Recently, I finished reading Mark Baumgarten’s 2012 profile of Olympia, Washington’s venerable K Records Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music (Sasquatch) and Mike White’s 2015 book about Bristol England’s Popkiss: The Life and Afterlife of Sarah Records (Bloomsbury) and they got me to thinking. Not only did they both bring back a lot of memories of my nascent explorations and discoveries of the so-called indie music scenes around the US and UK in the late 80s. I was still young and exploring my tastes in music, books, movies, and culture in general, but what encountering these two labels, learning about the early punk and post-punk histories of the burgeoning “college rock” bands I already loved by then, as well as San Francisco punk labels and mail-order services such as Shredder, Tupelo, Communion, Allied and Blacklist did for me is teach me about independence and the spirit of doing things for one’s own. Sure, this idea is old-hat now. There’s even a TV channel named D.I.Y. that’s been around forever, but it’s not the D.I.Y. part that intrigues me as much anymore, because these days it’s all so much easier. As Calvin Johnson, founder of K Records and that guy from Beat Happening with the deep voice, is quoted as saying in Baumgarten’s book: “(People) don’t need the record store or a record label. They can just do their song on their laptop or their ukulele, and then it’s available instantly, all around the world. It’s really the most basic form of punk rock revolution.” It is really more the sense of community and connection that these labels (and others), bands, and zines created. There was a true feeling of involvement by being engaged as a fan – one that feels oddly absent now that worldwide connection is just a device tap away with the omnipresence of social media. And I’m not exactly sure what it is that’s missing.
When I first started ordering records from small labels and distributors directly via mail in the late 80s and early 90s, I began to not only receive the great music, but personal notes and correspondence. Usually, it would be a “Thanks for the order” note on the back of a release schedule inserted into the record sleeve, but sometimes it would be more in depth and personal, like the now famous letters from Sarah Records founders Matt Haynes and Claire Wadd. I remember directly ordering the very first SpinART Records 1992 compilation release “…one last kiss” and soon after even started to get occasional postcards in the mail from Lancaster, PA band Suddenly, Tammy! who had the second song on that compilation (indie version of sharing mailing lists?). Or there’s the time I ordered PoPuP’s CD combining Magnetic Fields’ first two albums and received the disc along with a letter from Claudia Gonson wondering how I learned about the band. Who would’ve ever thought I’d be carrying on casual correspondence with the artists from all over that had become my personal tastemakers. I guess what I’m saying is that these direct contacts with bands and labels and zines tore down walls that went far beyond what I had ever understood before. These people were doing stuff that was cool and that I admired, but they were clearly and tangibly real people.
As long as I can remember, I’ve always been the type of person, good or bad, who gets so fired up about the stuff that excites me – the stuff that gets me going – that I’ve always searched for ways to share those things with anyone and everyone. Of course, with me, it’s pretty much always been music. I was that guy who made mix tapes for friends (still do an annual summer mix!), wore concert shirts, left random lyrics on my school locker, created a fake radio station with its own music charts, did music for a handful of school dances, and finally a zine and this thing. I’ve shared this before, but my friend Wil and I were inspired to start a zine named This Wreckage. Like so many of them before, we wanted to revolutionize, if not the world, our little town. We wanted to create an open forum for people to make something that is normally done by professional writers and visual artists. It was meant to be freeform, and then, of course, at the end I would add a few poorly worded music reviews. What we found is that most people don’t care. Most people don’t read. Most people couldn’t be bothered to actually take part, because they have their own lives and interests. However, when people did decide to engage, we found it could be really powerful. We received cool music from new bands that I still love to this day (and new music almost always spawns more discoveries), we had a few fun adventures, and believe it or not, met some really great people – one of which is a dear friend to this day. Though we were small and misunderstood and really didn’t put forth a massive effort, and didn’t last very long, we still managed to reach a few people out there who tripped over the scrap paper littering the ground that were moved enough to say hello.
I’m not 100% sure where I am going with this, but even though we now have unlimited access to pretty much all things we think are cool at any time we want, maybe it’s just me, but that personal engagement doesn’t feel as strong. Even though it goes against so much what I have always believed about how everyone should have a forum to express themselves, perhaps things were better when there were more curators sifting through everything in order to present us with the cream of the crop. Maybe it’s because I’m old, but for me, it’s too much. It’s all too much. Everyone’s social media account is like a mini zine based on their likes. In a random five minute perusal of my Facebook feed I am presented with vacation and food photos (lots and lots of photos), news of a friend’s recent misfortune, two new bands I should check out, an old music video, some political statement followed by a lot of agreements and a few dissenters with little actual reasoned debate. What I often get is overwhelmed and frustrated and I’ve become one of those people mentioned above: no longer engaged with anything beyond the tip of my nose. I don’t want to be like that! I don’t want to be the one who tells people to not freely express themselves in any way to see fit. If I get involved with social media I want to feel connected and interested and inspired, but instead I simply feel exhausted.
It brings me to this position, where I feel like I either need to re-engage and try to connect again and push for a This Wreckage-type revival, in order to regain that feeling of community, in addition to the amazing music, that once was such a lifeline, or to simply withdraw like I’ve done the past year and not continue to muddy the waters with yet another voice (this blog) that no one needs to read, really wants to read, or frankly won’t spend the few moments to read anyway. That’s when I remember the frustration and feeling of futility that Wil and I felt when trying to find an audience for This Wreckage twenty plus years ago, which was a big reason we gave it up. We lost the fun. That’s what I miss most: the fun. This all feels like the complete life re-assessment and makeover that I’ve been mumbling about for several years now, but never seem to make happen. It has to happen before I completely lose myself in the dreaded “life on repeat” – working a miserable job just to stay alive (only to hold onto health insurance), something I addressed here, sadly, over three years ago. In that piece, Apathy and Exhaustion, I concluded that “This (turning around the downward spiral) feels an insurmountable task.” It still does.
This Wreckage art by Arlon Gilliland