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The Value of Work
Money has always been punk’s most uncomfortable subject. But is our historical idea of “fairness” still working for us?
A few months ago, a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of an Instagram bootleg shirt account. They were rolling out the preorder for a Texas is the Reason “boot,” and quite frankly, that’s not something that would normally bother me. I’ve seen what feels like dozens of “Instagram boot” pages at this point, and I’ve even ordered shirts from a couple of them. The best ones pay homage to our favorite, mostly defunct bands with either new or improved designs, and that creative work is what makes these “boots” a tribute and not a simple cash-grab. In my opinion, creative intention matters—even if the ethics are, admittedly, still a little mired.
When I looked at the shirt this particular account was selling, however, I did not see that. I looked hard for any sign of innovation, almost incredulously, but all I found was an exact reproduction of a shirt that actually existed, had an actual designer behind it, and came about with direct creative input from the band. What began as disappointment turned into displeasure. I screenshot the offending shirt and posted an Instagram story to my personal account, where I proceeded to vent:
At this point, this person is basically saying our creative labor is worth nothing. At this point, it’s not really that different from pressing our songs onto a bunch of blank CDs, reprinting the actual album artwork, and putting that up for preorder, too. This design came from our band.
I’d like to think we all want to be able to own the things we make, whatever they are. To be completely honest with you, I don’t own a house or a car or have any substantive material assets. All I have in this world are the things I’ve made or played a part in making.
If I don’t even own that, well, then fuck me.
The post was live for about five minutes before I chose to delete it. I didn’t want people to think I sounded “entitled.”
Whenever we talk about “punk business,” to this day, our conversations still seem to err on the side of reductionism—Major corporations bad! DIY good!—and for a long time, that dichotomy has in some part played a useful role in defining what it was that we didn't want to do. We bemoan the “greedy shareholders” and the “A&R people who don’t even like music” as antithetical to what we believe can and should be an equitable and artistic business model, but when hard-pressed to define the specific attributes of our superior model—and especially as it pertains to finances—the only unifying principle we seem to agree on is a vague notion that things should be “fair.” Of course, this raises the question: What does “fairness” look like, and are we all sharing the same rubric?
Case in point: There are very few people in hardcore history who can claim to be as accomplished and influential as Kevin Seconds, the lead singer for 7 Seconds and one-time founder of Positive Force Records. As far as punk icons go, Kevin’s contribution to hardcore is both foundational and contemporary; it crosses genres and generations. If you’ve ever called yourself “a hardcore kid,” whether you realize it or not, your life has been touched by his work. I recently had the absolute privilege to talk about so much of that work with him for an interview that will be published in full on Thursday, and one of the many things we discussed was the challenges of economic survival after a lifetime in punk.
“During COVID, I knew I couldn’t go out and play shows,” he told me. “I have my art, but it was like, man, I’m really screwed because I’ve spent 30 years in this band. I don’t have a great résumé. What does one do in two-thousand-whatever-it-was when they don’t have that? Well, one goes to work for Amazon. That’s what I did. And of course I got, ‘What is Kevin Seconds doing working at Amazon?’ Well, give me a better idea for a job I can get. I’m fucking 60 years old, what do you want me to do?” He laughed, then continued: “I got a little upset at a few people because [they were acting] like I was destroying their image of their hero or something. But this is real life and I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not afraid of it. I’m going to do what I have to do to survive. I learned how to do that, and I’m never going to give up on myself or give up on having a roof over my head and keeping my shit together.”
My first thought, of course, is that Kevin’s candor shows you who he is—and it’s an amazing thing. He is not interested in maintaining an image that isn’t true to his reality, and if that strikes down your assumptions of him, that’s on you.
But Kevin’s matter-of-factness regarding his life outside of 7 Seconds only seems stark because it speaks to the first problem we need to confront in this conversation: There is almost nothing punk kids avoid more than talking openly about money. We act ashamed for making too much of it and we act coy over making too little. We constantly belittle our worth and we often choose settling for less to avoid uncomfortable situations. We also, for some reason, don’t fight for ourselves the way we fight for others. How many of us who have posted social media support for the SAG-AFTRA writers strike have also signed punk record contracts from the golden age of physical media that effectively agree to pay the artist a little over one dollar for every $20 compact-disc sold—but only after the label recoups all their expenses, and then split between however many people are in the band, and then reduced again after taxes? The whole “artists are not getting paid” conversation did not begin with streaming, and it’s certainly not exclusive to major labels.
When it comes to fairness as it pertains to selling music, we often talk about “investment”—and we reflexively skew that qualification towards the label. “Label X is taking a bet on us,” we say. “They’re gonna spend a lot of money on recording and promoting us and they may not make it back.” This is true, and this should be accounted for. But as we usher in the first generation of hardcore icons to make it into their sixties, I wonder if we have also historically undervalued the “investment” that our favorite bands are making. Many of us, including Kevin Seconds, invested our prime career-building years into making punk records and traveling around the world. Many of us have been told how our music changed people’s lives, how it bettered people’s lives, and even how it saved people’s lives. Also, many of us now have résumés that will never make it past the first round of HR screenings. So how does the artist recoup on their investment? This, too, is an issue of fairness.
People who have owned or worked for the record labels that our favorite artists have signed with can arguably go find jobs at other record labels or traditional businesses. They have “real” job titles, “real” salary histories, and “real” résumés with linear career trajectories that are legible to HR managers. People like Kevin Seconds—who literally funded many of those jobs by making important and enduring art that, over the last 40 years, has easily grossed millions of dollars in revenue from album sales, touring, and merchandising—should never have to worry about “having a roof over his head and keeping his shit together” ever again. But this is not the way the current system works, whether you’re on an indie or a major, and the disparity is real. I can personally attest to the reality of knowing you’ve accomplished a lifetime of meaningful work that means very little “in the real world.” More memorably, George Hirsch from Blacklisted turned that reality into lyrics for a song in 2005:
I've put my life on a shelf while everyone around me found happiness and wealth
A tourist among my family and friends
They all want to know what goes on inside my head
They're all happy in homes of their own
While I have nothing to call my own
But what if we actually tried to create a true alternative to the mainstream music industry where suffering wasn’t baked in? What if we actually collaborated on creating a system that accounted for the personal and professional sacrifice of everyone involved? What if we actually tried to create a system that thinks about “fairness” in multiple dimensions and accounts for long lives? What would that actually look like and why haven’t we already made this our grandest project ever?
I keep going back to deleting that Instagram story. I don’t know where this idea came from—that asserting my slice of creative ownership and labor for a t-shirt was somehow a bad or “entitled” move—but it felt embedded in my psyche, nestled somewhere between “what you do isn’t that important” and “you should be happy they paid you anything.” In some ways, I think it all goes back to the five-dollar show.
Why five dollars?
For as long as shows were five dollars, throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, I never heard anyone ask. It was five bucks at the VFW Hall and five bucks at CBGB. It was five bucks for three bands and five bucks for eight bands. It was five bucks for touring bands and five bucks for local bands. We just took it for granted that all shows were five bucks, and if they weren’t—if anyone charged six or seven or, God forbid, ten—then damn, that band or promoter or venue must be greedy. We conflated “ethical” with “cheap,” and for no good reason. It’s almost as if no one ever thought to reverse-engineer a door price based on the expenses of the promoter, the cost of the venue and its workers, the needs (and the health) of a touring band, and the mere cost of doing business. Five bucks was literally a number pulled out of thin air, with all of the consensus and none of the rationale.
As a show-goer, of course five dollars seemed like the most ethical number in the world back then. But from the perspective of a touring band, it didn’t always feel that way. In 1992, when I went on my first tour across the country with Ressurection and Lifetime, the majority of our shows cost five bucks to get in. Yet somehow, with a few exceptions, even when we drew 200 kids, both bands still only seemed to be splitting $150-200 a night at best. Quite a few of us, myself included, resorted to shoplifting food from supermarkets and gas stations to get by. And whether or not we actually did “get by” is debatable: I came home from that tour literally broke and homeless, to the point where the van dropped me off in front of my friend Lenny’s house, despite the fact that his mom quite adamantly said I couldn’t stay there. Had she not changed her mind at the last minute, I would have slept in a park that night.
That’s not ethical, that’s just cheap. We didn’t understand that it’s not “entitlement” to say, “Hey, if everyone could pay an extra dollar or two tonight, maybe I won’t have to steal a loaf of bread from the Exxon Mart tomorrow?”
When I finally sat down to set up the paid subscription options for Anti-Matter last month, it became clear to me that I still haven’t truly disentangled myself from the devaluation mindset that allows an unfair system to go unchecked. This being only one month after the Instagram boot episode, it occurred to me that maybe other people weren’t respecting my creative labor because I was failing to respect my own creative labor. Which is to say I was demanding something from a random Instagram boot page that I couldn’t give myself.
I struggled with setting the subscription price, ironically asking, Is five bucks too much? And I struggled so much with the Founding Member option that I almost dropped it altogether, asking, Why would anyone choose to pay more than they even have to? But in the end, I landed on a system that I deemed “fair,” using a variety of tiers and metrics. I knew that building Anti-Matter was going to be a lot of work, and that this kind of work is not easy, but I had to have faith that if I believed my time and labor and love had value, that enough of you would as well.
After only six weeks, that faith has been validated by how many of you decided to show up so far with your five bucks, as well as a little bit shocked and humbled by how many of you chose the Founding Member option as a sign of your dedicated support. (I mean, for real, thank you all.) I don’t feel “entitled” to any of it, but if we’re going to get serious about building a fairness rubric that really works, we need to start believing—as individuals and as a community—that it is absolutely OK to feel deserving.
Over the weekend I met up with Oskar Rodriguez, a photographer I’ve been working with whose images I really love. I was telling him how the original Anti-Matter fanzine managed to grow to the level where I could pay my photographers, and how I was really hoping to build this iteration to do the same.
“I want everyone to know that their work and talent has value,” I told him. “I just want everyone to win.”
Coming on Thursday to Anti-Matter: A conversation with Kevin Seconds.
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