Anti-Flag and Against Me!’s Defection
At a certain point, there is a level when a band does “sell out”. The state of the independent record industry in the United States is strong enough that mid-level “majors” like Victory, Epitaph, and Fat Wreck can provide everything an up and coming band could possibly want (even exorbitant amounts of money). In fact, mid-major labels may honestly be able to give bands more money than if they were signed to a major label; when there is complete media saturation done by a record label like Victory and Trustkill (with ample print, radio, and TV coverage), the amount of gain a band can get from moving to a major is eaten up by the increased amount of money put forth by the majors for promotions. It is a simple economic phenomenon; the law of diminishing returns. If a band like Taking Back Sunday can sell over 500,000 copies of their new album on a mid-level major like Victory, chances are the band can actually reap more money themselves than if Universal sells a million copies of their upcoming album.
Bands move from major to mid-level major and back again with the utmost ease; when all a band is looking for is fame, perhaps this move up to a major label is necessary or desirable. Perhaps a band like Taking Back Sunday or the Transplants want to be the next big thing and the added boost a major label signature can give them will be enough to put their name in lights and give the band more face time on TRL. This is not necessarily selling out but rather a realization of the dreams that the band once had a long time ago when they were still bashing it out in garages and house shows. The decision to jump ship and move to a major label may not be the one that makes the most monetary sense, but it is not necessarily selling out if that is what the band originally intended to do.
Now, what CAN be deemed selling out is the recent trend of formerly mid-major political acts signing to major labels. This trend (I had hoped) would end with the signing of Anti-Flag to RCA Records in April of 2005, but has even went further with the signature of Florida’s anarchist punks, Against Me! to Sire Records (a division of Warner Brothers) in December of this year. Anti-Flag’s Justin Sane said that “We started this band to be heard, NOT to be controlled by petty people who want to tear down everything we attempt, instead of creating something of their own.” By shifting the impetus away from the signing to a major label to “shit talkers” (as Anti-Flag calls them), the band brings discussion away from the inconsistent philosophy of the band. In fact, however “Anti” Anti-Flag might be (I remember a rousing “Fuck Bush” chant started by Justin Sane at Warped 2004), the methods used to discount their detractorsa are EXACTLY the same in terms of rhetoric as that that President Bush spewed immediately after 9-11. This rhetoric can be boiled down to “if you aren’t with us, you are against us”, saying that any challenging of the policy taken will benefit the enemy (which Anti-Flag has dictated as being “sexism, racism, and homophobia, as well as punk-scene elitism and superficial assholes.”)
This philosophy is inconsistent with the do-it-yourself ethos that Anti-Flag once claimed to hold. This ethos was shown by the creation of Anti-Flag’s own record label, A-F Records. Furthermore, the claim that Anti-Flag made in the statement that once graced their website, that “We started this band to say what we want to say, the way we want to say it, for all to hear!” is weak as water due to the fact that a politicized message – whether it be from Bob Marley or Rage Against The Machine – is exaggerated or outright ignored to decrease its effectiveness by the majors, either wanting to sell records to a group to remove the offensive message enough to create larger sales). The band may still be saying the same things, but will the new fans honestly be moved or understand enough of the band’s message to make a wholescale shift in the band’s philosophy worth it?
Furthermore, Anti-Flag has started a dangerous precedent for political punk acts, as it is now a desired career move to sign to a major, instead of to try to continue to support the DIY scene that helped and helps so many other acts. This trend has already shown itself in the signing of Against Me! to Sire Records, a division of Warner Bros. Against Me! is a slightly different case; instead of continuing with a largely-political message, each following album (from the 7 inches to Reinventing Axl Rose to As The Eternal Cowboy and this year’s Searching For A Former Clarity) has decreased in the amount of out and out politics. What was an immediate call to arms in tracks like “Burn” and “Baby, I’m An Anarchist” had mellowed out by 2005’s “How Low”; concerts had shifted from being revolutionary affairs (with bands like Peelander-Z and Anti-Flag) to money-making endeavors (The Epoxies). Direct calls to action had muted out to tour documentaries.
What seems to be an easy out is that punk bands had ostensibly been signing to major labels since the label had started; the Sex Pistols went first to EMI before A&M and The Ramones were on Sire. The independent music scene in the late seventies was non existent; at this point, it was essential to sign to a major to get the message out. By the time the kids that heard the message put out by these first bands grew up, there was the beginning of a tremendous independent music scene; labels like Dischord, Alternative Tentacles, and Crass Records all started up in the late seventies/early eighties. While there was a tremendous difference in the amount of support that these early labels could give to the bands they signed and major labels, these first labels acted as a stepping stool for other labels that could begin to realize nearer parity with the majors. Just as with that long-ass section in the bible where whoever begat whoever, Alternative Tentacles began Epitaph and Dischord begat Lookout. Rather, the music put forth by these early labels influenced even more individuals that were brought to the scene by the first wave of punk and the effect just snowballed. It took twenty years to bring some sort of equality between the mid-majors and the majors themselves, and when major acts like Anti-Flag, who do have millions of individuals to their name sign to a major label, it really is a large blow to the scene.
There is a possibility of redemption by bands like Anti-Flag and Against Me!, however. Grizzled punk veterans may remember that five or six year period where Bad Religion signed to Atlantic, eventually coming back to the Epitaph fold in 2002. A wayward direction can be fixed; a return to the fold is possible if the band can again shoulder some of the DIY load. However, the damage to the scene by two of its heavyweights leaving is going to create a precedent that has to be nipped in the bud, lest every band currently on a small indie label (anarchist wunderkinds Defiance, Ohio on No Idea or This Bike Is A Pipe Bomb on Plan-It-X) attempt to pull the same type of inconsistent, anti-DIY bullshit that 2005 has sadly brought the scene.