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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1 comment:

  1. Very detailed, insightful and complete.