For the past two weeks, in what the world can only hope will become a recurring theme, the inimitable Dan Sinker has been a guest host on the design-focused podcast Let’s Make Mistakes, one of the few podcasts that I listen to religiously (and one of the few that’s really worth a damn at all.) While it’s been a treat to listen to Dan ramble on at length about goats and the crushing disappointment of @horse_ebooks, the episodes inevitably get to a point where I’m screaming inside my head for Dan to bring up how much the topic at hand relates to punk rock. And without fail, Dan delivers.
It’s rather interesting–and I think quite appropriate–to view the current tech and startup gold rush through the lens of what happened to punk in the 1990s and early 2000s, and I doubt anyone had a better seat for that than Dan Sinker.
From 1994-2007, Dan was the publisher a magazine called Punk Planet. I had a subscription for several years, and I did my best to read every issue cover-to-cover. It was a magazine that represented what I was about, and it was a welcome relief against the meathead punk rags like Maximumrocknroll. It stood for progress in a realm of destruction, for education in a realm of ignorance, and with just enough emphasis on design and presentation to make it feel like something that really mattered. It spoke to the punk that I identified with–not the nihilistic boots and braces bullshit, but the thoughtful, often abrasive music that was content to exist well outside the system. In it, I read interviews with my heroes–people like Steve Albini, Ian MacKaye, the Ex, Neurosis and on and on. These were people impacting the world on their own terms, and who impacted my life through their own thoughts, words, and music.
Like many readers of Punk Planet, I had a band of my own. We played countless tours up and down the east coast and even made it to Europe once. For a decade, we played every show we could for anyone who would have us. We drove home all night from out of state shows and went into work the next day. We slept on floors, on porches, and in the van, and on every tour we broke even. Once we’d gotten good, we put out some records and those records got reviewed in Punk Planet. And then we decided to help other bands in our area by starting a label and taking out ads in Punk Planet and getting their records reviewed there too. And I still have a lot of those records in my basement to prove it.
And it was awesome. We got to be a part of something we believed in. None of us had desires to strike it rich and be famous; we all had day jobs and responsibilities. We busted our ass for this thing called punk because it offered us the opportunity to contribute to something bigger than us and an opportunity to have an impact on the people we met along the way.
Punk Planet’s story arc offers a particularly insightful view of what was the 4th or 5th wave of punk (who can keep track of it all, really?). The magazine, and the music it covered, emerged out of rebellion against the first wave of big money in punk and alternative music–the Nirvana boom cycle–and sputtered out about the time that the second wave of big money started to corrupt that rebellion. In 1991, the fabled Year Punk Broke, the corporate music industry realized that with the commercial success of Nirvana (lured by major label loss-leaders Sonic Youth) a vast new musical territory lay waiting to be colonized. For the next few years, any band who remotely looked like Nirvana, was from or had ever been to the Pacific Northwest, or even had similar letters in their name was snatched up and signed to a handsome major label recording deal. Most of these bands went nowhere, and a lot of them walked away with nothing to show for it, not even a record. And from the wake of this boom, a new guard emerged.
The era of punk that followed stood against what was viewed as a corporate corruption of something they held sacred. Their trade was in antiestablishmentism, approachability, and the stomach for relentless touring. Where Candlebox had MTV and a $60,000 video in their arsenal, these bands had a $600 van and a mailing list.
But eventually, corporate money outran their intents. Soon you had so-called independent labels with similar assets and corporate structure to the labels they were supposed to be an alternative to. You started seeing the same senseless waste from them too. And several of those labels were just new, approachable brands owned by the corporate interests they were branded to oppose. (For interesting parallels, see the greenwashing of the food industry–spoiler alert: Kashi is really Kellogg’s and Tom’s is really Colgate-Palmolive.)
This second wave of money was a lot more confusing than the first. Unlike the corporate suits we’d demonized the first go around, this new wave was a reflection of us. It was things like Warped Tour, Hot Topic, and Green Day the musical. A lot of the people involved in creating these things had slept on the same floors as I had. And a lot of people who I admire and respect became involved with the mall-ification of this thing we all worked to build.
Much like the cash grab that’s currently going on in the tech industry, this new wave of money in punk created a landscape that disincentivized its players to create something meaningful and incentivized them instead to go charging toward the purse. The sheer volume of indistinguishable metalcore bands that happened in the mid-2000s is unfathomable, much like the volume of social sharing or to-do list apps is today.
Like punk rock, the internet was born of the promise that we could do better things outside of corporate systems of distribution and control. With the internet, we could create environments that would enrich our own humanity and enhance our lives and the lives of others. And we could do it on our own, outside the will of commercial interests. Corporate monoliths like GE, NBCUniversal, and Clear Channel were the enemy, and we banded together to create unprecedented new models for living and learning together, from the freedom and power of open-source software to the hive mind of Wikipedia.
With so much attention in one place, big money was sure to get involved. But when it did, it wasn’t the multinational corporations storming the beaches and seizing back control. It was a new guard that had emerged from within. It was Google, and Amazon, and Yahoo!, and Apple, and Facebook and Twitter. These are companies that are a reflection of us–companies built to service the needs of a small socioeconomic slice of the the world in this new internet age. These are services and products that I use daily. They add value to my life and the lives of people like me, and out of that value, they’ve built new empires with unprecedented wealth.
And like the waves of money did with punk rock, they’ve created a landscape where the energy of innovation in technology has been largely redirected towards pandering to these new behemoths in hopes that enough cash might fall out of their pockets to allow you to retire at 24. It’s an environment with so much money and so much unsustainable potential, that a napkin idea can turn into a million-dollar VC-funded company designed primarily to be bought by Yahoo! or Google almost overnight. Instagram’s billion-dollar buyout was the Nevermind moment in technology, the moment where everyone realized that the scale of success was a lot higher than they ever thought possible. And piles of cash have a funny way of changing people’s focus.
The technologies that we’ve created afford us unprecedented new powers for positive change. It’s not only possible, but even relatively easy for us to make a significant impact on the lives of others and to innovate in ways that lead to a greener, more sustainable, and more equitable world. But those causes tend to come off as some hippie-assed charity case, and the minds and money that could make them a reality seem fixated on helping us share photos of our food with each other, ignoring that a substantial part of the world doesn’t have food to share.
We’re at a point in time where good design could literally change the world. But it seems like the starting point for every ‘next big thing’ isn’t an idea that could change the world, but an idea that could get funded and flipped. So you’re gonna disrupt the word processing space? The whole continent of Africa applauds your valiant efforts.
I’m fortunate to have stumbled into a career as a web designer. As someone whose ideals were shaped by a punk rock worldview, it suits me quite well. The establishment of an open internet and the advances in communication technology of the last half decade or so represent the greatest advancement for freedom, knowledge and equality since the printing press. And every day, I’m stoked that I get to work on making that even better. I purposefully choose projects that I believe in, and seeing how my efforts can positively impact the world around me is what gets me up in the morning. And I get to make a living that way.
It’s a shame that the incentives in this industry are so heavily weighted towards pushing our best and brightest to create something normal that placates the already-fortunate when the power to do something unbelievable is sitting right there at our fingertips. The world would be better served if designers put down those Dieter Rams books and picked up a Buckminster Fuller or Victor Papanek book instead.
And with that, I’ll leave you with a song from my good friends Coliseum: