June 2012

Mindy Clegg


Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music by Mark Baumgarten

I found myself yelling at the radio today. It wasn't a misuse of history or a loud racist pundit I was uselessly raging against. The reporter simply said that the Millennial Generation started in the late 1970s. "No. It did not!!!" I yelled, uselessly, and loud enough to bring my nine-year-old running. Maybe a bit of sensitivity has crept into my thinking of the meaning of these designations, constructed things to be sure. Our culture is tied to the idea of youth, and generations fit into that narrative. The Greatest Generation is dying out, and all the important stories of the pivot point of twentieth century history -- the Second World War and the Holocaust -- are being collected, anthologized, eulogized, and interpreted by today's politicians, cultural critics, and historians. People are wringing their collective hands over the Boomers and their impending mass retirement that is going to bankrupt the country; generations can't decide if they are the first "entitled" generation or heroes for stopping Vietnam and segregation, all while stoned. The Millennials are currently being put through the cultural wringer for being incredibly self-absorbed and spending all their time with their heads in their iPods and iPhones, while being heralded for creating the most "democratic" technology ever known to man (meaning Facebook and Twitter).

This might just be my generational sensitivities showing through, but what about Generation X? The world we live in now was in part (and continues to be) made by Gen X, as much as it was by the Boomers and Millennials. Gen Xers spent hours perfecting coding skills on the first wave of personal computers. We kept numerous small businesses afloat with quarters plonking endlessly into arcade machines. We dutifully made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and did not watch too much TV, Mom, after letting ourselves in the door with latchkeys. Most importantly, most of us managed to survive Stranger Danger and Satanic Panic at the same time. Here we are now -- adults -- contributing to society, shaping discourse, paying taxes, and living our lives. Most of the time, we don't even ask you to entertain us (well, maybe sometime, with cute kitten or sloth videos).

But I'll stop personalizing this review and breaking the Internet's fourth wall. The fact is that this generation affected the world as much as the Boomers before them and the Millennials after them. Some segments of this generation proved to be quite industrious, embracing certain aspects of a new music genre that emerged in the austere 1970s (austerity innovation, as Eben Moglen put it) and reworking it for their own cultural needs. In the process they challenged the status quo in regards to the means of production in music. It is pretty much a given that it was disaffected Boomers on the outs with the symbolic peace and love of their generation that was at the heart of the first wave punk movements in Detroit, New York City (cities suffering from the ill effects of both off-shoring and white flight), and across the pond in London (another city with a large contingent of unemployed youth). But that is not our current working definition of punk. It became what we know it to be today largely due to how teenagers growing up in Reagan's and Thatcher's world refashioned it into a form of cultural production that worked for them. It is this process of refashioning that Mark Baumgarten highlights so well in his book about K Records, Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music. Despite the fact that by the early 1990s our generation had been branded as "slackers" (much as the current generation has been branded as deeply self-absorbed), at least a segment of Generation X worked hard to create work out of play and embrace the means of production in a proactive way. Not all of this was out of some ideological imperative, though this certainly motivated some of the contingent of musicians and artists attached to K Records. It was labels like K that helped to radically reshape the music industry into the apparatus of flexible accumulation that we know today, for good or ill.

In this homage to K Records, Baumgarten consulted the hero of the story, Calvin Johnson, along with his cohort of music fans who embraced the concept that making music was not and should not be the domain of an elite few. Johnson, the man who founded the label and still runs it, found in Olympia, Washington a group of music fans -- not just punks -- in a scene initially centered around Evergreen State University's radio station KAOS. He stumbled into punk rock via the Punk Panic narrative seeping into the mass media in the late 1970s. Punk shaped his views of what music should and could be: it meant more than just professionals playing, it meant that anyone could make music. Johnson's general knowledge of music grew during his years at KAOS and Evergreen State, and so did his desire to do more than just consume. He played his first show with his band Beachheads at Evergreen in 1979. He continues to make music to this day, having performed in numerous bands like Beat Happening, Go Team, and the Halo Benders. Through it all, he managed to create a successful business without losing his indie street cred. Although Johnson was never a superstar in the music biz, his importance, Baumgarten argues, comes from the way he mentored and influenced a large contingent of artists in the 1980s and 1990s, never tying these artists to a long term contract, always splitting profits down the middle. The book pops with names well known to music aficionados: Ian MacKaye, the Melvins, Nirvana, and Beck. Baumgarten positions K with such indies as Dischord, Sub Pop, Alternative Tentacles, SST, and Rough Trade, labels that provided a place for musicians outside of mainstream music and shaped how a generation of music geeks viewed not only how music should sound, but how it should be made -- boutique style. In other words, these labels nurtured particular sounds and political orientations regarding the making of music. While Baumgarten places K Records at the center of this story, it is hardly the only indie label that emerged out of punk to affect the larger music industry.

More than anything else, Baumgarten argues that what does give K a special place in the story of the indie 1980s was the "alternative boom" of the early 1990s, which put the Pacific Northwest on the map, musically speaking. One could hardly throw a rock in 1992 without hitting an angsty teenage boy in boots and flannel or a teenage girl with a copy of Sassy in one hand and a growing sense of the third wave feminism on the other. They came to represent alternative modes of consumption for the music industry, outsiders that could be catered to rather than ignored. So, "alternative" became a watchword of the music biz and for a time dominated the charts. While Seattle became the sound at the center of the noise, Olympia, Washington played a role in shaping that sound in the decade prior to the success of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."

The I-5 corridor between San Francisco and Vancouver (maybe even down to Los Angeles?) might better be thought of as a cohesive whole during the 1980s, with numerous bands traversing the interstate to play shows on both sides of the national line. Baumgarten shows that access to esoteric forms of music became much easier over the course of the '80s, but that was mainly due to the social actors found in this work, not just some vague market forces. In addition to consulting the sources of the day (newspapers, zines, and the like), Baumgarten spent hours interviewing the crowd found around K Records, making this something of an oral history. Although some complain about this sort of historical methodology for slanting our understanding of this time period -- punk as mythology told through foggy memories of youth more than an historical reality that needs to be understood within its timeframe -- what this particular oral history does is underscore the social processes in cultural production in the late twentieth century capitalist system. If it is a flexible form of capital accumulation, it is one that provides some actors with new economic possibilities, especially in the arts. The young (and not so young) punks who populate this narrative certainly saw the possibilities to be found in seizing the means of production, which is revealed through their recollections. Overall, Baumgarten manages to pull off a rather balanced and historically important label biography through the format of an oral history -- no easy feat.

As Baumgarten shows just how much agency the folks at K Records seized in their creation of this still independent label, something of the larger story of indie music in the 1980s was lost in the focus. Direct connections are explored, such as the collaboration between K and Dischord (Diskord), and other major indies are at least mentioned, even if there is not direct business between the labels (SST, Dangerhouse, Merge, and the like). However, the issue of distribution within the larger music industry is left to the side, except when it directly affected K. Alan O'Connor wrote a sociological study, Punk Record Labels and the Struggle for Autonomy: The Emergence of DIY, which illustrates the true alternatives that came in the 1980s with the control not just of the production of records, but also of the distribution of those records. It was the formation of organizations such as the Alternative Distribution Alliance, O'Connor argues, that formally broke the back of indie distribution alternatives crafted by the indie labels that grew out of punk. ADA gets a passing mention by Baumgarten in this book. That being said, perhaps his goal was not to illustrate indie music's day in the 1980s sun, but to show how indie music still plays an important role in the modern music industry. Baumgarten does indeed illustrate how independent artists have found success within the industry. Calvin Johnson is by no means a rich man, but he certainly managed to carve out a corner of independence for himself and his eclectic roster of musicians. Ignoring the larger story of distribution in the music industry does not detract from Baumgarten's larger thesis found on the back of the book: "punk isn't a sound -- it's an idea."

Love Rock Revolution: K Records and the Rise of Independent Music by Mark Baumgarten
Sasquatch Books
ISBN: 978-1570618222
288 pages