In a rare – indeed, unprecedented — move, Murketing.com brings you now a Q&A with an author. The author is Anne Elizabeth Moore, who can also be described as an artist, an activist, co-editor of (recently departed) Punk Planet, series editor of Best American Comics, and a surprisingly nice person. The book is Unmarketable: Brandalism, Copyfighting, Mocketing, and the Erosion of Integrity, and I think it’s quite good. (I should disclose that I was interviewed for the book and am quoted in it a few times, but I’m pretty sure I’d like the book if I weren’t mentioned in it, and possibly even it had singled me out as corporate shill.)
The book is described as “both a scathing critique of of corporate marketing’s dalliances with the cultural underground and a highly entertaining depiction of the absurdity produced by” some of those very dalliances. The description is accurate.
Plenty more on that below in the Q&A, along with interesting observations about 1) how indie culture has changed, 2) whether the argument that corporations are “funding cool stuff” holds water, 3) whether the revolution might take the form of a handbag from a DIY/crafter, 4) the “soul crushing” experience of explaining the book to professional marketers, 5) the surprisingly bad payoffs of “selling out,” and 6) why it’s really important for some things to remain truly “unmarketable.” I know it’s long but please read it all anyway – especially if you are, yourself, in any way involved something that you think of as sub-, or counter-, or indie culture. Take your time. It’s important. Thanks.
Q. I bet your publisher asked you: “Why did you write this book?” Or maybe not. But if they did, what did you say? And what’s the real answer?
A. No, in fact my editor really never questioned why I would do this book at all, and I believe on at least two occasions I had to ask her why I was writing it. At which point I think the answer was pretty much “because now you’re legally obligated under the contract you already signed,” so there it was.
The short answer to why I wrote it is that I apparently have a space in my brain where I store my discomfort with popular modes of activism, and where I was turning over projects like Dispepsi for years, just chewing on, well, the fact that a bunch of Bay-Area troublemakers kind of made a soft drink commercial unpaid. That is crazy. Why would they do that? And then when I read No Logo, and as I watched marketing change clearly as a result of that book, something clicked. My book does collect about six years of research and thought into these issues that I couldn’t even really get activists to discuss too deeply. Which I do, totally, understand: they are too damn busy to also be constantly re-theorizing their methods. Anyway I guess that space in my brain got filled up and it had to go on paper so I could start thinking about, like, my cat again.
Conceptually, the book kinda came together when, in 2005, Nike SB — long reviled by the skateboarders I’d grown up with — appropriated the image and ethos of the stridently anticorporate band Minor Threat, a part of the Dischord Records crew in DC. Some kind of circle seemed to close at that point. I started to suspect that maybe they were co-opting the underground’s strategy for debating intellectual property rights issues, called copyfighting sort of informally. At which point I just felt like, this has got to stop.
So then I stopped it. It’s over, now that the book has been written. Ha ha ha ha ha.
What’s different about “indie” culture (or whatever you want to call it, you know what I mean) now compared to 10-15 years ago?
Well, it’s now brought to you by several major corporate sponsors, right, I mean that’s the easy answer. It’s owned and operated. And even if it isn’t wholly controlled by a specific corporate sponsor, much of it emulates the profit-driven corporate model, or on a smaller scale operates as a miniconglomerate, where all the stuff forwarded as good is stuff that the author benefits from sales of, financially.
And that part that isn’t — those of us that actually are dedicated to ethical, sustainable, and autonomous cultural production — is really tiny, and kinda lonely, and we’re rapidly running out of beer. And all we can do when we run into each other is sigh deeply.
I guess the one concrete example I will forward here about this is that all the spaces for resistance that I discuss in the book, and that drove the important actions in the book — the unearthing of some of these crazy corporate wrongdoings and fuckups, or just great examples of what the underground can be — most of them were gone by the time the book came out. Punk Planet, Stay Free!, WOXY, the band He Who Corrupts—these are gone. That is not a coincidence. It’s like a cultural serial killer is on the loose and the police in the show just aren’t putting the evidence together. Come on, guys! It’s the mild-mannered guy in the SUV! Duh! Can’t you see how polite he’s acting!
Well if y’all are running out of beer I know several marketers working with beer companies that would totally hook you up. Just say the word.
Yeah, I mean funny you should say that, but a beer company did seemingly manage to work some shady deal with the Chicago art scene, somehow without me or, apparently, anyone else noticing. I can’t even trace back how long it’s been going on, although I haven’t even begun to investigate yet. But WTF, Chicago art scene? I thought we had, like, a thing?
Anyway, with the obvious caveat that I have no punk or indie credentials, and don’t pretend to, I’m pretty happy that none of my memories (from 10 or 15 years ago) of taking part in weird fringe culture include a rep from an energy drink company or a car-maker handing out dope merch. One counter-point I hear a lot is that these big companies end up underwriting and funding a lot of cool stuff that wouldn’t have happened — “supporting” artists or DJs and so on. And the reality is the people who put together the weird stuff I would occasionally find my way into didn’t turn down corporate money. It was just never offered to them.
This is partly why (as you already know) I’m interested in the DIY/craft thing. There’s at least some debate there about how to deal with corporate “interest.” You write in the book about Toyota’s “Drive It Yourself” stuff to promote the Yaris, and more recently its Scion brand has been kind of associating itself with craft fairs and DIYism. Do you think crafter types are better off keeping their distance — or is the crafting thing already more about consumption than about ideas, so it doesn’t matter? (Note to crafters and DIYers reading this: I’m just asking a question, okay?) [Previous Murketing posts on this general subject here and here.]
That “funding cool stuff” argument I think is bit of a load of crap, because these “cool” companies may well be funding stuff that would not otherwise have happened, but there’s a really good chance that something interesting — although not sponsored — would have happened in its stead. I mean, from an artistic standpoint, I do have to say, a lot of these companies come in and fund this stuff, right, but they don’t find the best person to do it, they find the best self-promoter to do it, because they are lazy and so their job is that much easier later, and because they don’t want to actually find someone super talented, they just want to find someone, because this is not an event about merit, it’s an event about branding. And then what do we end up with? A “cool” company funding some crappy event that, true, might not otherwise have happened. And then, looking at it a little more deeply, often that someone they find resembles what the corporate world will think of as “edgy”: maybe a straight white male, right — but one with tattoos. At least that’s the way it often goes down here in Chicago. That’s the guy that gets offered the deal. So the whole thing quickly perpetuates the sexist and racist stuff we see coming out of corporate media, but now it’s in the real world. It’s just as staged, though.
But OK, that’s my inner purist talking, the part that still thinks merit can be separated from the market. I think though we’ve talked before about how it just feels more fun to stumble across this stuff that hasn’t been sanctioned by some suit. You feel like you’re a part of some neat thing. That’s the emotion, of course, that word-of-mouthers are trying to tap into, as you have argued, and as I have quoted you arguing in the book. And the reason they want in on that is because it feels good to do things on your own, things that do not profit you or anyone else. Where is the acknowledgment of that? Oh yeah, it’s in some fast-food commercial.
Anyway at the risk of offending the crafters — I know you feel drastically different about the crafting scene than I do, I think it’s rooted in commerce and moreover I kind of worry when it’s confused with feminism because, uh, the revolution will not be sold to me in the form of even the most awesome handbag* — I do think there’s a really big difference between at least my DIY ideals and running a craft enterprise. For me, DIY is about giving people the tools and inspiration for them to do stuff themselves. To promote that active participation through teaching and sharing. I am totally kind of a hippie. Distribute the means of production on a mass scale! And crafting is much more about selling that product, thus keeping the means of production among the elite few, who profit therefrom.
However, the crafters are smart. That’s a smart way to have a career, whereas running around complaining about beer companies, not so smart in this day and age. And they are people I genuinely care about, and so I do kind of urge they disassociate from, like, whatever that ridiculous wine company was at the Renegade Craft Fair? That had really young kids in there “decorating” their stupid bottles with glitter and pipe cleaners and supposedly not sampling the wine that was allegedly just for adults even though, come on, who is even watching the wine samples when everyone is having so much fun with the pipe cleaners? That’s just tacky. If not also a violation of some kind of liquor law. But the very thing that I’m worried about, that the options for what we can see as working in our culture are becoming so limited that we cannot envision a life without a corporate sponsor, I think they are going to be tested with the crafters, and I think crafters have a responsibility to try to hold that line.
*Do keep in mind that I will still buy the handbag.
One of the things I found most fascinating in the book was your breakdown of how much money results when one “sells out” and does a project with “support” from Starbucks or some other big brand/company. Please tell us what you learned.
Well, this discussion did come out of my own relationship with the coffee (I mean lifestyle) company, who’d been trying to sue a cartoonist I knew who drew a silly take on their naked lady logo. And shortly thereafter, came onboard a project I was already involved in, creating a self-publishing workshop space at an arts festival. And what I learned was that, for one, working with these companies is way more insidious than it even seems like it’s going to be when you’re on the lookout for it. Sometimes you don’t even know who’s involved, or there’s an open-ended part of your contract that allows for a sponsor, and when one is found, it is a spectacularly gross one or something. Or they want way more from you than you ever imagined. And they have all this money, so they’re used to getting their way, and you know all your friends would leap at the chance, so you do it and still get kinda screwed.
I also learned that, well, the money they’re offering is usually not terribly good. I mean, you’re offered a certain chunk under some of these contracts, but it’s all reliant on your cred in the underground or your social networks, or your previous jobs, or whatever it is that they’re not paying you to accrue, they’re literally just taking advantage of — sometimes — your years of working really hard for no money out of love of whatever you do or make. Also, you’re generally being offered the job because they believe you will work for cheap. So they’re already not offering you what they even feel is market value, which in their logic is — well, just smart, I guess. But in my logic is, well, not smart to agree to.
Anyway, if you consider that people who do marketing work professionally earn — what do I say in the book, around $45 per hour, benefits inclusive, etc., etc. — then it becomes obvious that people who do this for really cheap (like I did for the coffee company) or free (like word-of-mouthers) then it becomes, like, a labor issue. We are not being fairly compensated for our work. Kind of radicalizing, that realization. For me at least. I was surprised by it.
I know it’s a bit early, but what kind of reaction are you getting to the book so far?
There has been a lot, and there’s starting to be more. It’s kind of great, but I did have one review that sort of stipulated that I was a jerk, because Star Wars is a very popular movie, and who am I to complain about it. I don’t know why that came as such a shock to me: it is a very popular movie, personal jerkiness aside. Of course people are going to defend it. They’ve been doing so since 1977! Even though it started sucking really fast, with the blatant commercialism of the Ewoks! And then I had one wrong-headed man who similarly explained that I was naive and perhaps a bit dull, although he was drawing entirely on a glance at the cover of the book and not from any actual read of it.
Otherwise, reaction falls into two camps. The first is this, like, complete overwhelming emotional expression of relief that someone finally tried to put this stuff down on paper because, yeah, it does really bug them but they totally haven’t found a way to articulate why yet.
The second is more deeply troubling. I’ve been getting some marketing consultancy offers. Whether to sit on panels to talk about “Indy marketing! Marketing outside the box! Punk marketing!” or whatever, to actual straight-up, “I know you said you hated all marketing but do you even know about our awesome product? It is just like what you were talking about in your book, so why don’t we pay you not nearly enough money so you can get all your talented friends to contribute to it and then we don’t even need to do marketing because they will do it for us!”
I don’t know. I did a talk at a fancy marketing convention over the summer, thinking, “Awesome! After I explain this all to them, at least I will feel like I am not talking about them behind their backs when I talk about how culturally, politically, and economically destructive their work is!” And the feedback I got afterwards was soul-crushing. One woman very kindly suggested a few ways I could better market my message to that particular audience — mostly by leaving out the parts where I describe how destructive they are — and later someone wanted to buy the images I’d used in my talk for some kind of campaign. I don’t even feel like a jerk for using their earnest attempts to help me out to prove a larger point; they totally used my talk to get good ideas to improve marketing. You know they did. It’s not like I expected them to actually up and commit suicide, like Bill Hicks suggested, but, you know, show a tiny bit of restraint. If I tell you, “leave me and my people alone forever because I hate you,” don’t offer me ten dollars to do it while drinking a certain kind of soda.
Another kind of interesting story is that I went to do this radio interview a few days ago, and they were like, “We can talk about whatever you want!” and I was like, “I want to talk about the book.” Which I do, and admittedly I’ve only ever wanted to talk about the book with anyone in any situation since I started writing it two years ago. And they were all, “Oh, ho, of course! It’s all a part of the marketing machine, ha ha ha ha ha.” Which I admit, is weird, trying to get people to pay attention to a book that’s about how horrible marketing is, but then in the interview it was totally clear they hadn’t read the book. And then it was like, “Who’s a part of the machine now? You can’t even engage in these issues.”
I would also argue that selling a book with a point of view isn’t exactly the same thing as selling, say, a sneaker. Whatever one thinks of Naomi Klein, the dumbest critique is “Well she’s just brand now, too! So she’s a hypocrite!” Not really. It’s one thing to try to associate a sneaker with a point of view and thus a “brand” and all that. But she isn’t associating a commodity with a point of view. She has a point of view, which she’s doing her best to get out there. Now, if she started selling action figures or bath & beauty products under her own brand name, that would be hypocritical. (But also, a great column for me, so I hope she does it.)
Yeah, I think that’s true, too. Or at least I hope it’s true, and I think I feel quite differently about my own work as a writer than I would if I designed sneakers. Also this interview would be shorter. But I do have to be really clear that there is a commercial aspect to this particular discussion, and that I do want people to buy the book. I’ll come and talk to anyone about this stuff, you know, anytime, but there is a hoped-for transaction nestled in here too, although one not about profit so much as sustainability. Naomi Klein also wants people to buy her books. When I used to do little silly free zines, or I guess sometimes I still do them, there’s no transaction. There’s gifting. And that’s fun, too, but different. Now I want you to invest in these ideas and support me as a writer and support my awesome not-for-profit publisher The New Press, and moreover I want you to read the book and start shifting the way you spend money as a result of it.
And actually, talking about these marketing offers, I mean there’s a gig I would not turn down: befriend Naomi Klein and convince her to start a bath & beauty product line. Do you think the NYT would foot that bill? There’s my weak spot. All my supposed integrity goes out the window when the idea is funny enough. Uh, maybe I shouldn’t say that.
Q. So who is your ideal audience? Who do really want to persuade to think about the value of, keeping some things “unmarketable”?
Well, the supposed defenders of independent culture, for one. I mean: I tried talking directly to the marketers, but they didn’t get it. OK. I think it’s the kids who believe they are most immune to corporate sponsorships and marketing agendas that are doing the most damage. Maybe they think, Oh, everyone knows this is crazy, so I’ll just go ahead and do it and they will filter out the bad stuff, but those filters are clogged already. Those seem to be the kids that are kind of launching headlong into these things and not really realizing what their participation contributes, or symbolizes for the other kids that watch ‘em do it.
When I speak at colleges, it’s always the super punked out kids that say, “but I think you’re really dismissing what works about corporate media” (or comics, or magazines, or whatever.) And those are the moments I relish. That’s when it’s like: “You think corporate media works because you read it does in Time magazine. What about all the stories that don’t get in there? Why are they less valid? And why haven’t you been in Time magazine? Because your views are not valid? And how come that’s the only political magazine you can buy here in your school’s bookstore?” The systems we currently see are not the only ones that work. In fact, the ones we don’t see right now may be a zillion times more effective than the ones we do.
I mean, democracy is in peril. Media outlets and art events and sports figures and even dog shows that do not allow corporate sponsorships are no longer viable. That is a wide swath of voices that cannot be heard in our culture, and they comprise groups from the staunchly political to the excessively silly. But none of them further corporate profit. So whoever is in charge of all this? Whichever one big ultra CEO is the puppetmaster of all the other CEOs that run everything that push out all the other options in our culture? Because this is a very brilliant plan, and it is working very well? My ideal audience is that dude’s off-beat best friend from college. There’s the guy with the real power to change all this.