punk rock and merchandising. where is the line? #soundcheck

January 18, 2013

Last week the Afropunk office erupted in discussion about the new Bad Brains hot sauce. (Stay tuned for our upcoming taste test as soon as our bottle comes in!) Was it a cash-in? Was it an un-punk merchandising ploy? We ultimately decided not, given that the band came up with the recipe, it’s a small batch, and we already know that organic gardening is a passion of HR’s. So they get a pass. But it’s a fine line.

So then what is the line between a punk band trying to get by and cheap Krusty the Klown style merchandising? I play in a few bands, and when we tour we wouldn’t be able to afford gas or even food if it weren’t for t-shirt and sticker sales. Does the fact that t-shirts, stickers, pins, and CDs are long established standards for band merch exempt them? No-one is arguing that musicians shouldn’t get paid for their hard work. (well, assholes are, but man screw those guys) And as long as the traditional industry continues to implode, that money’s not coming from the labels.

So what’s acceptable? For me, it comes down to scale and authenticity. For others in the office, that line was a little different. But I see a clear difference between a venerated hardcore band selling a hot sauce they devised in small batches off their website and a band like AFI selling cheap sweatshop made lunchboxes in Hot Topic. Moreover, the hot sauce has a sort of thematic link to the band. For sure if hardcore were a food it would probably just be a spoonful of hot sauce anyway. Whereas if pop-emo were a container, would it be a plastic lunchbox? (and I’m not trashing pop emo here. Say what you will but Jimmy Eat World and the Get-up Kids have some great songs…) Fugazi famously refused to even make t-shirts with their name on them. Is it realistic to hold all bands to Fugazi’s standard?

Since day one, punk bands have been calling each other out for not being punk enough. Crass more or less declared all punk bands insufficiently punk rock for their standards by not living in squats and dumpstering their food. (only Captain and Tenille fans pay rent or something…) At the heart is a concern about an inherently anti-establishment and DIY rooted community becoming homogenized and losing its identity. As punks we often define ourselves about what we’re not. We’re not the aggressive commercialism of bands like Kiss. We’re not the style-over-substance of top 40 radio. But ask someone what is punk and things get harder. Like Justice Potter’s famous quote about hardcore porn, what is punk or not is hard to define, but “we know it when we see it.”

It’s for the best that what is punk is open for interpretation. A community that’s all about bending and sometimes straight-up smashing rules would be pretty hypocritical to have hard and fast established rules. But we should never lose sight of the fact that playing in a band is an expensive habit and pretty much prevents you from having the sort of stable job that would make merch unnecessary. At the end of the day, we can rap poetic about abandoning money and mutual aid networks, but tell that to a gas station in Wyoming when you’re already 30 minutes late to load-in for your next show. So let Bad Brains make their hot sauce, but let’s never stop examining what the lines of acceptable merchandising are.

Where are the lines for you? Is there anything you think is totally unacceptable from a band? And on the flipside has there been any band merch that you felt was a great and meaningful extension of their music?

– Words by Nathan Leigh