November 2007

Eryn Loeb

features

An Interview with Anne Elizabeth Moore

Before it folded this past summer, Anne Elizabeth Moore was co-editor and associate publisher of the venerable Punk Planet magazine, which for 13 years documented the ideas and creations of what’s we’ll refer to, for concision’s sake, as underground culture. Her first book, Hey Kidz! Buy This Book: A Radical Primer on Corporate and Governmental Propaganda and Artistic Activism for Short People (Soft Skull, 2004) was an irreverent guide to media activism and criticism for the Young Adult set. She’s also the series editor of the annual Best American Comics anthology.

Moore’s new book, Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity (New Press), is specifically concerned with how big corporations have hijacked underground culture to sell products, and persuaded individuals who abhor the idea of “selling out” to participate in selling out their own culture (and to do it for very little money). The book makes an example of several companies – including Starbucks, which sponsored a zine-making workshop at Seattle’s Bumbershoot festival, originally stipulating that each zine feature the company’s logo; Lucasfilm, which sent out piles of DIY-looking swag in advance of the release of Star Wars: Episode III; and Nike, whose 2005 “Major Threat” campaign was a blatant rip-off of the band Minor Threat’s album art – as Moore tries to figure out what’s ailing independent culture, what’s up with its longstanding values, and whether it can be reclaimed by the people who originally created it. “The problem isn’t a lack of commitment to integrity in punk and DIY culture,” she maintains. “It’s that structures have been put in place to deliberately erode that integrity.”

I spoke to Moore the week before her book’s release about the dilemmas facing people who care about underground culture.

The book seems to have grown out of some writing you originally did for Punk Planet. At what point did you decide to write a book dealing with these issues? 

The original article that formed the basis of the book was published in the November 2005 issue of Punk Planet [“Black Market,” Punk Planet #70]. It was the easiest article I’d ever had to write, because I’d been thinking about these issues in so much depth for so long: it’s the sort of conversation that you always end up having with your friend late at night. When I sat down to write that piece, it came out really fast, and really hard. The reaction I got was so strong that I knew that it was the final cap on all these things I’d been thinking about for a long time.

With so many different ideas about what counts as underground or alternative or DIY flying around, I was hoping you could give a working definition of what you’re referring to in the book when you talk about “the underground."

I’m referring to a specific group of self-identified people who are really interested in talking about and making culture that comes out of autonomous, non-corporate modes of production, and also uses those structures and attempts to rebuild them from the ground up. When it comes down to it, the corporate mode is about accruing mass amounts of profit to better your holdings in some weird sense that I don’t even understand. The people that I’m talking about, and that I talked to in the book, and that I work among, are people who want to make enough money from what they do so that they can continue to do it the next day. It’s a widely accessible ethic that a lot of people tap into, and that isn’t associated with any one style.

One of the book’s central concerns is integrity, and you state pretty plainly that you believe it’s something that’s inherent to the underground.

I don’t know that it’s necessarily inherent to the underground. But I do think that when you are working on such a small scale, you are not working to get ahead, you're working to sustain yourself. Those very basic economic questions end up resulting in a lot of different ways of creation. And those concerns are about integrity: they’re about keeping in mind constantly who your audience is, what you’re trying to say, what your initial concerns are, why you’re putting this message out in the first place. And then constantly asking, am I distributing this work in a way that’s ethically in line with what I want to do? My big concerns aren’t like, oh shit, integrity is going the way of the eight track, so much as they are that we've forgotten what integrity means.

In the book you use Jones Soda as the original example of a brand that situated itself within a subculture from the very beginning, and grew the brand like it was a natural part of the scene. It wasn’t looking for the scene’s approval, because it defined itself as a genuine part of it. And of course, it did this as a way to sell its product. It seems like there could be a pretty fine line between this, and something that actually did grow out of or with the scene.

I don’t think it’s a very fine line. When you write a business proposal that includes, “I’m going to sneak into the underground and put vending machines in skate parks throughout the country,” it’s pretty clear that your business plan is to take advantage of a certain cultural community. Whereas, for example, home brewed beers would come out of a very specific local environment, and you would know about it because you had one at a party, or you were at an art opening and someone handed you one, and it would grow in a way that was about literal word of mouth, about friends actually talking about something that they’d experienced recently, and not about WOM -- Word Of Mouth marketing -- which is a technique that is designed to falsely create that sense of community support and adoration. Jones Soda was innovative. But it ended up inspiring a lot of yucky, really horrible things in our culture, including Tremor, which is word of mouth marketing for young kids, and is run by Proctor & Gamble. And it did open up these sort of autonomous cultural production communities to further opportunities for self-exploitation, which nobody really bothered questioning.

So, if you have to draw the line, if it has to be drawn somewhere, how do you decide what’s unacceptable and exploitative, and what’s not?

I personally draw the line in a really different place than most people. And keep in mind, in the mid-nineties, I was totally about Jones Soda. That was the absolute identification with product that I needed in the world. And I was a total plaid skirt and ripped tank top-wearing girl, running around with my Doc Martens on, who was also simultaneously really, really angry that Urban Outfitters kept ripping off the awesome new way that I’d ripped my tank top. And so Jones Soda appeared to me to be a very, very personal product that I could actually relate to, in a way. But now, knowing that was a strategy, knowing I’d been tricked -- and Urban Outfitters, for some reason, was doing the same things but wasn’t tricking me -- that’s where I draw the line.

That said, how much do you think it matters if the folks who are promoting these marketing tactics genuinely self-identify as members of some alternative or underground, as some of the people behind the Nike Major Threat campaign, or the Star Wars Episode III campaign [both of which the book discusses in detail] did?

The underground needs to be kept a self-identifying structure. It needs to be open and it needs to be something that everyone can access. The problem is that we’ve allowed the corporate influence in our culture to be so strong that now they’re identifying as part of the underground as well. I think starting to draw those lines and delineate who is and isn’t a member of the underground is maybe not the way to approach this, but I’m not quite sure what is.

I mean, I wish that there were a secret patch that we all wore. You know where it was like, “Oh no, you are actually cool! I can totally work with you.” But to be honest, I’ve worked with as many jerks in the corporate world as I have in the underground. I’ve also worked with as many good people on both sides of that aisle. So it isn’t really a useful definition.

On a practical level, it seems almost impossible to make a living and uphold this sort of integrity at the same time. It’s kind of the essential conundrum in all of this.

The point of the book is it's not naturally impossible. It's been made to be impossible by increasing pressures from the corporate profit-driven model. And so people should find a way to destroy that model and move beyond it. Specifically what that looks like? I don’t know… I mean, I have my own ideas and plans and methods for trying to sort that out. But they’re not going to work, I’ll be honest with you.

What do you do with the knowledge that it’s not going to work? If you have all of these great ideas but can’t figure out how to make them work within the system as it exists, how do you negotiate that?

I guess that, again, is the best thing about being a writer. I get to delineate those ideas, and articulate them as carefully as I can, and then sort of leave them for other people to sort out different ways of implementing. [Laughs] But realizing that these frustrations that we’re suffering right now are actually a part of a very specific plan, that these were things that were actually put in place to destroy dissent, and to destroy democracy, because democracy gets in the way of profits… that is vitally important right now, for the health of individual autonomous cultural production, and also just for our health as a nation. This plays out in so many different ways in the US right now. Like the US postal service agreeing to market Star Wars, when it was invented to be the distribution arm for print media throughout the country, and the prices were supposedly kept deliberately low, so everyone would have access to information and not be force-fed one single film series, through the government. Just articulating all the different ways this stuff gets fucked up, I think, is the stage that we’re at right now.

At one point, you give a really concrete financial breakdown of how much Starbucks ended up paying you, per hour, for the work you did on their Inkspot zine event at Bumbershoot, and for similar work that other people did for other companies. And you argue that if underground cultural producers are going to work on these sorts of campaigns, they should, at the very least, be fairly compensated (you work out that the industry standard for marketing work is $44.55 per hour). So, I have a sort of cynical question: It seems like the underground isn’t really cohesive enough to reject corporate influence in one voice. If someone’s going to take advantage of corporations’ deep pockets, might it not be better for them to be people with a consciousness and analysis about what’s going on, who can at least insist, as you do, that if big companies are going to use underground artists as marketers, they pay them at these marketers rates?

That's why organizing as a force that would be known as the Underground™ isn’t going to be very useful. We each define our own integrity in a different way, and we’re each going to give it up for different things. But when you start looking at the actual money of it, and you start breaking it down into these amounts of money, it becomes very clear that this is a labor issue. The history of labor organizing -- and feminism as well -- is founded on realizing how little you’re being offered in return for the work that you’re doing really hard on behalf of an entity that you do not control. When I got to that chapter I was like, holy crap! There is an entire generation that is being completely exploited for the profit of these very few CEOs who sit at the heads of these companies. And then it’s a radicalizing thing: we don’t have to do that work. The best thing in the world to come out of this would be a full-scale, absolute, all systems go strike on this kind of free labor we’re doing.

When I was writing that chapter, things with Punk Planet were getting harder and harder. I started collecting some more information on our advertising history, and [founder, editor and publisher] Dan [Sinker] started running some numbers about how many ads we’d collected. One day, when I was working on the book, I figured out in math that we were totally not able to publish the magazine anymore. That there was no sustainable community that would allow us to continue publishing into the future. And that day, literally, Dan got a check for half the amount we were supposed to get from our distributors, and he came to the same realization.

You have a lot of criticism for NYC street performer and activist Reverend Billy. I understand your criticism of his act [basically, that since he works mainly by creating public spectacles, the negative attention he draws to companies like Starbucks rely on brand recognition, and may still be interpreted as publicity for the company], but if you reject what he does as a way of calling average peoples’ attention to some of these complicated issues, where do you suggest starting?

I was trained as an art critic, so I write about all of this from the perspective that engaging in, discussing, refuting different aspects of, and really examining all these different modes of production is only going to be healthy for the products themselves. When I criticize something, it's still going to exist. There are really simple things Reverend Billy could do that would improve critical engagement among average American consumers.

I think it’s really damaging, and another part of the profit-driven model, to think that there aren’t also better ways of approaching these things. And so yes, it would be great if people would constantly re-examine Reverend Billy and his Church of Stop Shopping, and really look and ask, does that work? What other modes of activism are there that people can get popularly engaged in? There’s a project here, I think its based in Champaign-Urbana, that’s a reaction to the stupid Gap and U2 Project RED campaign that spent a million dollars in marketing money, but actually hasn’t really raised a ton for AIDS awareness in Africa, or whatever it's supposedly promoting. So a couple of kids are collecting things that are red and recycling them and putting their own logo over them -- just “(Re)” -- and putting them back out into the world as a comment against branded activism. That's awesome. And that’s something that anyone can do. It just takes a little more thought. And if you’re going to be an activist, you have to put thought into it.

You’re pretty critical in general of using parody and spoof. Do you feel like it’s just too early in the game to be making light of any of this stuff?

I think parody has been made really easy in our culture. And as much as I don’t want to support it a mode of activism, it’s definitely something that I support and work in as a mode of literature. If we reduce trying to change the world down to making mockery of parts of it, then we’re screwed. And it seems right now like that’s where we’re at. There aren’t great ways of making change in the world that aren’t rooted in saying “no, ha ha,” to something. Maybe it would be better if everybody was more comfortable with parody, if irony just went into complete overdrive, and we did just accept that as one of the standard ways of talking about something and moved on from there. Because then we can start having deeper dialogues about some of the issues that lie at the heart of the things we’re mocking.

Part of your problem with Reverend Billy is that he’s the author of books and CDs that are sold in major chain stores, which are establishments that he fundamentally opposes. Can you talk about your own plans for marketing and selling Unmarketable?

With Reverend Billy, it’s not a primary problem with his way of working, but it’s a central hypocrisy that allows a lot of people to discount what he says. And that’s where it really becomes an issue: if you’re supposedly one of the gatekeepers to a deeper engaged activist culture, you’re already doing something that occurs to people who don’t know your work very well as hypocritical.

It’s definitely tricky. Unmarketable is a book, it’s not part of an engaged activist endeavor. It's actually in many ways more of a document of previous, failed activist endeavors. I’m going on a book tour so I can talk to people throughout the country about the issues that are underlying the themes in the book, rather than trying to convince them to buy it from afar. So many things about contemporary media and the predominance of the internet make me feel like that one-on-one engagement has just gone by the wayside, and that it's one of the more effective ways of getting people to rethink things that they assume are commonplace.

You mention how companies mined Naomi Klein’s book No Logo for marketing tactics. Are you worried that the same could happen to your book?

I know it will, and that dictated to me the style of writing I chose to use. These issues aren’t clean, they’re not easy to discuss. Fortunately my editor is awesome, and was a little bit more tolerant of the different ways of kind of making this book happen. One of them was just letting it be messy: letting it be this thing that you can’t necessarily look to and quote from, and that I never actually say in the book, [fake pompous voice] “I am filled with integrity, so you must do what I say!” That’s not what this is about: it’s about exploring these issues, and putting it out there in all of its messiness, to let you sort out how to approach things.

Finding a way to end the book was the most difficult part. Because whatever I found or whatever I said was going to be held up as “Obviously she’s proving that the underground is still alive, so lets co-opt the shit out of that thing that she used to talk about it at the end.” So I decided to use this local hardcore band, He Who Corrupts; they’re hilarious, awesome, brilliant, longstanding Chicago-based musicians. I’m familiar enough with them to really trust where they’re coming from, to know that even if this book came out and they all of a sudden got a crazy record deal, they would deal with it in some interesting way. What I didn’t expect -- though I even say in the book that maybe they’re going to drop out, maybe they’re not going to do it anymore, maybe they’re totally going to sell out -- is that by the time the book came out they would have already broken up. On one hand that’s good: they’ll never be co-opted, they’ll live in infamy forever! But on the other hand it’s just another example of yet another thing in the book that was radical and amazing and has now been pushed out of existence by the predominant, profit-minded drive that the rest of the culture is heading towards.

You do say at the end of the book that you see “a renewed interest in naturally autonomous cultural products.” But how optimistic are you about any of this, especially given Punk Planet folding?

The book does end on a very serious note of despair. But it seems like people are starting to rethink these issues, and rethink this mandate that seemed to come with the Telecommunications Act of 1996, that we all must reach as many people as humanly possible. I think the questions that people are starting to have now are, who do I want to reach? And, who is my audience? And, who would get a lot out of what I do in the world? Those are all questions that I’ve heard from a wide swathe of people who work in all sorts of media and cultural productions in the last couple of weeks. So I do have a lot more hope than one would think.