…figure out what’s important to you.”
Those words are from the chorus of a track entitled ‘Stop’ from Floridian rock group Against Me!’s latest release ‘New Wave.’ The album and this line are significant because it’s not just the group’s newest; it’s their first on a “major label.” A big step for a band that is known for being outspoken against the government, big corporations, and the music industry. Although ‘New Wave’ has received praise from industry critics, the major label signing has caused Against Me! to be the target of an intense amount of scrutiny from the scene it arose from and it’s one-time “fans.”
Akiva Gottlieb of the Nation, in an excellently composed and structured piece, delves into the band’s recent struggles. However, the writer’s opinion of the group and it’s front-man, Tom Gabel, show through quite clearly. With lines like “If you can’t stop a war, you might as well make money, right?” peppered throughout, it steers far from objectivity. Even flirting with becoming an attack piece itself near the end, as if the writer herself were personally offended by the band’s actions. Although she took the time to interview Gabel himself and include quotes from him, they are not without snide remarks about his recent arrest or criticism. She reinforces her ideas with a quote from another critic of the band’s actions, Mike Conklin of The L Magazine:
“when you say the same things over and over again, as loudly as [Gabel] did, into a microphone no less, to countless impressionable teenagers, you’ve effectively lost your right to just decide one day that you didn’t mean any of it.”
Against Me!’s position is that they are misunderstood, and the whole ‘sellout’ movement against them is a ridiculous waste of time and a case of hugely missing the point of their music. They push on, and ‘New Wave’ is as harsh as ever on the industry with songs like ‘Up the Cuts’ and its title track. However, many ex-fans critics feel differently. Some have even gone as far as to book protest shows against them, and others have published guides to subverting the band’s concerts. The justification is often lacking, however, just coming down to this whiney chorus from the peanut gallery of ‘They signed to a major label! How can they be critical! Hypocrites! Sellouts!” Ms. Gottlieb’s article, for instance, hinges on one sentence that the writer uses to justify much of her perspective on the band:
“Maybe the band’s subsequent jump to Sire Records–itself a subsidiary of Warner Bros., and thus a part of Time-Warner, the world’s largest media conglomerate–doesn’t pack the same epochal punch as Bob Dylan going electric, but the results again seem to justify the decision.”
However, it would seem this crucial line is horribly factually inaccurate.
Yes, Sire is, in fact, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group, however, despite the name, they are not a part of Time Warner. WMG was sold off by Time Warner in late 2003 to an independent group of investors and is now entirely independently owned and operated. These days, despite its ‘major label’ status, WMG targets its business much differently than it had in its past. In recent years WMG has focused on signing a lot of the more prominent independent punk bands to get into more niche markets with less focus on the mainstream. Groups like Rancid and Less Than Jake have found homes where they previously wouldn’t have been considered “commercially viable.” Warner these days has become, apparently, a welcoming home to bands who want major label distribution and production without having to sacrifice their creative vision and values.
I think this often goes unknown or misunderstood by a lot of Against Me!’s fans, and I imagine it played a significant factor in a lot of bands decisions to sign to WMG labels.
The whole thing goes back to the age-old ‘What makes someone a sellout?’ argument that any of us might have written about in our high school journalism classes. Unfortunately, as trivial as that argument is, it still doesn’t have a clear answer. Personally, I tend to believe that the claims against Against Me! remain mostly unfounded and short-sighted. I feel like it’s one more case of closed-minded people who claim to be open. An unfortunate side effect often bred in punk culture. People who claim a “counter-culture,” but ultimately have a problem with anyone making a living selling their art or wanting to disrupt something other than a local basement show.
While I see some values in the criticism, I think it’s unwarranted in this case. Certainly, there is a moral difference between signing to a huge independent label that only makes music, and signing to a global conglomerate media, or electronics, company that makes bombs for the government.
So in Against Me!’s own words:
“All the punks still singing the same song.
Is there anyone thinking what I am?
Is there any other alternative?
Are you restless like me?”
Sadly, I think “the punks” are missing the point.