"I've been in bands since I was 17 and I'm now 34. My self image is that of a jammer. A scroungy jammer. If I don't have a band and don't play shows, am I still a jammer? If not a jammer then where do I fit in?"
That's a quote from Chloe Lum's recent piece about her time in Montreal trio AIDS Wolf, titled "On the End of an Era," which has stuck with me since I read it a couple weeks back. It's already been dissected by other publications and blogs, and she's not the first person to question whether devoting a good chunk of your life to playing in a band is worth it. Still, I found myself revisiting it, her words rattling around in my brain like one of those plastic balls you put a hamster in.
I suppose it struck a chord because the era she's talking about, especially the early Aughts, is one I feel intense kinship with. AIDS Wolf is a band I saw several times. They were a difficult, noisy band that made up their own genres, like "abstract rock." Lum approaches the piece in stages, reconstructed stages of grief, and touches on every high and low a band could have: playing empty rooms, playing for the indifferent, finding like-minded fans and bands, struggling to make a living off your art and, as a female singer, dealing with harassment. One passage in particular hit me square:
"We were getting older and so were our friends and what's marginal at 20-something becomes much more so at 30-something or 40-something. But beyond many of our cohorts moving on, there were significant changes in what was deemed 'underground,' what could get booked where and under what circumstances. It seemed a bunch of 30-somethings in an extended van full of big amps and a loud as hell P.A. had become an anachronism."
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In the days after its publication, I noticed the article was being shared quite a bit by musicians I knew in Dallas and Austin, acts who had spent just as many years getting in the van, possibly playing to no one. Some relished the non-attention they'd gotten, and found it only strengthened their music.Those bands I endured sweaty basements and dingy clubs to see, the bands that challenged and engaged a decade ago, well, none of them are around anymore.
Is the Internet the underground now? You can certainly shape your image more easily, as bands increasingly find different ways to market and and share their music, without the help of a major label or invisible PR hand.There is a stratum of the Internet where the challenging and experimental can flourish, and there are a handful of labels and blogs catering to that set. Another telling passage:
"All of the sudden bands doing ads for soft drink companies or department stores were considered 'underground.' So where did this leave the actual underground, the one that couldn't sell cars/soda/computers even if it wanted to?"
This isn't meant to be a "let's save the underground" screed. That movement happens naturally. If muscle memory serves right, we're due for another wave soon, maybe via the musicians who were inspired by a band like AIDS Wolf. And that underground will look completely different.