I came of age in the Punk Explosion in the late 1970s, and played my own small part – as a freelance music journalist, public radio presenter, and ‘zine publisher – in the 1980s Indie revolution. That era has a lot of parallels with, and lot to teach the modern indie publishing scene.
Smash It Up: the Punk Explosion
Punk was a bomb detonated under the bloated, post-hippy music industry. For a few, glorious years, the lumbering dinosaurs of the major record labels tottered close to extinction. Then, Michael Jackson and Madonna came along, and saved the record industry. The record industry responded by shutting out punk, and the independent bands who had sprung up in its wake.
The Indie revolution was a necessary response to the, not just indifference, but outright hostility to the independent scene. It was a comprehensive boycott. Even artists as well-known today as Nick Cave and Henry Rollins were simply shut out of the mainstream music business.
It was time to innovate or die.
Punk was famously motivated by the DIY ethic, best expressed by a drawing in Sideburns fanzine: “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band”. The Indie revolution turned that DIY exhortation into a mission statement.
Thousands of independent labels sprung up. Most struggled, hand-to-mouth, to put out a few records, then disappeared. But some, such as Rough Trade, 4AD, Slash, IRS, SST, SubPop, Waterfront and Citadel, soldiered on.
Denied access to mainstream business channels, bands, labels, and publishers formed their own networks. Touring artists allied with like minds in cities they passed through, to organise gigs, find places to crash, and distribute records. Informal networks began to spread around the world.
Mail was another great networking technology, in those days. International phone calls were still prohibitively expensive (I remember the station I presented at having a fit when they got the bill for a ten-minute call I made, from here in Australia, to interview Jello Biafra in the States), but for the cost of two International Reply Coupons (IRCs), fanzines, letters, and home-made cassette compilations were mailed across the globe.
The indie scene grew – while not exactly prospering – and created some of the greatest music of the 80s, while fostering the careers of definitive artists. REM, the Smiths, Violent Femmes, Nirvana, Morrissey, Henry Rollins, Nick Cave – all were nurtured on independent labels.
It was a creative Wild West. It was all rough & ready, often shambolic, but by god it was so much fun. Sure a lot of it was technically inept and imperfect, from records recorded in living rooms and garages, to fanzines produced by typewriter, felt-tip and photocopier. But it crackled with energy and creativity.
Thrown on our own devices, the Indies learned by doing. It was an amazingly creative era. Nick Cave has said that, in a way, the mainstream industry did artists like him a favour by ignoring them, because it gave them a chance to learn, experiment, and perfect their craft, without interference.
Slowly, a lot of us got pretty good at what we did. In the end, the best just got to good and too big for the mainstream industry to ignore any more. By ’92, the time had come, and Nirvana shattered the wall between indie and mainstream.
Big business it don’t like you:
What the indie publishing scene can learn from history
Indie authors and publishers today are the literary punk rockers.
Like punk, indie authors are often rough and ready – at best. Like a sloppy garage band hammering out a three-chord blitz of bum notes and missed timing, many indie books are plagued with grammatical and even spelling mistakes.
But they’re fun. They bubble with energy, and overflow with amazing and often bizarre creativity. They might not be technically “good”, but, by god are they good fun. And the best are very good, indeed: as well-written as anything put out by a major publishing house.
Author and publisher J. David Osborne writes:
I’ve been having trouble enjoying “straightforward” books. I haven’t done the deep work of figuring out whether or not I’m a born contrarian, but I don’t even like reading books that are typically understood (by a majority of people, of course) to be “good.” Plots, characterization, pacing, all of it seemed boring to me, all of a sudden …
… I came to enjoy boring narratives, sloppy writing, wild tonal shifts, slim characterization, over-characterization, digressions, truncations, and so on. When I say that I “enjoyed” those things, I’m not being cute. I genuinely came to be more interested in mistakes and bullshit than in what we’d consider to be typically “good” stories.
– J. David Osborne
But indie authors, right now, are stuck in the Punk Explosion stage of the process. They’re overflowing with creative energy, but they’re being screwed over by the industry. Amazon dominates the market, and treats its independent creators with disdain – even as it grows fat on their work.
The next step for Indie authors and publishers is to stage a literary parallel to the musical Indie revolution of the 80s. It’s time to get smart, to find ways to get around the bloated behemoths of eBook publishing.
How that’s to be done, I don’t know. I’m only just getting a handle on indie publishing, myself.
But what I do know is that the Indie publishing scene feels like home, to me. As I get to know other authors and publishers – mostly through the medium of an amazing Twitter community, I feel like I know this place, already. The same sparking energy, camaraderie and sense of determination that I experienced in the 80s indie music scene is all there.
Somehow, somehow, there’s just got to be a way to harness all that, and turn it to building a better world for indie authors.