Fighting Crap With Crap: Stuart Schrader on Shit-Fi
Here is an interview published in the April 2009 issue of Maximum Rocknroll, which was a special issue dedicated to fanzines. This interview is based on a longer interview to be published in French in Ratcharge fanzine, which expands upon the ideas behind the Shit-Fi project and goes into some detail about me personally. Once that interview has been published, I will post a link to the English text of it. I'm not including this interview out of vanity; rather, I hope it can elucidate some of the motivations and intentions of this online magazine, as well as explain how I see its situation within the broader context of underground media.
MRR: In MRR #240, in May 2003, you and four friends who also were writing zines at the time discussed the state of music zines in a roundtable. One of the points of discussion was the difference between print zines and “webzines,” and all the discussants, including you, came down on the side of print. Now, your “webzine” has replaced the print zine you were publishing in 2003. What happened?
SS: Overall, I still agree with much of what I (and the others) described as the state of punk music zines in 2003. But within a short period of time, a great deal has changed. The first point I would like to emphasize is that I don’t think the paper-versus-online question must be resolved into an either/or situation. It may be that the numbers of paper zines have declined and those of online zines have skyrocketed, but there is no direct link between these two statistics simply because most of the online zine writers, or bloggers, were not previously paper zine writers. So the framing question of the 2003 music-zine roundtable—“What happened to music zines?”—is answered clearly by saying that music zines may have declined in number from the 80s to the early 00s, but now the number of people writing about punk music has vastly increased in the online world. Because online zines and paper zines accomplish different things, we need to think about them separately and not as in “competition” per se. I know many people do see the two as competing, but that’s the cruel perpetual hangover of capitalist/market ideology speaking and does not reflect some inherent concrete conditions. The two can coexist, hypothetically, either as one unitary project (a zine with a website) or as two separate projects by separate authors (a blog and a zine covering the same subject). One thing I have noticed is that people who wrote music zines in the 80s and quit are re-emerging online—and doing some of the better blogs out there. Also, I think, some bloggers have subsequently decided to put out zines for the first time as a result of their experience blogging, such as Distort Hackney.
I had originally intended Shit-Fi to be a paper publication complemented by a website, but it has not developed that way. In fact, now, although I do dream of compiling its articles into a book some day, the specificities of the online medium would preclude converting what I have already written into a paper publication without something actually quite tangible being lost. By this, of course, I am referring to the ease of sharing music online, which goes to the heart of why Shit-Fi exists in the form it does and what we discussants in that roundtable collectively failed to diagnose or predict in 2003. Back then, online music-sharing was still in its relative infancy, and it was dependent on file-sharing networks like Napster and Soulseek. Spurred by legal constraints, this form evolved into something so mind-blowingly basic that I can’t quite understand why it didn’t precede those services: websites like Yousendit and Rapidshare. These sites suddenly made it extremely easy to download full albums without the uploader using a lot of personal bandwidth or the downloader needing specialized software. Now, Shit-Fi does not use these services, but I do feel as though their emergence caused an enormous light-bulb to shine brightly atop spiky heads around the globe circa 2006. Suddenly, one could quite easily write about a certain record and give readers access to it for free. Today, not being able to find something online, even the most obscure rehearsal tapes, seems extraordinary. So the game fundamentally changed, and I am sure that many people today find paper zines lacking exactly because they rely on the writer’s craft to evoke the music, which is actually quite difficult. The flipside, of course, is that there are legions of terrible blogs out there that do not contribute anything new to the conversation about music and share music the blogger himself or herself downloaded from another blog. To think that this sort of unoriginal garbage could replace the vibrant zine culture punk created and still maintains is farcical.
MRR: Why do you think you did not see this shift on the horizon?
SS: Because I wasn’t thinking about “The Manifesto of the Communist Party.” Quite clearly, the evolution of the web in a very short period of time proves Marx and Engels accurate. They famously wrote (and this is one of the finest paragraphs of writing in the history of humanity—and reflects their admiration for the achievements of the bourgeoisie):
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society . . . Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
What, if not the constant revolutionizing of the instruments of production, explains the development of these various tools? When, in 2003, we argued that the finest websites of the day, in design terms, were likely to be the most commercial, we were not attuned to the rapidity with which these sites would become obsolescent. Now, one with a good eye could probably track the vogue design elements of 2003, 2004, 2005, etc., and note how quickly they have become outmoded and ugly—reflecting “everlasting uncertainty and agitation.” Punk’s aesthetic, writ large, has proven itself timeless even though it was originally a very specific, historically situated aesthetic reaction. So I think that what I understood in 2003 was that commercial web design was mostly something punk should have been rebelling against, but not the dialectical reversal of this position, which is that punk’s aesthetic, translated to the web, could provide a continuity against the always-imminent obsolescence that commercial websites face. Does this mean that I think Shit-Fi has a “punk” aesthetic? Well, perhaps only time will tell. What we need to avoid is thinking that because the web cannot reproduce, say, the aesthetic of a zine like Sic Teen, that it is inherently an unpunk medium. Apples and oranges. Cider and glue.
MRR: Moments ago, you invoked the “vibrant zine culture punk created and still maintains.” Didn’t zine culture precede punk, and is it possible that it has outlasted its usefulness?
SS: It is certainly true that zine culture predated punk, but I would argue that the latent radical politics of affording the margins of the culture to speak and communicate with each other was made overt by punk. Punk, or perhaps more specifically, hardcore, emerged at a historical moment when the mainstream culture industry was consolidating with great rapidity on both micro and macro scales, and outsider voices, which had emerged in the 60s in many cases, were being silenced through cooptation/recuperation. One could write a thick tome on the details of this process, but punk, I think, can be seen as having drawn a line in the sand and saying, we’re going to attempt to create something that cannot be recuperated. Did it succeed? Well, this struggle is still ongoing. In some respects, it did, and in others, it failed miserably.
I was just reading the incredible book An Interrupted History of Punk and Underground Resources in Turkey 1978-1999, which discusses the beginning of zine culture in Turkey. It actually came quite late, though still before any Turkish punk records were released. The functions zines served there initially were quite different from the purposes either Sniffin’ Glue or, for that matter, Game of the Arseholes, served. The point is that it’s a bad idea to paint with a broad brush when discussing the contingencies and tactics of something as diverse as zine culture. We cannot generalize and say that today punk zines have outlived their usefulness, even though their recuperation by the mainstream to which they were originally opposed may be nearly complete. Perhaps once every obscure hardcore record has been posted online and downloaded, punk blogs will have outlived their usefulness—but that’s unlikely. Will a queer zine like Fag School ever be recuperable? Never say never, but I doubt it. And, still, ever more marginal voices will always emerge. It is necessary to ask what we want to achieve and whether our tools are helping us achieve that goal—a very old philosophical idea of pragmatism! But the radical step is also to try to think very clearly—“to face with sober senses”—what the unintended consequences of our actions may be once we know that the conditions under which we live and create music and zines themselves are dynamic, as are the forces arrayed against us.
The fanzine culture that coalesced in the 1970s with Bomp and the Gizmos folks et al was instrumental in creating punk as we now know it (though not exactly “intentionally”), but once punk existed, the fanzine movement served a different purpose. The purposes must change. Furthermore, I think that even so-called “apolitical” punks who just wanna pogo with beer in hand need to realize that the perpetuation of the music they love cannot occur without some sort of communication network, but the network blogs and message-boards afford has specificities that lead to certain types of musical production and circulation occurring. One is tempted to theorize that the “thrash revival” of the early 00s was as contingent on the media of idea-exchange (ie, backward-looking music zines) of that moment as the “weird punk” moment of recent years is on the availability of myriad obscurities with the blog explosion. As punks we need to be highly aware that no one is in control of our destiny but ourselves, but we are also responding to conditions that exist outside of ourselves.
MRR: So what are the specificities of Shit-Fi as you see them? Why do this site and what are your goals?
SS: Shit-Fi has pretty much the opposite approach to Game of the Arseholes, which was intended to be quick and dirty, whereas S-F is intended to be as in-depth and thought-out as possible. (There are other differences, of course, in subject matter.) My goal, though it is often impossible, is for the articles on the site to the definitive articles on a given subject. The web allows one to publish extremely long articles at no extra cost, unlike with paper—though even I, as the writer of long articles, hate reading long pieces on-screen (big conundrum!). Beyond that, as I said earlier, with the web, it is easy to make extremely rare and obscure music available to readers with downloads. But mainly what separates S-F from many other websites that make obscure music available is the writing that accompanies the music. Therefore, I want to offer the music as a complement to the writing (not the other way around). On the other hand, many people listen to and think about music in weird ways that are highly conditioned by unreflective presuppositions (that’s one definition of ideology, I guess). As a result, even with the music easily available, listeners are not necessarily going to grasp what makes the music worthwhile. So I believe it is important to combine the availability of music with critical thinking; there is a two-way relationship between the availability and the critical writing in which each supports the other.
And I think that many of us, even the most ardent LBS&A types, have internalized profoundly anti-punk ideological propositions. It’s almost impossible not to do so because everywhere one looks, there is a story about punk being told that has absolutely zero historical accuracy and that heaps all manner of projections about the story-teller (rather than about punk) upon this history. Here’s a quote from something I wrote in S-F: “The Shit-Fi project is premised upon the notion that traditional punk historiography is fundamentally not punk. It focuses on the stars, reproducing the dichotomy between artists and fans against which punk militated. Most likely, anyone reading this has already faced real conditions (with or without sober senses) and defenestrated Lipstick Traces, along with a hundred other more-or-less inferior but less philosophic attempts to tell punk’s history. . . Historiography conditions the way we listen to music, even if unconsciously. Context is everything. In the end, most will say that music is music and it has objective qualities that render our judgments of its value timeless. Of course I don’t believe that to be the case.” Now that the web has given us access to punk’s archives, so to speak, there is no reason to believe the false stories we have been told and have been telling ourselves. We can go to the primary sources with ease. To head off any criticisms that may be laid at my feet, S-F does not—I repeat, does not—ascribe political views to the participants in punk; instead, it interprets the aesthetic choices and unintended consequences of the actions of the participants through a historical-materialist lens.
The point is that I hope S-F shows people that there are ways to listen to music that, however based in consumption they may be, are ultimately thought processes. The paradox of thinking hard about really shitty music that was produced with total reckless abandon is exactly the point of S-F. If one can think hard about one-off DIY crap, one can think hard about anything. Moshing hard is a separate issue.
MRR: You talked about the aesthetics of web design as something about which your views have changed. Can you elaborate in terms of Shit-Fi?
SS: With this site, I am conscious of the layout, and I believe that beyond the writing itself what sets the site apart from other punk/music websites/blogs is its attention to visual aesthetics. When I created fanzines, I had zero ability to produce good-looking layouts. They were totally utilitarian. The key ingredient for S-F is my pal Jill, who produced some of the coolest (and best-looking) zines of the early 00s, such as Nope, Chicken Bone Circuit, and Trash Faction. She is a professional web designer and has a great design sensibility, and she does all the design and layout of S-F. We work together to decide how the site should look, but she does all the technical work. So I must give her great credit for enabling S-F to be the unique site it is.
MRR: Many people have been lamenting the future demise of the record industry, with mp3s taking the place of records and CDs. I personally couldn’t care less if big record companies die. As for smaller ones I’ve got mixed feelings but for the most part I feel like the bottom line is that music being free can’t be a bad thing. People will always make music, punks will always create punk rock. Your thoughts on the situation?
SS: I agree. Punk belongs to the punks, not the businessmen. They need us. We don’t need them. Punk will never be dead as long as some of us refuse to be led. True then. True now.
In some ways, it’s irrelevant whether mp3s replace vinyl and CDs because so much music today lacks the uniqueness that is lost when it is converted to digital formats. In addition, little music produced today has ideas behind it that warrant lavish packaging a la Crass or Flux of Pink Indians, so the dematerialization of music does not entail much loss. It is easy to be dogmatic and say that punk was originally meant for vinyl so it should stay on vinyl, but maybe we need to rethink our values as the conditions change. I know that I fetishize vinyl, and I try to justify it (as you can see reading S-F) by pointing to its value sound-wise. But at this point I also feel like my record collection, as much as I love it, is an albatross around my neck and my addiction to buying records is detrimental to my well-being. Then again, I can’t really envision changing my habits. Ha ha. Remember that the commodity, as defined by Marx, entails material and immaterial aspects, and this is one of the great paradoxes that theorists and artists have been trying to reconcile ever since. So although record companies are having difficulty figuring out how to make mp3s profitable because everyone steals, the social relationship of the commodity is not automatically extinguished by it becoming only digital. On the other hand, the producer of the zine is not the owner of the means of production (ie, capital) and neither is the producer of the blog—so don’t jump to the conclusion that moving to the mediation of the web necessarily entails ratcheting up alienation the writer feels or something like that. However, I would be interested in a really astute analysis of the how and why sites like blogspot, owned by Google, use bloggers, punk or otherwise, as laborers to produce profit through the extraction of surplus value from these laborers under the veil of DIY.
MRR: Don’t you feel strange about giving so much importance and writing so in-depth and seriously about a bunch of often stupid punk bands? Isn’t it a contradiction to write academically about bands playing two-chords music with 4 words lyrics?
SS: In short, no! First, I don’t see any problem with “contradiction”: are we punx or mice? Seriously, contradiction is essential, and I’m always aware of it. Perhaps it does not come across to nonnative English speakers, but there is a level of irony in everything I write; it’s just part of my personality. Second, I never will say something like “Band X did Y because of Z” unless I know it to be fact (again, except when I am being ironic). I am extremely cautious about differentiating between giving historical context and putting words in people’s mouths. I think that readers sometimes mix up these two ideas, and some music “critics” fail to make this distinction in their own writing. Anyway, third, is it a “contradiction” to write a short song with simple lyrics about as complex an idea as war, or love? Few would argue that professional pop music critics should not analyze love songs, or that pop music should not consist of love songs, but somehow punks subscribe to this anti-intellectualism. Obviously, no one expects an in-depth explanation of war from a punk song, either. What we expect is a simple, emotionally charged expression about war. But describing this expression is not always so simple, and that is what I try to do. Also, a lot of what I write revolves around very basic accounting of what version of a song appeared where and which sounds better, etc. That effort may become complex (check my Diatribe review, for example), but it’s not “intellectual” or “academic.” Fourth, look at something like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain”: this is the most simple piece of art ever, but dozens of books have been written about it. Just because the artistic expression appears simple or even stupid initially doesn’t mean that there is not a lot to say about it. Fifth, you need to historicize before you ask this question. The two-minute, three-chord punk song has become a trope that has possibly outlasted its historical utility as a piece of rebellion, but in 1977 to play inept, simplistic, stupid music was to react violently to the pervasive music of the day. Punks did not play that way because they were stupid. They played that way because they thought mainstream rock was stupid (they were right!), self-indulgent, and soporific. They wanted to reinvigorate pop music, and they might have succeeded for one shining instant before the mechanisms of recuperation began their work. Today, being stupid continues to be the mainstream’s primary mode in music, but I must say that anti-intellectualism is rabid in general, and it has so infected every aspect of American culture that even punks have signed on. They don’t even know why they do it other than that they convince themselves that they do so because punk was once anti-intellectual. Turning punk into religion, they adhere strictly to that dogma. The irony, of course, is that punks also think that they are being rebellious in doing so, when, in fact, I would argue, they are ensuring the maintenance of the status quo (in various realms both within and outside music). I’m sure some readers of this will scoff at this accusation, but, hey, ideology’s a bitch, right? Sure I love the two-minute, three-chord (or less) punk song, but I also have listened to enough punk to know that this is a stereotype used to demean punk. We can take it in stride because we have a sense of humor, right? Well, until we start believing this stereotype and it starts to ruin punk—something that happened almost immediately (read any history of early Los Angeles punk for proof) and continues to happen to this day. Sixth, as a friend of mine once said, if you think that what I’m writing is “academic,” you obviously haven’t read much academic work. Trust me, although there may be similarities, what I write in my academic life is quite different from what I write about punk. Seventh, what’s most important to me is that my writing gives me pleasure. I love to write more than any other activity, and I love punk music. I cannot help thinking the way I think. It’s not my problem if people don’t believe I should be writing the way I do about what I what I love—it’s their problem. Really, if you don’t enjoy reading good writing (assuming my writing is good) on a subject that interests you, I feel sorry for you.