New media is punk

New media upstarts are threatening to do to the media establishment what the punk movement did to the music industry.

This rather belated insight only came to me when watching a TV programme about the demise of Top of the Pops, but it made me wonder if there is anything to be learned by it.

In this analogy, instead of The Ramones, The Pistols and The Clash, we have Facebook, Google and Twitter. The fortunes of bands like Genesis, Yes and ELP took a turn for the worse around 1976, just as they are now doing for the publishers of newspapers and magazines, TV broadcasters and the movie and music industries.

Punk’s DIY ethic has been replicated by the proliferation of millions of bloggers, whose free content has undermined the traditional periodicals that now struggle for survival. This disintermediation is replicated elsewhere in the brave new digital world, where fresh material for Alan Partridge is now hosted by a brewer’s website, bypassing all traditional media channels. Would-be authors no longer need a publisher to launch their own e-book and aspiring musicians upload material to YouTube in the hope of it going viral.

Mister Lydon to you

One of the drivers of the punk scene was the dull, bland fodder foisted on the market by the music industry in the 1970s. It is not a big stretch to see that many bloggers share this same frustration with modern media. The newspapers used to hold the political, legal and commercial establishments to account, but have themselves become a cornerstone of that same edifice. Bloggers have now picked up the torch and use its flame to expose the dark recesses that would otherwise remain hidden from public scrutiny.

Thinking through my metaphor, I struggle to come up with a new media counterpart for musical svengali Malcolm McLaren, unless you consider Mark Zuckerberg appropriate. His background is starting to look colourful enough, with the revelations of the cases brought by the Winklevoss twins and Paul Ceglia, but he is making more money from Facebook than the entire punk movement combined ever made from surfing their cultural wave. Whatever you felt about punk, you would hardly accuse it of mere cynicism. Most participants would have assured you their involvement was ideological, even if the theory was a little sketchy. Punk was anti-authoritarian by design, while the new media just turned out that way. There would be no room for anarcho-nihilism in today’s more mercenary environment, where everybody is looking to make a fast buck.

What can we learn from the punk movement that swept away the prog-rockers, AOR and middle-of-the-road? Does the present-day music scene suggest it was just a flash in the pan and that the ancien regime will eventually regain its grip on a new media landscape? Will new media evolve into a new establishment? Or did punk change things for ever? Just as some of the bands and record labels sank without trace, some of today’s media businesses will doubtless disappear. Is it any more reasonable to expect newspaper publishers to reinvent themselves in new media formats than it would have been for Yes to turn themselves into No and to thrash out a two-minute rant about the alienation of da youth?

Admittedly, bands can change their personnel, just as businesses can, and you would struggle to recognise the line-ups of some of the big names from the sixties and seventies that are still touring today. However, there was no way that Genesis, for example, would ever produce a punk song. It would have contradicted everything that their ‘band brand’ represented. It would have been easier to form a new punk group than reinvent an old established band and I wonder if that legacy will be a similar burden to the current media establishment.

© 2011
Keywords: punk, media, music, anti, authority.

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