All Things to All People Vol. 19
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how punk’s tendrils creep out into other parts of the world. A few weeks ago someone brought this article on medium with the headline “Shopify is now the single largest source of revenue for Steve Bannon’s Breitbart” to my attention. When I first saw the article’s headline I was horrified. To me, the article’s title seemed to imply that Breitbart owned Shopify. Sorry State uses Shopify (more on that below), and I was simply gutted to think that I was putting money directly into the hands of a right-wing organization like this. However, when I read the article more closely, I realized that Breitbart has no ownership stake in Shopify at all; rather, Breitbart simply uses Shopify’s software to manage their ecommerce operation. Further, the author presents absolutely no evidence for his claim that their Shopify store really is Breitbart’s largest source of revenue. After I actually read the article, my anger quickly shifted to the author of this article and to the people who spread it around. The article’s headline is clearly deceptive, and as a friend pointed out to me, it seems like a thinly veiled attempt for the writer to get some publicity and coin a trending hashtag.
The person who originally pointed out the article to me gently suggested that I reconsider using Shopify, so I had a decision to make. Let me be clear: I want absolutely nothing to do with Breitbart or their ilk and I would never put money knowingly into their pockets. However, from my perspective what this amounts to is that I am a customer of the same company as Breitbart. By no means is Shopify the only company that has both Breitbart and Sorry State on its list of customers… while I haven’t actually checked, I’m fairly certain that Breitbart uses social media like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to spread their message (and I’m sure you can find even worse groups than Breitbart on these services), uses Google, Facebook, and other advertising networks to drive traffic to their sites, and they probably use Amazon for their office supplies, wear Levis jeans, eat Cheerios, get blank t-shirts from the same places that supplied whoever screened your cool Disclose bootleg concert tee, and also use tons other products and services that Sorry State, thousands of other punk stores and distros, and pretty much every single person reading this also uses. Does that excuse us? Of course not, but it does put the issue into perspective.
Further, when I actually thought about what it would take to move away from Shopify, I was kind of shocked at how expensive and time-consuming that it would be. For better or for worse, Sorry State is no longer a box of records sitting in the corner of my bedroom. We have leases on two pieces of real estate (our storefront and another facility that we use for a warehouse and as practice spaces for a number of Raleigh bands) along with several other recurring monthly bills, and more importantly while I (Daniel, the owner) don’t rely on Sorry State financially because I still have a full-time job, Sorry State currently has 3 employees who depend on it for all or a significant part of their livelihood. We can’t simply shut down our Shopify site while we try to figure out a better solution, because doing so would grind us to a halt. Shopify’s software provides the backbone for our entire operation… it’s a rare moment when someone at Sorry State is sitting at a computer and at least one of the browser’s tabs isn’t on Shopify. There’s an enormous amount of data associated with our Shopify account, and transferring that data to a new platform would take weeks, if not months, and probably have significant leakage that resulted in problems that impact customers. Further, based on my research Shopify is still the best platform for us, so we’d be doing all of that work and investing all of that time and money to move to a solution that doesn’t work as well for us. All because we don’t like the optics of shopping at the same place as Breitbart. All things being equal, I would choose a company that had nothing to do with Breitbart over a company that has dealings with them. But, unfortunately, all things are not equal in our case.
So, I’ve made the decision to stick with Shopify for the time being. If you want to criticize me for that decision, please feel free to send your message to the store via (independently owned) carrier pigeon.
So, I just spent the past several paragraphs basically throwing up my hands at our inability to extract ourselves from the web of capitalism, but now I’m going to change gears and suggest that you rethink how you are ensnared in a very similar (or, really, precisely the same) web: YouTube.
I’m very late to the party on YouTube; it’s only within the past several months that I discovered that YouTube seems to have become the default service for finding and listening to music for many punks. It’s gotten to the point where the owners of certain YouTube accounts and channels have become mini-celebrities within the punk scene, none more so than the enigmatic Jimmy. Jimmy has become a real brand—for lack of a better term—within the punk scene not only by posting all of the cool new punk demos before pretty much anyone else (particularly demos that come from the fertile Northwest Indiana scene, to which he appears to have some close connections), but also by commenting extensively on nearly everything he posts in a voice that is peculiar but distinctive and engaging. I freely admit that Sorry State relies heavily on Jimmy’s YouTube channel (along with a few others) to find out about new releases to carry, and his channel really is an invaluable resource for anyone hoping to stay up to date on the latest punk.
However, here’s the problem. To my mind, at least, the reason that YouTube has become so ubiquitous as a music service is because nearly everything—particularly from the world of DIY and punk—is on there. Why is YouTube’s selection so comprehensive? Well, because nearly every single fucking thing on there is pirated! Indeed, looking for DIY punk on YouTube brings me back to the wild west days of digital piracy in the early 2000s when everyone was using services like Napster and Soulseek. In particular, the wildly inconsistent level of quality of the rips reminds me of sorting through tons of low-bitrate and low-quality rips on Napster, and part of the reason that “name brand” channels like Jimmy have managed to emerge is because of the consistently high quality of their rips (along with, of course, their well-curated selections).
So, why should you care that YouTube is to intellectual property as a Swiss bank is to money? I don’t really mind piracy myself, and indeed I even jump on Soulseek infrequently when I want to find mp3s or flac files of something I want to hear but isn’t easily available. However, to me YouTube cheapens rather than honors the value of music and DIY punk in particular. For YouTube (and their parent company, Google), music is just content. Whether we’re talking about the Pick Your KingEP, Citizen Kane, an episode of Cheers, a teenager’s vlog, a cute cat video, a clip of someone getting hit in the balls, or an ISIS beheading video, it’s all just content to YouTube. It’s all the same, and if you choose not to upload your band’s demo to YouTube I really doubt they give a fuck because there are far more people watching the other videos mentioned above. In other words, there’s a kind of flatness to the way that content is presented on YouTube that makes me uncomfortable. In theory I suppose it’s a good thing that everything is presented on the same level, but I think that music is way more important than all of that other stuff (well, maybe not Citizen Kane, but you take my point). Listening to music is, for me, a sacred activity. It’s my favorite thing to do in the world. And to put it on the same level as all of the completely inane and worthless content on YouTube is downright offensive. And that doesn’t even go into the fact that when you use YouTube (either as a viewer or as an uploader), you are putting money directly into Google’s pockets, money they only deign to “share” with you once you’ve reached a certain threshold of popularity (a.ka. when you’ve already made them a bunch of cash) and you specifically ask for it.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, think about the way that music is presented on YouTube versus the way that it’s presented on BandCamp. Now, as far as I know, the people who own and develop BandCamp are not punks (though I’ve noticed there are a couple of punks who write content for them), but they are clearly people who love and value music. From what I can tell piracy is virtually non-existent on BandCamp, so the overwhelming majority of content on the site has been directly uploaded by its creators and/or owners. While BandCamp has a fairly rigid structure for the way they present albums, they do allow the creator control over the header image and background, and most bands and labels take the time to customize their site to match their own individual aesthetic. The albums are presented with high-quality audio (you can even download lossless files) and artwork, which are the focal point of the page design. Albums do not auto-play or even auto-repeat… the point is not to “listen to something,” but to hear this particular album, this work of art. There are no advertisements, only links to other works by the same artist or label. Basically, when I look at a BandCamp page for an album it seems like they’re trying to set the scene, to get you in the right headspace to appreciate the music and transport you into the artist’s world. As a lover of music, I appreciate that.
When you listen to something on YouTube, by contrast, your listening is often preceded and/or frequently interrupted by ads, most of which are irrelevant to both the content of the video and the interests of the person watching it. The sound that comes out is low-quality and ignores “little details” like track titles and breaks. The artwork rarely matches the aspect ratio of the video, so you get big black bars that fill all of the empty space. On the right side of the video you have a list of “related content” that could be just about anything. Google has spent millions developing their algorithms so they’re pretty darn good at knowing what I want to hear, but the recommendations definitely lack a human touch, something that quickly becomes apparent if you haven’t taken the time to disable autoplay, which simply dumps you unceremoniously into the next video YouTube wants you to watch. This often creates a telephone game-style distortion effect, so while you start out listening to some rad old, obscure Finnish hardcore, just a few rolls of the autoplay dice later you’re listening to one of Varg from Burzum’s racist rants.
And then there’s the financial issues. When you buy an album on BandCamp, the person who uploaded that content (who is almost always the person who created and/or owns that content) gets the lion’s share of the money. Who the fuck knows where YouTube’s money goes, but I do hear that the cafeteria at Google’s headquarters is really nice. I’m particularly annoyed by the YouTube Red service that they’re constantly trying to sell. As far as I can tell, the main benefit of the service is that it allows you to play YouTube videos while your smartphone’s screen is off, so that you can basically use it like you would use Spotify or any other streaming service. But how much of that $9.99 monthly fee that you pay for that service is actually going to the artists? It’s unclear, but I would be willing to bet that it’s a far smaller percentage that what goes to artists from services that bill themselves straightforwardly as streaming music services. And, of course, when it comes to the wealth of pirated content on YouTube, Google just keeps all of them money that would go to those artists for themselves.
Like I said, I use YouTube, but I also think that it sucks. Whenever possible, I try to avoid things that suck in favor of better options.
Ending things on a lighter note, my recent musical obsession has been Krautrock (which is probably not unrelated to moving away from prescription meds and toward more, shall we say, “natural” ways of managing my anxiety). Recently a little collection of original Can LPs came in at the store and I decided to take them home, and while I’ve always liked Can and even owned a few of their records already, something about listening to these original copies of Tago Mago and Soon Over Babaluma hit me just right. I don’t know if it’s because they just sound better than the represses or what, but I was struck by the power of the drums in particular. At night my favorite activity is to sit on the little loveseat in my office / record room and just blast records while I stare off into space, and blasting these two records took me to a place I’d never visited before. The music is powerful, but also intricate… listening to it and fully immersing myself in it feels like I’m making my way through a dense but beautiful jungle.
Once Can hit me so hard I decided to start exploring a little further, consulting some “best Krautrock albums” lists on the internet and checking out artists I’ve heard of but hadn’t really given much attention in the past. I’ve probably checked out a dozen or so bands at this point, my favorites being the first three Amon Düül II albums (Yeti in particular) and the first Ash Ra Tempel LP. We actually had a copy of Ash Ra Tempel in the store a few months ago, and while I haven’t quite fallen in love to the point where I would pay the $200 we sold that copy for, I do wish that I had taken it home for a little test drive before I let it go.
Listening to all of this Krautrock stuff also made a light bulb go off over my head. I realized that I was listening to this stuff in a completely different way than how I listen to the punk, metal, and rock that forms the largest part of my listening diet. After reflecting on it for a while, I’ve come to think of the two modes of listening as episodic versus cinematic. My normal mode of listening is episodic, because most pop music is kind of circular… it contains a lot of repeating parts and themes, and much of the gratification of listening comes from recognizing a part when it comes back around, particularly if you recognize it well enough to participate by singing along or dancing. I call this mode of listening episodic because it’s sort of like watching an episode of a long-running favorite TV show. You’re familiar with the set, the characters, and the basic structure of the plot, and you get both a sense of security and familiarity from recognizing all of these tropes and you also get the pleasure of focusing on and thinking about the subtle differences in how these elements are utilized and combined in a particular episode. However, listening to this Krautrock stuff isn’t really like that. Instead, it’s more like watching a movie. Particularly if it’s not a simple genre exercise, watching a movie is very different from watching a TV show. At the beginning of a movie you kind of surrender yourself to the filmmaker’s will and trust them to take you on a journey to somewhere you’ve never gone before. Sure, you might have some expectations about where you’ll go and there are a library of go-to tropes for setting up and managing that journey, but as a whole the experience is longer and much wider in scope, and I think that it requires a higher degree of trust between the author and the audience. When I drop the needle on one of these albums, I’m essentially thinking “OK, where are we going to go?” and I get comfortable and just try to ride out all of the twists and turns that the musicians take me through.
Recognizing this difference between my episodic and cinematic listening modes has also led me to dabble in other genres. For instance, I quickly recognized that the line between Krautrock and jazz fusion is pretty fuzzy and permeable. I’d always kind of hated jazz fusion (though some of the genre classics fell into the “tolerable” category), but suddenly my ears were open to the places fusion artists wanted to take me. I’ve also been really into drumming and hearing complex rhythmic patterns, which has prompted me to revisit Fela Kuti, Funkadelic’s Maggot Brain, and the work of great jazz drummers like Max Roach. And from there it was just a short jump into the free jazz and spiritual jazz that I’ve always been more intrigued by than actually liked. I don’t think I’ve ever “gotten” Albert Ayler like I have in the past few months, and this mode of listening has helped me to get more out of Alice Coltrane and John Coltrane’s later stuff like Interstellar Space than I’ve ever heard before. The spiritual jazz stuff is particularly well suited to this mode of listening, because it seems like travel is a central metaphor in that music… I mean, Alice Coltrane’s most famous albums is called Journey In Satchidananda and the conceit of Interstellar Space seems to be a trip through the solar system. (Incidentally, it’s always bugged me that all of the shorter pieces on Interstellar Space are named after planets in our solar system… if we’re only exploring one star system on this journey, wouldn’t IntRAstellar Space be a more accurate title?) While I still spend most of my time listening to punk, I feel like a door has been opened to a whole different world that I can access any time I want just by spinning a record.
I’ll leave it here for now. Hopefully it won’t be so long until my next post.