Perhaps it no longer is a valid formula, but once upon a time, a history of youth subcultures could be calculated as ART + FASHION + MUSIC. From the swingin’ Soho London that mixed pop art, British Invasion and mod fashions, the Haight-Ashbury scene of psychedelic poster art, hippie clothing, and acid rock. In the 1970s to the Sex Pistols used to promote the styles of Vivienne Westwood, while in New York, Punk & No Wave acts were just as likely to have members and associates have gallery shows throughout the East Village area. Indeed, right up to the 90s Seattle scene where Sub Pop Records, flannel shirts and the presence of Seattle-based Fantagraphics comic artists like Peter Bagge, Los Bros Hernandez and Daniel Clowes found themselves hyped as the grunge subculture, whether they wanted to or not.
In all of them, this was made possible through the nexus of art galleries, fashion boutiques, and music venues (whether dive bars, coffee houses, or nightclubs) that allowed subcultures to form. Even in local scenes, you could have seen them as gathering points. Bands & DJs would play at art shows, wearing the fashions of their subculture purchased at local new & used stores that catered to that clientele which the customer base would also congregate at bars & clubs to see the music.
It was a formula that worked for decades. Still, even before the current CoVid era, music-based subcultures have struggled for over a decade to thrive, much less new ones form of any longevity. While there are several challenges, even including ones that specific subcultures and geographic locations face, there are two main factors that arose around the same in the late 2000s that impacted and possibly broke the Subcultural Formula:
- One is obvious: It was the tipping point when internet usage went mainstream in all sections of society compounded with the rise of social media.
- The other is less obvious: the repercussions of the economic collapse of that time.
First, let us look at how the internet and social media impacted each of the three facets of subculture.
With the internet, the ability to transfer information digitally first led to the spread of images and the rise of digital photography and disseminating original art. Later, the spread of music mp3s over the internet led to massive changes in which art became more accessible to view without displaying art gallery spaces. The Napster-induced modifications to the music industry meant that live performance and touring became far more vital to a musician’s income than studio album sales. Fashion was not initially a concern, but over the past 15 years, the rise of online purchasing means retail stores have struggled to exist, particularly for niche fashions. Even a decade ago, I heard from owners of alternative fashion stores the frustration of people coming in trying out the clothes. Then they would openly state they could buy it online and cheaper and walking out. Eventually, that owner herself sold the store and moved to strictly online retail because there was no way to resist.
As a result of making all of this much easier to obtain, the internet devalued art, music, and fashion. Not just in monetary value but in terms of the subcultural value people were once able to place on it.
Consider: when there was a massive monoculture in place, disaffected young people had found comfort in music that did not reflect those norms. As a result, the only way to find others who might like the same music (and implicitly feel the same alienation from monoculture and desire for something different) would have to use fashion as a signifier of what they were.
Whether it was as simple as wearing a band t-shirt to the full-on elaborate outfits involving massive platform boots and even more massive quantities of hair care products, it was a way to signal here is where more of your kind is. The places they congregate at? They’re your places too.
The internet changed all that. Particularly with social media.
Subcultural youth of the previous decades had only their local communities, with any cross-community debate done through mimeographed ‘zines.
No one could find oneself on music discussion boards and hear about and later directly access the music itself of artists, bypassing having to wait to see if a music store has ordered in some copies. By talking with fellow online fans from all over the world, the sense of community moved online, and with it came the decline of the importance of making subcultural connections in the real world.
Why go to an art gallery when you can browse an online photo album at home? Why go out to the nightclub that is playing electronic music of whatever genre when you can now listen to all of it in the comfort of your own home? Why go through all the trouble of getting done up for the bar to see a band and risk having beer spilt all over you and dealing with creeps when you can do it at home? Especially when you take a few photos with your phone and get the same endorphin rush of knowing you look good by posting it on your social media from your friends or followers from all over the world?
Even then, this virtual approximation of what social interaction would not have been so dominant if the real-world experience was only slightly more expensive in comparison, but in 2008 something else happened. The worldwide financial crisis, where we will not go into the reasons why it happened here, the TLDR; of it, even more so than any recession or even Great Depression before, is that to quite John Lydon “The rich got richer, the poor getting poorer.”
One can’t say it’s overnight, as people began to report nightclubs suffering declining business earlier than 2008. Still, a new generation, the much-commented up millennials, had many of them come of age as the first generation to make less than their parents. This economic impact resulted in less disposable income for art, fashion, and music. Their cultural devaluation and technological ease of access no longer became a priority for people to invest in for personal value.
Why spend money on CDs when you can just listen to mp3s on your phone, the overall all-around value of phones that could function, like camera,s internet surfing, music-listening and video-watching. It’s a good deal from a purely monetary value. Especially as wages stagnated, leading to people who already live on their own remaining in their apartments and condos instead of moving on to houses and other communities. Younger generations are likely to remain living in their parents’ home likely well into their 20s and now possibly even 30s. Once the desire to have a place of your own, to go out to places to meet other people in real life, no longer financially viable, it became first a pipe dream, now often looked at with askance.
Without cheap affordable commercial real estate and more successful people with incomes from Gen X on down, combined with the internet devaluation, actual real art galleries, alternative fashion stores, and bars, clubs, and music venues became harder and harder to remain financially viable. They’re still obviously are examples of all of the above, but a fraction of what they were twenty years ago—leading to a lack of real-world spaces for people who can afford to associate and gather these places.
By January 2020, any one of those three factors in local subculture communities had been primarily reduced to the following:
Artists could pool their efforts to create pop-up art shows in restaurants, cafes and bars, but the lack of being able to turn it into a place for connections to be made them flash-in-the-pan events with very little long-term community building.
The decline of retail lead more and more to online sales, meaning casual customers could not meet other people at random in the store as well
And for music venues, the shrinking crowds meant many nightclubs doubled down on the rich with disposable income, creating a shrinking customer base. Then this reducing the ability to experiment with musical genres to lure in different crowds, causing them to shrink even further and double down even more on plutocrats.
Meanwhile, live music, devalued so much as an experience, meant venues often used the “pay-for-play” model for bands, DJs, and promoters. While there is much to criticize about this model, for many venue owners, it can be the only way they can guarantee not to lose money that night by charging venue rental, but the result creates a negative feedback loop.
A young band or promoter or DJ collective throws a night, not enough people come out because they can’t afford to or don’t feel a burning need to as in the pre-internet age, which leads to mainly empty shows. It leads to a bored bar staff that barely broke even leading a venue owner that treats the band/DJ/promoter as the biggest part of their income for the night instead of retaining and growing customers.
Then with all these challenges, a pandemic broke out.
We will not dwell on the long-term ramifications of these current societal challenges to the hospitality industry, small businesses, and artists, musicians, and other entertainers who have had their livelihood wiped out for the time being.
We are fully aware of how apocalyptic things might seem, but there are potential opportunities to grow out of this and to transform the Art+Music+ Fashion formula into something viable again.
Next time, we will look at what we can do to make this happen in some way again.