Entrepreneurial Brutality

I recently came across a New York Times article entitled “The Entrepreneurial Generation”. The article, which was published last November, engages in a favorite Baby Boomer pastime: attempting to come up with a label for the current youth generation that’s as catchy as “Baby Boomers”.

Its author, the literary critic William Deresiewicz, argues that millennial youth culture is driven by commerce rather than idealism:

The millennial affect is the affect of the salesman. Consider the other side of the equation, the Millennials’ characteristic social form. Here’s what I see around me, in the city and the culture: food carts, 20-somethings selling wallets made from recycled plastic bags, boutique pickle companies, techie start-ups, Kickstarter, urban-farming supply stores and bottled water that wants to save the planet.

Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration — music, food, good works, what have you — is expressed in those terms.

Call it Generation Sell.

I am not wholly convinced by Deresiewicz’s argument, partially because I think his claims are too sweeping, and partially because I don’t want him to be right. As a member of the generation he’s discussing, it’s hard for me not to take offense at his description of “the
bland, inoffensive, smile-and-a-shoeshine personality — the stay-positive, other-directed, I’ll-be-whoever-you-want-me-to-be personality — that everybody has today.”

But some of the piece is painfully on-point. One sentence in particular struck me: “Bands are still bands, but now they’re little businesses, as well: self-produced, self-published, self-managed.”

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Somewhere, Greg Ginn and Ian MacKaye are smiling. DIY praxis, if not DIY ethics, has infiltrated every corner of the rock sphere.

Metal is no exception. Underground metal in particular has always placed considerable non-musical demands on its musicians, and the death of album sales has gutted the institutions that once lightened the load. Most of today’s metal musicians handle a huge list of
responsibilities:

  • Writing music
  • Recording/producing music
  • Interacting with record labels
  • Parsing contracts
  • Promoting releases
  • Booking tours
  • Managing tours
  • Driving vans
  • Designing merchandise
  • Manning merch tables
  • Bookkeeping
  • Arranging video shoots
  • Operating social media

Some of these responsibilities clash with the grim aesthetic of blastbeats and trem-picking. Cosmo posted about the strangeness of metal-band overshare on occasion. I feel queasy when I overhear guys in black metal bands talk about the importance of networking. And since metal musicians are often strange or unreliable people, they don’t always deal with these mundane responsibilities well. But such is the world we live in now.

. . .

If metal bands are little businesses, they’re ignoring basic laws of supply and demand. They exist in numbers far too great for the market. Consequently, most of these band-businesses throw their time, effort, and capital into a hole from which naught returns.

This state of affairs exists for a variety of reasons. Popular wisdom says that kids who grew up during the touchy-feely ’90s have more self-esteem than sense. Since my generation believes that we’re all special snowflakes, we’re inclined to pursue futile artistic endeavors. Our selfishness is in turn reinforced by the Dunning-Kruger effect: the natural human tendency to overrate our competence in fields where we are the least competent. Thus your illiterate friend who thinks he’s a poet; thus the glut of mediocre metal bands who waste their own time and money.

A cheerier rationale might go like this: though most metal band-businesses lose money, cheap recording technology means that they lose less money than they otherwise might. And since the world economy has faltered in varying degrees over the past ten years, folks in my generation may be rationally choosing to defer their careers in favor of a costly, but emotionally satisfying, creative pursuit.

This last factor deserves special attention because it reveals a weakness in Deresiewicz’s bands-as-businesses notion. He is correct that bands handle their own operations, largely out of necessity. But at least in the metal world, the vast majority of bands have different incentives from actual businesses. Capital and revenue are means to an end rather than ends in themselves. Bands need money, but they usually aren’t trying to make money.

As I’ve said here before, metal has largely ceased to be a vocation and become an avocation. People pursue avocations for many reasons, but profit is rarely one of them. In this sense, metal bands couldn’t be further from the business world.

. . .

What do you think? Is Deresiewicz’s claim about bands accurate? Why do so many bands persist in their labors despite the rough market?

— Doug Moore

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