Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Why I Hate Rock 'n' Roll

I have been writing the odd piece for the excellent Plan B Magazine. In the next issue I shoot a very bloated fish in a very small barrel by reviewing a hateful Smashing Pumpkins documentary. Here's a more focused piece from last year.

Why I Hate Rock ‘n’ Roll.

A few years ago my band played a gig at a venue in Nottingham. After loading in we were shown the ‘dressing room’. It was effectively a toilet cubicle without a toilet. It smelt like a crime scene. Suspicious yellow liquid dripped from a split pipe. The walls were richly spattered with the usual territorial pissings of long-gone or long-dead bands. Triumphant notches in bed posts or the chalk slashes of convicts marking their time, the real sentiments behind the symbols were unclear. But with the charm of a second-hand butt plug, the venue manager chuckled to himself that this was all “Rock ‘n’ Roll”.

And then everything clicked into place. I understood. Jaded promoters, parasitical booking agents, decaying P.A. systems, toxic dressing rooms, non-existent riders, imaginary contracts, indifferent sound engineers and the continuing existence of the flyer-deal: Rock ‘n’ Roll has nothing to do with music. Rock ‘n’ Roll is a masquerade that is used to justify and sustain a deep-rooted culture of complacency, cynicism and ineptitude.

In a classic example of the British habit of celebrating all the very worst things about our country, we call a certain network of small venues around the UK the ‘Toilet Circuit’. Touring it is akin to a homoerotic frat-boy hazing ritual, but instead of ending up with a tattoo of your mother's face on your balls, you accrue masses of debt and lose a couple of band members to madness and suicide.

Like the street cleaner who loathes but depends upon litter for his job, Toilet Venues need you but would really prefer it if you just didn’t exist. You will earn your stripes, you will pay for the privilege and you will promptly fuck off so they can put on a club night after your set.

Every node in the Rock ‘n’ Roll paradigm is self-perpetuating. Take the example of performance fees. Most bands assume they won’t be paid, so they don’t ask for anything. Promoters know this, so they don’t offer them anything. As a result, most bands don’t get paid. Booking agents are supposed to remedy this, but even ‘signed’ bands can have difficulty getting a booking agent. Agents can wheedle money out of people, but they can also neglect to tell you about a long-since cancelled show and leave you stranded and penniless in Saint Malo, lie till they are blue in the face and flatly refuse to remunerate you for their massive administrative error. This then becomes An Hilarious Rock ‘n’ Roll Anecdote, a well-worn propaganda tool that plays a crucial role in sustaining Rock ‘n’ Roll’s image of romance and roguish credibility. Agents can be useful in securing you support slots. Support fees are a standard £50, but no-one actually knows why. Ask anyone why it is standard, and in the fantastically circular logic of all ignoble traditions, they’ll tell you that it just is. But whose standard is it? Ah. I see. Of course. It is Rock ‘n’ Roll’s standard.

Rock ‘n’ Roll says that I am an indie bed-wetter spoilt by fancy jaunts to government-subsidised civic art spaces in poncey Benelux. Whatever. Superb commercial UK venues like The Luminaire in Kilburn are the exceptions that prove the rule: You Are Still Getting Fucked. Old toilets will survive as long as people continue to shit in them. Masochistic musicians will continue to get bogwashed into thinking they are stoics. The enemy hides in plain sight. It calls itself Rock ‘n’ Roll.


Ross said...

"Rock ‘n’ Roll is a masquerade that is used to justify and sustain a deep-rooted culture of complacency, cynicism and ineptitude".


There is too much bowing-down to this kind of mindless iconography (tissue-thin as it is).

Very few people can actually tell when music/gigs/culture is heartfelt and not by-the-numbers. I can tell from reading this that you're doing it for the right reasons.

Daniel B said...

Nice post. Was that a Plan B piece? I really ought to get back into buying it.

Chimes perfectly with my experience of touring the UK - it really is an utterly miserable experience. Too many assholes who don't pay you, book you with totally inappropriate bands, don't promote the gig. Mostly we weren't even given food; and when we were, "food" meant being handed a tenner and vague directions to Burger King. A tour ends up like Supersize Me without sleep (though, thank Christ without Morgan Spurlock either).

I was talking to a Japanese band Deracine at the Croft a year or so ago (and it's worth saying that they were really nice guys and a great band) who were asking about booking a tour in the UK. I was trying to warn them off certain venues, warn them about sleeping on filthy couches in unheated lounges etc. They insisted that they actually wanted all that stuff though. They wanted to play really filthy venues and live the true UK punk experience - as though it was the next thing to do after backpacking in Goa.

Claire Grube said...

„Work! But not like an unfortunate or like somebody who wants to be admired or pitied. Work or rest, as it may best please to the community.“

Marcus Aurelius, "Meditations"

"L’homme n’est rien d’autre que son projet, il n’existe que dans la mesure où il se réalise, il n’est donc rien d’autre que l’ensemble de ses actes, rien d’autre que sa vie."

Jean-Paul Sartre "L'existencialisme est un humanisme"

You don't play for music agents in shit-holes. Either you play for the community or to self-actualise. If it were a question of sink or swim, well, as long as old toilets survive, venues are desperately in need of bog-men to clean them, as your picture shows...

Claire Grube said...

... so don't give a shit about Rock 'n'Roll, get there first and break the vicious circle!

Óscar García said...

The comments you made about this "rock'n roll" way to explain incompetence or lack of professionalism can be translated to my work also as it is part of the "rock'n roll way of life". I am a photographer. I take pictures in concerts and also musicians portraits for a music magazine in Spain. My magazine pays for my work, as it has to be. But it is one of the few that still pays for the job done. Why? Because a lot of people in the rock'n roll circus expect that you will do your work for free, for the shake of "being there". And the main problem is not what the other people expect for the photographers. The main problem is that there is a lot of self-called professionals that are longing to work for free and accept whatever conditions in order to "be there".

I understand completely your feelings about it. From this part of the mirror, it is the same.


Oscar Garcia

Claire Grube said...

I don't work in the music business, but with Spanish mills, and day by day I struggle with very old Spanish "toilets", sorry, traditions (mañana por la mañana). No support from my boss. Since I have not been seriously looking for a new job so far, one could assume that I'm masochistic, too. Maybe. But I think if everybody accepted given circumstances as a hard and fast rule, nothing would ever change in this world. I know that I'm moving in a circle with my efforts at work, and, as much as I do, pay rise is being shooted down consistently. Nevertheless I'm refusing to accept stagnation just because it is being labeled as "tradition" in order to veil ineptitude. You will find exploitation in any field as long as people don't protest against it. I was forced to do several unpaid placements in order to get a job, but I refused to accept a sauciness I had been offered by the employment centre: As a server at the food counter of the canteen of the University where I had been graduated as M.A..

I understand that professional musicians who don't make music for the masses are potentially vulnerable to fall into poverty. But is it really worth it starving, just in order to act the dancing bear in the Music "Circus"?

Steve said...

I'm a music student in London, Ontario. Fortunately my main focus upon leaving school isn't going to be promoting my own music as I have other passions, but I have to remark how damming it is to feel completely disillusioned by an industry before even attempting to make a living out of it.

Claire Grube said...


your candid comment is impressing, because of the truth that lies at its bottom, but as mine, it sounds like a sad song by Balmorhea - "Lament". Young people cannot afford to be completely desillusioned. You still have passions, lucky you! I think that is the best thing to focus upon. As far as unsatisfying life situation is concerned: We cannot change the industry, we cannot change other people, we can only change ourselves.

Unknown said...

Rock ‘n’ Roll is a masquerade that is used to justify and sustain a deep-rooted culture of complacency, cynicism and ineptitude.
- You should add 'exploitation' to that list.