100 Minutes of Silence
Nearly ten years ago now, an Auckland band called the Mint Chicks, on stage at a festival called Big Day Out, kinda just, well, tore right through a corporate sponsor’s advertisement with a fucking chainsaw.
The Pantograph Punch’s excellent new oral history of the band puts it better than my rabid post-teen enthusiasm ever could, detailing through a selection of distinct voices why The Mint Chicks were relevant and necessary to so many people within New Zealand’s alternative circles in the early 2000s. Green Day, Good Charlotte, Sum 41, and Blink-182 were the newly revised definition of ‘punk’ as far as the mainstream was concerned, a commercially complicit parody of the old. New Zealand had its own Goodnight Nurse, Elemeno P and Zed; bands who tainted the NZ on Air logo as a symbol of corporate New Zealand’s quest for the American dollar. Until a few years ago, being a ‘New Zealand Musician’ by the official definition meant a soft-yards song-and-dance of suited-up conference courtships and hot-shot managers: just like the big ol’ American way of doing things, only far less successful at achieving its aims. Despite a renewed mainstream interest in ‘garage rock’ through the likes of The White Stripes and The Strokes, the rise of Electronic Dance Music had left little room for Auckland guitar bands. I was too young at the time, but it’s said that The Mint Chicks broke out amidst a tense atmosphere: “There were hard and fast rules at the time – tie yourself to one scene, be deferential toward established artists, inhabit a specific venue, live in the central city, don’t play too often. [The Mint Chicks] broke them all.” Because why would you do anything that you wouldn’t want to do?
I could go on: There were interviewer-kidnapping, drumkit-flipping, speaker-scaling, building-breaking antics and more, but all you really need is a picture of a chainsaw.
Local legend insists that Flying Nun, The Mint Chicks’ label, once worked similar wonders. New Zealand’s ‘pioneering spirit’ was only as good as a colonial dick euphemism until movements like this came along: Four track tape recorders, bottle-slashed arms, sparkling songs about misery and death in a town of great chill – distance only made the ears perk up more for those around the world that relished in every new release on Flying Nun. In the Heavenly Pop Hits documentary on YouTube, former label manager Roger Shepherd summarises the general lack of commercial desire in the early days: “If we liked the band, liked the people involved… we just really tried to make it whatever they wanted to do.” Perhaps it was a known lack of career opportunities for musicians, or simply that it wasn’t known how a foot might get in a door, that meant imagination could go undistracted.
While no 101 on cultural favourites goes unidealised, the history of Flying Nun and The Mint Chicks are useful reminders that our best-remembered artistic triumphs are those that operated on their own terms. Whether out of Auckland’s career-brained hive or South Island isolation, creativity has never needed to be administered by fumbling bureaucrats or capitalist manufacturers. The sooner careerism is recognised as neither possible nor desirable (we live in fucking New Zealand), the sooner an artist can take charge of their own existence and do what they want. After all, now that we’re all supposedly mashed into a huge digital clump, what else can we turn to but ourselves?
Flying Nun’s fingerprint was long gone by the time the label signed the Mint Chicks. Its fatal 2005 purchase by Warner Music could have been foretold as early as 1987 when New Zealand’s only record pressing facility was closed, effectively tightening Flying Nun’s resources to the point it required corporate influences to step in. Sensing a threat to the label’s creative identity, Bruce Russell from The Dead C started his own label, Xpressway, to regain personal control of the creative/distributive process by a radically different method:
“. . . There’s another way of looking at it, and that is that there’s people that are at the same level you are, with the band and the independent label, everywhere in the world. Those people are the ones often doing the interesting stuff you want to be associated with, and you build bridges directly across to them. You don’t go up through the rungs of the hierachy, you just ignore everything that’s happening further up that chain and go straight across to people in the same position overseas.”
In these speedy times here on the Information Superhighway, the concept of a lateral network is very familiar to us. A mentality like Bruce Russell’s seems not only applicable, but more defiant than before: with all the more culture to be eaten by the system, places to hide can still be found. Decades of cultural studies in sociology has so much as accepted the co-option of underground culture as inevitable — it tends to occur to left-leaning historical movements in art, over and over again — so why bother trying to fight what can just be ignored? To cliché myself into oblivion: Just do it yourself. The industry, on the other hand, can’t. It requires your participation to thrive.
Well, as nice and idealistic as this all sounds, it’s a proposition that solves nothing for those who do choose to participate, and are getting routinely screwed over for doing so. Here’s how.
(Please note: for the sake of preserving the anonymity of various scene-centric locals, readers can trust that the below figures come from reliable sources, but should not be taken as definitive.)
Last year, bands in the infamous Indie Music Manager debacle (that figure again: $287,460) received only around a thousand dollars each for their names embedded in what should have been 1997′s worst CD-Rom game. When Beck’s discusses money with bands, a tiny fraction is offered – usually four figures — of a campaign budget that can extend far into the hundreds of thousands. One company even offered a band ‘exposure’ on its social media platform in exchange for use of their image. Like every other industry, advertisers have noticed that the young are without coins, and musicians without pockets – enabling them to pitch lower and lower sums while we must haggle more and more for a fair deal. Ad-friendly musicians are in such large and willing quantities that it won’t be long before all they’ll stand to gain from licensing deals is the privilege of being bought.
Whether your ideal is mere financial security as a musician or something more idealistic, neither will be achieved if this trend continues to go unquestioned. (And much to the annoyance of anon-commenters with various imaginative pseudonyms, soapboxers like myself might continue to sanctimoniously whinge.) Whoever loses, they win.
My hope is that more public discussion might make clear to us, for once, which side we as individuals stand on. Those that oppose co-option will be unified in our dissent; those that are more tolerant will gain a better bargaining position by naming their price and refusing the short-term gains that result in them being ripped off. So long as more bands think for themselves and act on their own terms — not on the whims of alcohol companies, or the music industry, or the state — more power will be in their deserving hands. And at the end of the day, if I’m just making a public fool of myself, well hey, at least I’m not doing it for a buck.
I just hope I’m not the only one.
“The making of our culture needs less private ownership and fewer seigniorial relationships, not more of them,” says Bruce Russell, stating the obvious. “But do I expect anyone to care?” He went on. “Not really.”
“There is no rebellion,” goes a line in Blam Blam Blam’s ‘There Is No Depression In New Zealand‘, a song that will never lose its sarcastic bite so long as apathy exists. But this is the only line that has come true. No matter how much music is romanticised as a magical transformative substance, it’s being used less and less to interrogate our cultural environment. Yet, for the structure, it has always been a political tool: the NZ Music Month stamp is, in effect, a promotion of New Zealand nationalism as much as a sports game, and it “can be used to consolidate power in the same way a tank or a missile can.” Why else would a beer company slap its sticker on top?
Knowing this, you’d think more would people protest the integration of the alcohol industry with music. Or its state endorsement. Or that industry figureheads knowingly encourage it without so much as informing the bands in the process. Instead, we surrender to the repressive norms in New Zealand culture that allow exploitation to exist. ‘Independent’ as a tag in music usually carries an implication of individualism and integrity, yet the thought of protest within even this sector is met with hostility, if not outright resentment. While those of us in alternative circles feel comforted by the thought that self-awareness spares us from national expectations like stoicism, our ironic distance and detachment only means we suffocate our emotions in the same way. All our potential political energy goes into narcissistic self-disgust at the moment we let our emotional guard down. A culture reeling from the mirror.
If there is one thing this proves, it’s that we’re brilliant skeptics. Even though it’s in our hands to scrutinise responsibly, we choose to reserve our dissent for each other, fulfilling all the insecurities that alcohol companies capitalise upon. It’s far easier to accept a passive existence without self-confrontation, as we ready ourselves for more consumption, and we all roll our eyes as we go along. The thing about eye-rolling, though, is that it tends to happen when you die.
Alcohol abuse. A high road toll. An even higher suicide rate. Sexual assault. Public and domestic violence. Work and Income. Police corruption. Paul Henry. John Banks. Paula Bennett. Colonial racist fallout. Suppression of minority groups. Sexism. Institutionalised ignorance. Normalised prejudices. Apathy.
“She’ll be right, mate.”
[We all fed on something weird. No-one cared.]
“They label our generation ‘apathetic’, but really we just don’t have any way of figuring out what the first thing is we’re supposed to do to change anything,” said Ruban Nielson from the Mint Chicks and Unknown Mortal Orchestra when I interviewed him back in 2012. “Apart from,” he continued, “destroying everything.” There’s only so much an individual can do to challenge a system so big, in a culture that does little to boost the boldest. For all the transcendence of a thing like music, you can only wonder how long we can depend on art to pick up the slack of the state in a politically conservative atmosphere.
Sounds awfully pessimistic, but where does one find hope? In my exchange with Hamish Kilgour, drummer of a band with a song called ‘Anything Could Happen’, he could only offer as much as a digital shrug. “More collapse will bring on change, I guess.” In the meantime, it might simply be a matter of treating the symptoms while you can; acting as damage control and mopping up after a messy system. Inevitably, the structure will cave, and it will drag everything down with it, except, if anyone’s lucky, our music. This doesn’t place any power in our hands, but maybe that’s what we always knew.
It’s assumed that resistance is useless when those in charge are too numerous and influential to be overthrown. In a time when Baby Boomers rule the world, that Mint Chicks title ‘So Many of You, So Few Of Us’ resonates. But at least we have an enemy in common — and it’s an enemy that can’t even run its own computer systems. The only thing we have to worry about is ourselves: if we’re a generation characterised by blinding indifference, think of the consequences when we’re running the world with our silicon grasp on digital technology. There’s something to worry about. In the meantime, we have music: not a currency, but a language. A back-and-forth: Us idealists, inspired by music, will continue to have our ideals, and dissenters will continue to cringe in response, horrified at the rediscovery of their own nervous system.
I don’t mind.
Background hiss is better than silence.