those who have not moved up or out.

It is in this context of conflict between indie identity and mainstream success that the practicality of definitional talk appears. Definitional talk occurs most often when indie rockers talk about their art; about the sounds, vocals, and visuals that make indie rock distinct from other rock music genres. Practically, it is the conventions that are imbedded within indie definitional talk that serve to identify the truly indie from the outsiders. The conventions I mention in this paper—the sounds are catchy yet acquired; music and vocals are emphasized over lyrics; and visually a non-look is emphasized over a look—are three ways which indie rocker distinguish their world from others.

As a final word, I suggest that definitional talk is a type of discourse that can be observed in rock worlds beyond that of indie rock. Clearly, indie rock is simply one epoch in the evolving history of rock music. But I am sure the occurrence of this type of discourse is evident in all other epochs and worlds of rock’s thirty-year history. From the bands of the British invasion, through the hippies and psychedelic rock, disco, punk, and, most recently, grunge/alternative rock, definitional talk is how the members of particular rock worlds construct and maintain individual and group identity. As new and unique rock worlds take form in the future the study of the definitional talk used by their members will be informative about the conventions they use to distinguish their art, and thus their world, from others.

Bangs, Lester. 1987. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. Greil Marus, Ed. New York: Vintage.
Becker, Howard S. 1982. Art Worlds. Berkeley, University of California Press.
Di Perna, Alan. 1995. “Revolution Calling.” Guitar World 17 (January): 46-52.
Felder, Rachel. 1993. Manic Pop Thrill. Hopewell, New Jersey: Ecco Press.
Hewitt, John P. 1989. Dilemmas of the American Self. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Stokes, Geoffrey. 1976. Star-Making Machinery: The Odyssey of and Album. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
Weinstein, Deena. 1991. Heavy Metal: A Cultural Sociology. New York: Lexington.


Nirvana. 1989. Bleach. SubPop Records.
Nirvana. 1991. Nevermind. DGC Records.


[1] Indeed, I originally used the term “alternative” in writing this paper. I changed to “indie” only after going through my field notes, and consulting with some people from the world I observed. “Indie,” rather than “alternative,” is not only the term of choice among the rockers I am discussing, it is also more structurally and historically accurate.
[2] Nirvana’s first album, Bleach (1989) was on the independent label Sub Pop.
[3] Twenty-six of my interviews were with musicians in local unsigned Chicago area bands; these were bands which played regularly in Chicago rock clubs, but had no recordings which were financed by anyone but themselves. One interview was with a Chicago musician in a band which makes records for a nationally-known, Chicago-based, independent recording company; two interviews were with Chicago musicians who are members of bands which make record for major recording labels. Two of my interviews were with recording engineers who work in Chicago. Five interviews were with people who co-own or co-manage Chicago-based independent recording labels; one interview was with the manager of a nationally famous, Chicago-based band which makes records for a major label (the manager lives in Chicago); one interview was with a rock music journalist from a Chicago weekly newspaper; one interview was with an owner of a Chicago rock club which features unsigned Chicago bands. One interview was with an independent Chicago booking agent. Finally, three of my interviews were with musicians in bands which make records for major recording labels, but have no affiliation with Chicago’s local scene.
[1] My tri-part breakdown of indie rock into sound, vocals, and visuals owes much to Weinstein’s (1991) analysis of heavy metal as consisting of sonic, visual, and verbal dimensions.
[1] Pop’s stage name at the time Bangs wrote the article was Iggy Stooge.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Reading People

Here is the written version of a presentation I gave for a Job Skills Seminar at Dixie College in 1999.


Today I’m going to introduce you to the skill of reading other people, a skill you are all already slightly familiar with. What I really want to do is to convince you to take the reading of other people a lot more seriously; to do it more consciously and sincerely.

We’ll run the class in two parts. In the first half of class I’ll give a bit of sociology, how sociologists talk about the self and its relationship with other people and social contexts. In the second half of class we’ll apply this sociology to reading other people, to interpreting the meanings and attitudes of people so that we may manipulate them. So that we may manipulate situations in our favor and get what we want.

Symbolic Interactionism. Symbolic interactionists see human behavior as consisting of the manipulation of symbols; arbitrary signs created and given significance by people. Symbols stand in place of, and point to, the objects in our environment. There are three types of objects: goals, things out there, and social acts. Goals are the intentions one has for acting in a situation; things are the physical reality (including people) of a situation; and acts are the joint activities which people take together. Symbols are the way we talk about the objects in our environment.
We act toward objects based upon our symbolic definitions of these objects. We behave in specific situations based upon our definitions of the situation. The definition of the situation consists of our understanding of the meanings of the objects present in the situation. In most situations we expect that others in the situation will have a similar definition of the situation as we do.

The Self. Today we’ll get about as micro as sociology gets, we’re going to examine the process of the self. Notice I called the self a process. This suggests that the self is an ongoing activity. It is something that forms, is maintained, changes, and all the while it is an activity that we engage in. We engage in the activity of the self.

This is different than talking of self as a psychological entity, something that we are born with, that we have no control over. Sociologists, and most psychologists I imagine, don’t buy this. We feel that the self is a process of interaction with other people. The self is something that people do together.

So, remember, as we go through this extremely micro-sociological discussion of the self, that we are talking sociology here, we’re talking people doing things together.

The granddaddy of writing about the self is George Herbert Mead, he lived in the early to middle part of the twentieth century. Mead suggested that the self has two parts: the I and the Me.
The I is the spontaneous self as subject. When thinking of the I you should think of the perspective of “what I want to do,” or “what I did,” like “I went to the market.” This is the actor’s perspective of the situation. The actor looking at a situation and acting.

The Me, on the other hand, is the self as a social object. Remember when we discussed objects in symbolic interactionism. The Me is the self as any other object in a situation, it is the actor taking the perspective of others toward himself. It’s standing outside of his subjective stance to see what he looks like. “That’s me at the market,” or “that’s me going to the market.” I can see me.

So, how is this sociological? Well, the I is about as psychological as we get in sociology. It is impulsive. It is what the actor wants to do, right now. The me, however, tempers the I in that it places the actor within a social situation. The actor then can analyze how (he thinks) others view him, how others expect him to behave, the statuses others see him as occupying and the roles that accompany these statuses. Thus, the actor channels his I, directs his actions, based on his vision of me, of how he is expected to act in the given situation.

Self-concept is the self we are aware of. It’s how we see our self, the qualities and statuses and roles that we see as being us. Well, this comes about mainly through the me, through seeing our self as a social object. Because we only view ourselves in relation to our position in a social setting. We see ourselves as others see us, or, possibly, how we want others to see us.

So the self and self-concept are social processes. They only emerge through participation in groups. A person who is isolated, feral people, don’t develop a sense of self, they are never concerned with how they might look to others, because they have never had the socialization experiences necessary to foster an understanding of self, to construct a self-concept.

Symbolic interactionists emphasize the active role of the actor in constructing self. The important part of this view of the self is the process of people role-taking. Role-taking involves stepping into other people’s shoes and viewing our self from there. And this isn’t necessarily stepping into the shoes of specific other people, although it often is, it can also be stepping into the shoes of a specific other status, and viewing the situation from there. So we take the role of others, and we view ourselves from this perspective. We do this all the time, say symbolic interactionists. This is how we know how to act in specific situations.

The looking glass self, coined by Charles Horton Cooley, suggests that our view of our self is gained by looking at our self from the perspective of others (like role-taking). The only way we know who we are is through the reactions of others to our behaviors. We judge our behaviors, and design our future (immediate) actions based on how we see others, specific others, viewing us. We are, literally, looking at ourselves through the eyes of others.

Self-esteem refers to our judgement about how well we met our expectations of our performance in a situation. We enter the situation wanting to accomplish a goal (remember symbolic interactionism); how close we come to fulfilling this goal, how close we perceive that we’ve fulfilled the goal, is our self-esteem.

The sociology of everyday life focuses on patterns of behavior in face-to-face interactions. On the routine behaviors of daily life that allow us to predict others’ behaviors, and allow others to predict ours.

An example of a sociology of everyday life concept is civil inattention. This is a behavior that is conventional in our society. It occurs, says Erving Goffman, when two people walking down the street (or wherever they might come into contact) glance at each other for a moment, say something like “what’s up,” and then look away. They are according each other civil inattention.

Civil inattention is sociological because the behavior is people doing things together. It is not an instinctive behavior. It is not something that people naturally do, in all societies. We learn to use civil inattention. It is part of our culture (values and norms).

So civil inattention is a norm. As far as our definition of culture goes, civil inattention is part of our rules we’re expected to observe.

We can also, from a symbolic interactionist theoretical position, see that civil inattention is an object. It is a social act.

And, again, as we discussed with symbolic interactionism, people’s agreements upon the definition of the situation is what gives most of everyday life its order. If we can agree upon this glance that Goffman calls civil inattention, then we know that everything is going according to plan.

What happens if one of the actors breaks the norm of civil inattention? What does it mean if one of the persons stares to long? Or winks instead of glancing? Or growls and stares instead of glancing? What does this do to the definition of the situation? What if one of the persons is trying to abide by civil inattention and the other is doing one of these non-civil inattention behaviors?

We can understand the larger systems and institutions of our world only if we understand that only people act! Government doesn’t act. Race doesn’t act. Gender doesn’t act. Class doesn’t act. Only people act! Thus it is through understanding the ways that people act that we can understand these larger categories of human life that are so common to talk about.

I wrote that people refer to objects using symbols. For example, this is a piece of chalk. Chalk is the object, the word “chalk” is the symbol that refers to the chalk. In agreeing on the symbol we can agree on the object and then we can agree on how it is to be used in the situation. Language, then, is taken very seriously by symbolic interactionists as the most important cluster of symbols that people have.

But what about nonverbal communication? Nonverbal communication is another set of symbols that refer to objects. But, and this is important, nonverbal communication is most characteristically used to expand upon or somehow add to our verbal communication.

Sometimes nonverbal communication gives away the fact that we lied about something we said, or that what we said isn’t quite all of the story.

Goffman made a distinction between expressions given and expressions given off. Expressions given refer to those expressions that we intend for others to read. Expressions given off are those (usually nonverbally) that we don’t intend for others to see that add to or detract from our expressions given.

So, and this is also because we are members of a culture, we learn to try and manipulate our expressions given and expressions given off. That is, we sometimes want to make sure our expressions given and given off are congruent with each other, even when we don’t feel like what we say is the whole truth. For instance, prostitutes “fool” their clients into thinking that they enjoy what they’re doing. Sometimes in a comedy movie, for instance, there might be a skit where a prostitute is giving the expression that she really likes it, while her expressions given off suggest otherwise. Or, and this is better, if you’ve seen the Aerosmith video “Sweet Emotion,” where the guy has called for phone sex. The voice of the woman sounds sexy and exciting, but then they show her and she’s very unattractive and ironing her clothes. The medium of the telephone allows her to neglect the visual dimension of her expressions given off, and to manipulate the caller’s perception of her.

Sometimes we might deliberately try to make our expressions given and those given off be incongruent. For instance, in movies we see the situation where someone is being held hostage, and a police officer comes to the door. The hostage answers the door while the gunman stands behind the door. The gunman tells the hostage that “if you say the wrong thing, I’ll blow you away!” So the hostage tells the police (her expressions given) that everything is alright. But through her expression given off, say eye contact, she tries to let the officer know that there is a gunman behind the door.

So an important part of being a member of a culture is being able to read and present expressions given and expressions given off.

Practical Application

Now we’ll apply a bit of this sociology of the self to reading other people as a skill.
The skill I want you to start acquiring is the skill of “reading” other people. The skill of paying attention to their expressions given and expressions given off; to pay attention to people’s behaviors and come to understand their intentions based on these behaviors. Additionally, you can learn how to manipulate situations to your advantage using your own presentations to alter your “adversary’s” presentations.


So, merely by noting a variety of gestures we can make guesses about people—attitudes, relationships, situations. You need to be able to read gesture-clusters, groups of nonverbal communications associated with different attitudes. These gestures can appear at the same time or one after another in a series. But they occur together.

Gesture-clusters are like complete sentences. When we speak to someone we use complete sentences, nouns and verbs and adverbs. Well, our gesture-clusters do the same. They are understood as a series.

What we’ve already discussed as role-taking, Nierenberg and Calero call empathy, our ability to put our self in the place of the person we’re observing. By doing this we understand the gestures of the observed and, thus, understand what the observed means! By understanding what the observed means, what he intends and his attitude, we know how to behave toward him. We know how to manipulate the situation to our advantage.

An important skill to have is, as we’ve mentioned, being able to discern a person’s expressions given versus those given off. For our purposes here this is the ability to distinguish between what a person says, and what they do; a distinction between their words and their behaviors. They may be saying one thing, but their behavior may mean something else.

Also, when manipulating situations, as we all do, you need to be aware of your own words and behaviors. You need to bring congruence into your own expressions given and given off. You don’t want the people you’re interacting with to read something off of you that you don’t intend!
Also important here is manipulating our own gestures in order to manipulate our own attitudes. That is, our behaviors may influence our attitudes as much as our attitudes may influence our behaviors.

“One of the participants in our seminar, in discussing non-verbal communication, reported the following: ‘On returning from the Chicago seminar I was seated next to a woman who explained that she was a registered nurse. She then proceeded to tell me all that was wrong with the medical profession. From my point of view she was overgeneralizing and drew conclusions that I believed to be false. The point of all this is that while I was attempting to listen I had my arms folded high on my chest, feeling very stubbornly that she didn’t know what she was talking about. When I discovered myself in this position, I understood what was taking place within me. I tried a different approach. I uncrossed my arms and proceeded to listen without evaluating. As a result I was able to listen more intently. I became less defensive and was able to realize that although I disagreed, she was saying something I was now able to listen to more fully and appreciate.’” (Nierenberg and Calero, pp. 13-14)

What’s happening here? Well, first he is not allowing himself to listen to the woman in an open manner. When he unfolds his arms he becomes more open and appreciative. Thus he is influencing his attitudes toward her. Second, he may be influencing her to try and convince him that she is right thus fulfilling his prophecy that she is wrong. So our gestures influence others to behave in ways consistent with what they (maybe subconsciously) read as our meaning and attitude.

“Nonverbal feedback can warn you that you must change, withdraw, or do something different in order to bring about the result that you desire. If you are not aware of feedback, then there is a strong possibility that you will fail to communicate your believability or sincerity to an individual or to an audience” (ibid, p. 14).

As a life-long exercise I want you to set aside ten minutes per day to train yourself to read people. Anywhere. It doesn’t matter. Anywhere that people are acting you can read them. Just sit back and observe and interpret what they are doing. Interpret the meanings and attitudes of the people acting. The better you become at reading people, the better you’ll become at manipulating situations and getting what you want out of the situation. You’ll become a more efficient and successful person for it. Reading others is an essential skill.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Motive Talk Among Indie Rockers

I wrote this paper for a presentation at the meetings of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interactionsim in Las Vegas, 1999.

Presentations of Self as Claims to Group Membership: Selling Out Motive Talk among Chicago’s Indie Rockers

Our presentations of self are claims to membership in groups. Others’ acceptances or rejections of our presentations signal their acceptance or rejection of our claimed group memberships. Chicago’s indie rock musicians maintained their membership in the early-nineties indie scene by acting in ways that validated the existence of their group, and thus their selves. They talked incessantly about selling out, a contextual paradox where musicians presented allegiance to a scene that decried working in any way with the major label recording industry, while at the same time anticipating careers in the same industry. Indie musicians used talk about selling out as motive talk, a way of ironically making claim to membership in the local indie scene in the face of behaviors to the contrary. “Skepticism,” “persistence pays off,” and “identifying the authentically successful” are three types of selling out motive talk that musicians used to assert their indie scene membership.

The Presentation of Self and Group Membership

Groups. Groups, like all objects, are things toward which we act (Hewitt, p. 169). They exist because we perceive them as existing, and act as if they exist. We make real decisions about what to do, how to behave, and who to consider friends, based on the groups we perceive to exist. We consider ourselves to be members of some groups and not others. The groups we want to be members of are the ones we behave so as to stay members of.

Chicago’s indie rock music scene of the early 1990s was a group. It consisted of nightclubs, radio stations, recording labels, periodicals and, most important, people who defined themselves as indie rockers. Indie rockers acted as if the indie rock scene existed. They acted toward the nightclubs, radio stations, recording labels, periodicals, and other indie rockers in ways that confirmed their mutual membership in the scene. Through appropriate, though constantly negotiated, presentations of self indie rockers maintained and validated theirs and others membership (or not) in the scene.

The continued existence of a group, in a stable form, depends upon the flow of negotiated behaviors by those who perceive themselves as its members. We reaffirm our group memberships with other members everyday and all the time. By behaving according to group expectations we communicate our willingness to be group members. Our conformity to group expectations and agreed upon rules and procedures establishes our level of group membership. In more formal groups (the military, for instance) we are more convincing in asserting our membership because rules and procedures are written down and made clear, the rational nature of the rules and procedures validate our membership claims. In less formal groups we must engage in intense interactional negotiations to ascertain membership statuses, there is no formally written down evidence that backs-up our membership claims.

Chicago’s indie scene existed as a group because of the behaviors of musicians and other members that validated its existence. The scene was an informal group, however. There were no written rules or procedures that members pointed to as evidence to back up their membership claims. Instead, indie rockers validated their membership claims, and ultimately the existence of the scene, through intense and continuous interactions with each other.

When situations become problematic, when groups’ definitional existences (and thus definitions of self) become ambiguous, group members often insist on orthodox behaviors from other members (Dewey, p. 164). That is, when we do not know what to do, we refer back to the rules and procedures of our organizations for guidance, and insist that other members do as well. If group rules do not supply us with appropriate behavioral responses, then we negotiate new behaviors, we work with other members to bring definitional clarity back to the group situation.

The action orientation of a group, the agreed upon activities in which group members engage, consists of its meaningful objects and, of course, the symbols members use to refer to the objects (Blumer, p. 69). The more formal the group, the more well defined are its objects. In less well defined groups objects are more ambiguous, there are more objects that need to be defined through spontaneous interactional negotiation. Thus, members in less well defined organizations spend more time negotiating the meanings of group objects (rules and procedures) and less time pursuing stated group goals.

Because of the paradox where musicians expected each other to stay loyal to the scene while at the same time trying to move beyond it[i], Chicago’s indie scene, as an informal group, was always in a definitionally problematic state. Members’ attempts at resolving this state took the form of intense interactional negotiations about group identity. Indeed, these identity negotiations were the overriding activity in which indie rockers engaged, probably surpassing even their directly musical activities. Because the action orientation of the scene was not well defined, members had to constantly negotiate the meaning of the scene and, therefor, their own membership in it.

Reference Groups

Some groups, our reference groups, provide our everyday actions and behaviors with consistency because, no matter what the interactional situation, we look to reference group objects, and role-take reference group people and roles, in making our own roles (Shibutani, p. 250). When viewing ourselves from the perspective of others, in knowing ourselves as members of groups, our reference groups come to mind more often than other organizations. Reference groups consistently influence our behavioral choices, whereas less referenced group memberships influence our behaviors only in isolated incidents.

Reference groups serve as social controls on our behaviors, they limit alternative types of behavior for us (Shibutani, p. 254). When making decisions about behavioral choices in isolated incidents, we must select between a myriad of choices, each espoused by different others, different group members, and members of different groups. We will most often choose the path, the behavior, that we feel will fulfill our membership in our reference groups, and least often choose the paths preferred by members in our most isolated groups. Reference groups provide consistency of behavior because we will make the same choice, with regards to similar situations, on a routine basis, choices that reflect our view of members in our reference groups.

Chicago’s indie rock scene was influential for its members, it was very much a reference group. Members referred to it, in choosing their behaviors, consistently, constantly, and across situations. That is, people who considered themselves to be members of the indie scene, who considered themselves to be indie rockers, made mundane life choices that they thought would confirm their indie scene membership in the eyes of others whom they perceived to be indie scene members.

Reference groups, therefore, provide us with our most consistent motive talk (Shibutani, p. 254). We use reference group motive talk in numerous situations, whether we are in the midst of reference group actors or not. What motivates us, and influences us to make the choices we do, comes more often than not from our reference groups, not from isolated groups. The indie scene provides members with language that they use to frame their behaviors, whether among or isolated from other scene members, most notably in referring to selling out.

We do not necessarily personally know all of the other members in our reference groups, they do not have to be small and intimate. Indeed, many reference groups are large, ambiguous, and abstract. They are this way precisely because of the way they influence our behavioral choices across a range of situational activities. The indie rock scene, as a reference group, was large and ambiguous. Indie rockers often did not refer to specific other indie rockers in role taking. Rather they referred to the generalized other of the indie rock scene. So it was a vague sense of what the generalized indie scene was that motivated indie rockers to action, not a concern with the perspectives of specific others.

In situations where group loyalties come into conflict, where perceptions of our group memberships are ambiguous, our loyalty to groups is questioned (Shibutani, p. 259). “Whose side are you on?” is the question here. We are sometimes expected to make a clear choice of group memberships. Our answer to the question will be our reference groups. Indie rockers, by definition, chose what they perceived as the indie scene, along with its motive talk, over other possible groups as their reference group, as the group that most closely defined their identities.

Personal Identity, Self-image

When we are in the company of our reference group members we feel “like ourselves.” We see objects, and see others seeing objects, in a comfortable, seemingly natural way; in a way we most understand and enjoy.

Cooley’s looking-glass self states that our conception of self as a member of a group is a reflection of others’ perceptions of us as group members. If others think we are members, then they act toward us as members, and we, through role taking, view ourselves as members. In less formal groups, those without official roles and objects that signal status positions (i.e. military stripes), we constantly negotiate memberships, constantly interact with others on the basis of negotiating group membership identities. In such groups we constantly work to influence others’ perceptions of us as group members.

Indie rockers, because they fancied themselves members of an informal group (the indie rock scene), had to convince other perceived indie rockers, through presentations of self, that they were, indeed, indie scene members. The presentational convincing took the form of constant interactional negotiations, one form of which is motive talk.

Our self-conceptions are reinforced by these social relationships (Shibutani, p. 217). After imagining how others will react to our behaviors, we act. When others react the way we imagined, our perceptions of self are reinforced. Once we can accurately predict the responses of group members we are full group members. Indie rockers acted based on their perceptions of how other perceived indie rockers would react. The more accurate they were at making such interactional predictions, the more they considered themselves members of the indie scene.

Groups contain factions (Smith [Kotarba], pp. 107-08), each pressing for its version of the definition of the group. So group self-identities, within our perceptions of self, often conflict as we role-take. We must make choices about which factions to placate, which factions to annoy. The two important factions in Chicago’s indie scene coincided with the selling out paradox. Some members felt musicians should stay loyal to the scene, to making records in an independent fashion. Others saw nothing wrong with attempting to construct a career in the indie scene that would lead to a further career in the major label industry.

Our self-identities change as others’ expectations of us change (Ebaugh [Kotarba], p. 156). As our careers progress we will, when role-taking, notice changes in what others expect of us, in how we think others will react to our behaviors. Often others’ expectations of us change before we are ready. We must then adjust our perceptions of how others perceive us, if we want to act consistently with group expectations. Sometimes, however, we fight against newly acquired identities. “I’m still the same,” we might say. When this occurs we behave so as to convince others that we are still the same.

Depending on their “success” within the major label music industry, indie musicians’ perceptions of self and others changed. To move into the major label industry, for example by signing a recording contract, would literally be perceived as selling out by those still in the indie scene exclusively. The musicians signing the contract knew this. They knew, when they signed the contract, how they would be perceived by others, and they acted accordingly.

The Role of Language

We reveal our intentions through gestures (Shibutani, p.146-47), mainly language. For things to run smoothly, for us to be convincing (and convinced) in our claims to group status, the talk between group members must be convincing. We must convince each other, through talk (and other gestures), that we are who we say we are. . .members of the group. Thus it was through motive talk that indie rockers convinced each other, and themselves, of their membership in the indie scene.

Talk thrives on problematic situations, situations in which objects are not clearly defined. When we are not sure of the definitions of objects in the situation, we talk about them, we define them through interactional negotiation. Since the selling out paradox made the indie scene constantly problematic, indie rockers talked constantly about meanings and memberships in the scene.

In defining how we feel about objects, we declare how we intend to act toward the object (we declare our understanding of the definition of the situation). This, in turn, is a direct reflection and assertion about our group memberships. If we define objects (through talk) the same as other members, then we are members; if we define (through talk) objects contrary to other group members, then we are unlikely to be members ourselves.

Indie rocker motive talk was an attempt by indie rockers to agree on the “indie” definition of the situation. No matter that they seldom came to a consensus as to objects’ definitions, it was the behavior that mattered, the performance of definitional negotiation was enough to solidify one’s membership in the indie rock group.


When we role-take we judge ourselves from a moral standpoint (Hewitt, pp. 94-5). We judge our performances as “good” or “bad,” as we think others judge them as good or bad. Thus, we judge our group membership performances as good or bad as we think others judge our performances as good or bad. Indie rockers judged their own behaviors, through their perceptions of other indie rockers views of their behaviors (role-taking), as good indie behavior or bad indie behavior. In their desire to be seen as “good” indie rockers, then, they adjusted their behaviors to fit what they felt others would see as good indie behavior.

Furthermore, we seek recognition from others in their worlds, in their groups (Shibutani, p. 274). We want to maintain acceptable definitions of self in the eyes of fellow group members. We care about the opinions of others about self. So we act so as to maintain positive conceptions of self from the standpoint of others, and thus from the standpoint of self. Indie rockers acted so as to maintain a “positive indie member” sense of self.

Aligning Actions and Motive Talk

We use aligning actions when we perceive that our behaviors are devalued by other group members (Hewitt, pp. 140-41), when we feel that others have a negative conception of our self. Aligning actions are meant to prevent devaluation of self in the eyes of others. Indie rockers used aligning actions when they felt that others saw them as “negative indie members” as a result of their acting in perceived poor indie fashion (that is, if they wanted to be seen as indie members).

Motives and Motive Talk

A specific form of talk, motive talk, arises when an act is called into question (Hewitt, p. 142), either by real or imaginary others (real or imaginary depending on one’s perceptions). Motive talk lays clear the intentions of the act. As an aligning action, motive talk is an attempt to maintain our identity in the face of discrediting perceptions of our actions. Indie rockers used motive talk as aligning actions, to maintain their indie status in light of discrediting behaviors in the eyes of other indie scene members.

By role-taking before acting, we create motives for action (Shibutani, pp. 76-7). These motives are aims, they give direction to our actions. When asked why we acted the way we did, we can fall back on the motives we already created, a set of culturally approved reasons for acting. Reasons that will, in our perceptions, maintain our group memberships. Indie rockers, therefore, had motives for the actions, motives that they kept in their heads. These motives gave indie rockers direction to act in what they perceived as appropriate indie scene fashion.

Important here is that a group’s ability to attract and retain members is directly correlated with its ability to provide a vocabulary of motives (a set of motives to direct members’ actions). We are more likely to stay members of groups that provide motives and motive talk, groups that maintain our positive self-esteem. As I will show, the indie scene provided indie members with motive talk (“Persistence Pays Off” and “Identifying Indie Successful Bands”) that helped them maintain their indie memberships. This motive talk also provided indie members with motives for their behaviors, motives that gave direction to members’ behaviors.

Career Failure and the Need for Aligning Actions

Our expectations of career lines often run up against reality (Hewitt, p. 193). When this occurs, we must remake our selves. Already attained positions are reinterpreted. Indie rockers’ career plans were often antithetical to their presentation of motive talk. This irony provides what I call the Selling Out Paradox, a perception by indie rockers that industry success was defined as failure, and industry failure defined as success.

Our adjusted career aspirations become problems for organizations as well as for ourselves because group members had expectations that coincided with our own expectations. Thus, all group members (including ourselves) were prepared to adjust their definitions of objects as we advanced along our careers. When our careers stall, all must readjust their expectations of readjustment.

Failed indie bands were a problem (as in a problematic situation) not only for the bands’ members, but also for the maintenance of the indie scene as a whole. Other indie members had to fit failed bands into an established motive talk, or create new talk, in order to understand the band’s career path (failure) within the framework of the indie scene. Motive talk explained away failed careers by putting the careers and behaviors in an “indie positive” light.

The Paradox of Selling out: Authenticity and Success

The selling out paradox for Chicago's indie musicians was to create authentically pure art products yet with an eye to constructing stable careers in the mainstream music industry. Art worlds offer career paths unique from others in that art is often thought of as something above and beyond the market place. That is, "pure" art is not seen as a commodity, and those who choose to make art should not expect material rewards. The goal of a pure art career is non-material respect for one's work by those who understand, namely the members of one's art scene. This perspective contrasts with the goal of corporate commodity driven careers, for instance, where success is defined by increasing one's salary through filling ever more important positions within a business. It is not the goal of a pure art career to increase one's salary. The basic contradiction for Chicago's indie rock musicians was that these two career types converged. The music was considered art--pure art--but the act of selling records was a commodity driven enterprise. Thus, the goals of art and commerce were in acute conflict.

Indie musicians wishing to have successful careers in the rock recording industry had to reconcile the conflict between the goals of the commodity driven industry and the goals of indie rock as an art form. Attempts at reconciling this conflict took the form of moral debates over "selling out." The debate served as "motive talk" (Hewitt Dilemmas) that allowed musicians to present their bands as authentically indie rock while pursuing major label contracts. Motive talk, as already discussed, is an effort to preserve socially desirable identities. When social actors succeed in claiming legitimate or understandable motives for their acts, they also succeed in maintaining and reinforcing their identities. That is, they persuade others to see them, and they are enabled to see themselves, as individuals acting in socially desirable and approved ways, and thus to be identified with others and with shared conceptions of the good (225).
Indie rock musicians used motive talk to assure each other that although they might appear to be aiming for recording industry success, they were still grounded in the artistically pure and desirable world of Chicago's indie scene. They used motive talk to maintain their membership in what they perceived to be Chicago’s indie rock scene.

Indie rockers judged bands as being more or less authentic to indie rock conventions. They discussed authenticity in much the same way as Simon Frith discusses it in Sound Effects, it was the perceived sincere presentation of indie conventions. That is, self-identified indie rock audiences had to accept bands' presentations of indie conventions as rooted in the real experience of Chicago's local indie scene, and not as fabricated attempts at capitalizing on industry fad.

Musicians' dual focus on industry success and indie authenticity created a significant quandary. The level of art world activity that indie rockers saw as most authentic was also seen as relatively unsuccessful. In this sense, the purist form of indie rock music was performed by unsigned bands because they were seen as a part of the audiences for whom they played; they were playing "folk" music. The quandary for bands that were successful in the major label industry was that they were inevitably seen by indie rockers as having lost contact with the indigenous scene. They no longer represented their original audience base. They were no longer members of the indie scene. This loss of membership is what Chicago's indie rockers commonly meant by "selling out."

Another paradox for unsigned indie musicians was related to their perceived chances of success within the major label recording industry. Indie musicians realized that most bands did not make it to the major labels. To combat this discouraging reality, indie rockers constructed other levels of success that encouraged and rewarded bands at the local unsigned level. A major indicator of success within the scene was the perception of bands' indie authenticity (their indie membership). Since many bands would never sign major label contracts, they defined authentic indie rock music as something that they could produce. Authentic indie rock music was something at which a relatively large proportion of bands could be successful. The paradox is that bands were comforted or reassured by the rewards for local indie authenticity, but on the industry level this reward meant failure.

At the same time that local unsigned musicians criticized the recording industry and accused major label bands of selling out, some bands that were once considered indie authentic but had made it to the majors were revered for their success. These bands were seen as having beaten the odds and were successful at something at which very few bands were. Although they were not considered authentic indie rock bands anymore, these bands were still regarded as successful and as something to be emulated.

Because indie rockers perceived two levels of success (artistic and industry), musicians could claim artistic success for their bands even when they were not successful within the recording industry. Statements like the following were common among indie musicians in unsigned bands: "We haven't had any financial or critical success, but I think we've had a lot of artistic success" (personal interview). Other bands were apparently industry successful without having earned indie scene authenticity. Indie musicians accordingly felt that the recording industry support personnel had the power to make bands successful on the recording industry level, with or without indie authenticity. The manager of a major label band that was relatively successful on the industry level as well as having earned considerable indie artistic authenticity made the point that "power managers" have the ability to bring industry success to artistically mediocre bands.

"I cringe when I see mediocre bands…just because they have a power manager…they're a mediocre band that happens to become successful because someone was pushing for them. Some bands are great and they're overlooked because no one is really behind them pushing them. At the same time I know so many bands who have an unjustified amount of success because somebody was there pushing them to do certain things. Or they also manage a huge act on that label…like the manager of Genesis on Atlantic will bring in some bimbo Top 40 person, and all of a sudden they're high on the charts simply because he has the clout on Atlantic to make sure they get marketed right." (personal interview)

The manager is suggesting that even artistically authentic bands need the help of industry executives if they want to attain industry success. No band can be successful in the recording industry, no matter how artistically authentic they are, without the help of industry support personnel. All of Chicago's indie musicians believed this to be true. Thus, if selling out was defined as bands giving control over their artistic products to industry support personnel (personnel who more than likely were not part of Chicago’s indie scene), then all bands that made a living at the major label level were sell-outs (they had all become non-members); and all musicians that wanted to make a living at this level would have to sell-out (they would have to renounce scene membership).

Industry Success

Artistic authenticity and indie scene membership notwithstanding, Chicago's indie rock musicians wanted to "make a living" playing music. Artistic authenticity (indie membership) did not compensate for industry success.

"I still want to realize that fantasy of getting signed and going on the road. And that's one of the things I still haven't done. I haven't experienced it at that level. I've experienced performing at a fairly high level, and I've experienced the working of it, and I've experienced practicing, and being obsessed with music. And getting just the right sound, getting this lick down, or the grooving of this particular kind of music. But I haven't gotten to that next step of going on a long tour and having a record, being signed to a label and that sort of thing. And that's the next level up." (personal interview)

Any musician who says "I'm just in it for the art," they gotta be bullshitting. In the long run you definitely want something out of it. (personal interview)

For musicians to consider their bands real successes they had to move out of the local indie scene and into the mainstream recording industry. They had to move to the next level.

And so the basic paradox facing indie rock musicians remained. They wanted to construct careers in the major label recording industry while at the same time decrying major label industry success because they saw it in conflict with artistic authenticity. Yet Chicago's indie rock musicians pursued these two seemingly incompatible ideals simultaneously.

In this section I discuss the skepticism engendered in unsigned indie musicians when viewing their chances of succeeding in the major label industry (and thus leaving the indie scene). I describe two definitional strategies that indie musicians used as motive talk to explain their own lack of success in the recording industry (and thus their solid membership in the indie scene): “Persistence Pays Off,” and “Identifying Indie Successful Bands.” Both of these strategies were more than talk alone. They motivated the ways musicians attempted to construct their own bands’ careers in relation to the selling out paradox.


Musicians in unsigned bands tended to temper their goals of securing major label contracts with skepticism about their actual chances.

M-Are you interested in eventually making this your living?
R-Definitely. But we're not gonna be surprised if it doesn't work out. (personal interview)

Indie musicians' skepticism was motive talk for discussing what, on the level of the recording industry, were seen as unsuccessful careers. Skeptical talk allowed musicians to account for their bands' lack of industry success in comforting ways, comforting in that it affirmed their membership in the indie scene.

In one sense skepticism helped to cushion the blow of failed industry success. By downplaying their chances at a major label contract, musicians in unsigned bands were not disappointed in their lack of success. Two comparative examples are enlightening here. Surfers in Southern California are often skeptical about how the waves will be while on their way to surf. They talk among themselves about how it was a waste of time to get up in the morning (they often surf before dawn) because the surf is going to be bad. Thus, if the waves really are bad, then the surfers will not be disappointed. If the waves are good, it is a nice surprise. Similarly, the skepticism of unsigned indie rock bands about their chances at industry success cushion the blow if they really do fail. If they do not make it to the major labels, it is expected. If they do make it, it is a happily unexpected event.

Another comparative example of skepticism, one much closer to home, occurs when graduate students and recent PhDs looking for jobs talk of how tough the market is. They discuss among themselves how only the lucky few get jobs right away. The rest have to stick it out, and maybe eventually things will get better. Such skepticism is motive talk that serves to deflect ideas that students' failure on the job market may be their fault. Maybe they just are not good enough. Similarly, skepticism engaged by unsigned indie rock musicians deflected implications that their bands did not make it to the major labels because they were not good enough.

In another sense the skepticism of musicians in unsigned bands strengthened their claims to indie scene authenticity (membership). Failing to make it to the major labels was a badge of honor. It demonstrated bands' commitment to the local indie scene. This function of skepticism is similar to Liebow's suggestion that lower-class Black men develop a "shadow system of values" that is "[d]erivative, insubstantial, and co-occurring" (213) with the parent system of middle-class values. Liebow's argument is that lower-class Black men would like to partake in the value system of mainstream society, but they adapt to conditions as "failures" in America's economic order. The shadow system gives the men a set of positive values that give worth to their lives. Similarly, indie musicians' skepticism provided a system of values in the shadows of the mainstream music industry. Musicians wanted to make it into the industry, but in the face of failure, skepticism provided for a system of values emphasizing authenticity by which musicians could feel good about their indie performance.

Persistence Pays Off

The skeptical motive talk of indie musicians took two forms. One was talk of "Persistence Pays Off," the other was "Identifying Indie Successful Bands." First, many musicians felt that their chances for success in the recording industry (and thus leaving the indie scene) were enhanced through persistence.

"I think the key for us, or for any band really, is to be persistent. To stay together as a unit, not to have a lot of personnel changes. Maybe just staying together. Bands that continue playing for years eventually have probably a better chance at succeeding than a band that's only together for a year. One band continues, and other bands, the rivals or competition, keep disbanding. The band that continues, obviously, has a somewhat better chance." (personal interview)

Since many musicians felt that artistic competence was not directly correlated with industry success, other factors were seen as responsible for bands' making it to the major labels. Persistence, in the form of not breaking-up, was one of these factors.

Not only did indie musicians feel that persistence was a way of making it to the major labels, they also felt that persistence was a reward in itself. They felt that bands that stayed together for a long time deserved to have industry success, as the following musician said about a successful major label band.

"Of course they worked. They toured plenty and they made their grass roots connection with people. So they should get their due. However, I never thought their music was particularly challenging." (personal interview)

This drummer suggested that it was persistence rather than the quality of the band's music that entitled them to industry success. He respected them for their persistence if not their music, and thus held them as an example for the effectiveness of persistence.

One guitarist suggested that his band was like a family, and families do what they can to stay together.

"It's the same way, say, your family is all pissed off at each other. You just forget about it. Even though you're mad at each other…you're mad at your brother but you've got to go on vacation together and you've already got everything packed up. What do you do? You don't cancel the vacation and leave you at home because you're mad at your brother. You all go. You have to sit there in the same car no matter what. You just forget about it after a while. And that's how it goes. John (the vocalist) and I weren't speaking to each other the day before that show. He walked out on practice because he was mad at me for something totally stupid. At the shows that doesn't matter, you still play. There's this one thing that's more important than all your petty arguments, your family. Keeping your family together is more important than you and your brother fighting." (personal interview)

Persistence was one of the only aspects of their bands that indie musicians felt they could control in their attempts at moving out of the local scene and into the major label recording industry. Persistence was more than something musicians talked about, it motivated their behaviors. Indie musicians spent much of their practical time simply trying to keep their bands together. Sometimes it was more important to stay together and be able to maintain musicians' claims to the status of rock band than for them actually to engage in the core artistic activities of rehearsing, playing live gigs, and recording. One guitarist said that his band had regular "band meetings" when the members would get together, without playing their instruments, and talk about the status of the band.

"We'll either have the meetings before practice or after practice; like a serious "turn the god damned amp off and let's talk." Or we'll go out and have a beer or two and talk that way." (personal interview)

Musicians’ strategies for resolving their bands’ disagreements were conceptually similar to what Hochschild describes as "gender strategies." These are strategies that husbands and wives use in managing family housework that have direct implications for keeping families together. Spouses construct, maintain, and reconstruct their strategies in attempts to mesh their separate beliefs about gender roles in families with the reality of their own relationship. Sometimes strategies fail and spouses break-up, but this does not negate the importance of husbands and wives trying to develop interactional strategies to keep their families together. Similarly, the ways that indie musicians handled disagreements among their members were strategies for keeping their band together. As with families, sometimes strategies failed and bands broke-up, but the belief that Persistence Pays Off led musicians to develop strategies in an attempt to keep their bands together--Persistence Pays Off was a motive for indie musicians’ behaviors.

Bands also existed as entities above and beyond the membership of individual musicians. For the sake of the band, and its chances at industry success through persistence, musicians were often kicked out of, or voluntarily quit their bands. A band that still had its name was often seen as the same band, even though it may have consisted of only a fraction of its original members. Again, the idea that Persistence Pays Off reinforced the idea that a "band" would still exist above and beyond its members, and thus motivated musicians actions.

Identifying Indie Successful Bands

Along with using strategies of persistence to combat skepticism about their chances for success in the music industry (and leaving the indie scene), indie musicians qualified their visions of making it to the major labels by identifying bands that they considered indie authentic yet industry successful. These were bands that appeared to maintain control over their art products while making records for major labels. That is, they appeared to maintain their indie scene membership while, at the same time, selling out.

"Like Babes in Toyland, or even Sonic Youth, something like that. Who wouldn't want to be in Sonic Youth's shoes? Big, and having the freedom to record and play, but not being a World Theater packing band." (personal interview)

Identifying these kinds of bands was how indie rockers constructed an image of a place in the recording industry for bands that were not willing to sell-out, a place where bands could be successful both within Chicago’s indie scene and outside of it. Sonic Youth might not pack the World Theater (a Chicago-area arena reserved for the top audience drawing stars of popular music), but they could make a living in the industry without compromising their indie authenticity.

Identifying Indie Successful Bands highlights a contradiction in indie rockers' perceptions of selling out. On one hand indie rockers were consistent in their verbal rejection of anything relating to the major label recording industry. Yet, since indie bands were actively trying to make it to the major labels, the identification of successful indie bands in the major label ranks was important as motive talk. Musicians felt there was a desirable place in the major label recording industry for bands that did not sell-out, and they could identify this place through identifying these bands.

Persistence Pays Off and Identifying Indie Successful Bands were strategies used by musicians in constructing "realistic" success goals for their own bands. Many bands stayed together five or more years without receiving any type of interest from major label executives, yet their belief in the motive talk of persistence kept them together. Similarly, the identification of indie authentic yet industry successful bands was important because unsigned indie musicians would try to model their own bands' careers on what they knew of these other bands' careers.

These two motive talk strategies were also ways for musicians to maintain their bands’ memberships in the local indie scene. Persistence Pays Off harkened back to an idea of hard work pays off. “We are still here,” the argument seemed to go, “because we work hard and do not give up. We have not, obviously, sold out.” Identifying Indie Successful Bands gave musicians an industry successful band, a band that had for all purposes become non-members, to mold their own careers after. Both strategies, then, served as behavioral motives for musicians and their bands.


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