What’s in a band?
Being a participant of any music scene or subculture without being in a band feels irksome. You lack a sense of belonging, people find it hard to figure you out and you usually need to divulge more details about yourself instead of being able to just mention the name of the band you are in. There will then be impending follow-up questions for people to situate you within the scene. Either that, or a dreadful, awkward, lingering silence which is usually the point where you ask yourself why you aren’t actually in a band yourself.
Even worse are the sympathetic questions, the ones to the effect of whether you run a distro, shoot photos, write a zine or are involved in activism of some sort, questions designed to try and justify your existence in the scene, as if something of the sort were needed. Anything, something will do, for god’s sake!
A bit of over-dramatisation maybe, but like any episode of Black Mirror, it’s rooted in familiar reality. The question, though, is how did we get here? What is it about being in a band that has made it such an indispensable part of being involved in a scene?
Bands are to a scene what nuclear families are to society: the discrete building blocks with which the scene, subcultural or otherwise, is characterised and is built upon. This analogy is useful for our subsequent discussion, as bands, sociologically speaking, are a unit of analysis, much like the usual family unit or household common to the social sciences.
There are, surprisingly, a lot of similarities between a band and a family. First off, a band gives you your identity, much like your family name. One of the most pertinent examples would be the Ramones, who weren’t related at all but adopted pseudonyms all ending in “Ramone”. This band-name-as-last-name is prevalent especially when needing to differentiate individuals with ubiquitous first names. After making some new acquaintances, I’ve found myself sometimes asking a friend whether so-and-so is in any band. Sounds familiar, no?
Being in a band contributes to your identity in more ways than just your nom de guerre, it also defines your belonging within geographical, genre or clique-based scenes. In a relatively mature underground music complex of reasonable size, smaller scenes will appear as a natural evolutionary progression. With these smaller scenes come the formation of affiliations and bonds amongst bands that either exist in close proximity to one another, play the same genre or subscribe to the same line of ideas. Parallel to the way that clans work for families, a band situates you in a bigger network that goes beyond your two-piece powerviolence outfit; it defines the world around you.
Members of a band also share their resources like a family does. The sharing of resources ranges from small gestures of chipping in to share on practice studio rental to bigger expenditures like touring. Bands also share what they sometimes earn, be it profit from selling physical releases and merchandise to payment for playing shows. Money earned is also (sometimes) managed strategically to be reinvested to release more material or to be funnelled to merchandise production. As nothing breaks a family more than financial mismanagement, poor handling of monetary issues sometimes lead to the breaking up of a band.
There’s also a division of labour in both bands and families, although it’s sometimes an implicit division rather than anything expressly outlined or stated. Better organised bands will often assign specific roles to its members, be it social media promotion, producing merchandise to handling of money, alongside other ad hoc roles that may need to be filled from time to time. Shared privileges, shared responsibilities.
Bands are not families
This bands-as-families analogy could go on to include other shared traits such as taboos and other form of behavioural controls, either within a band or a scene, amongst many other potential similarities, but one crucial difference between bands and family, the main thing that shapes the whole dynamic of this social grouping, is the aspect of free-willed choice.
Unlike a family, the decision to the formation of a band is not hereditary or a given, it is a matter of choice. More so for a DIY band, where the members of a band have consciously chosen to be in the same boat as the others, frequently without an audition and based solely on the fact that they like being around one another. This element of choice makes the bond between members (debatably) stronger than a family, at least throughout the band’s existence. Blood is thicker than water, some say, but we don’t choose our blood and we are pretty much stuck with the family we have. That absolves you from any responsibility to make it work, which is not the case for bands. Being in a band requires a lot of effort, regardless of whether it’s for ego or simply to maintain the bonds of friendship that arise from being in a band.
This came to my mind after interviewing and listening to my friends. One person I talked to told me that “if my band fails, it means that our friendship fails”. Establishing a band with individuals in the scene means an agreement to work as a single unit on common goals together. The failure to achieve goals or the occurrence of irreversible band conflict means the collective failure of the members in the unit, one that was established by the free-willed choice of each and every one of the members. Failure of one is the failure of all.
You can see this dynamic at work in some bands, where the more well off member(s) will sometimes willingly pay for the expenses of others just so that the band can go on tour. Some individuals have to bear with the lack of commitment of other bandmates, even to the extent of changing genres or musical direction just to suit a bandmate’s musical capability (or lack thereof). Personal ego is sometimes set aside when inter-band conflict arises, even by people that don’t even give two hoots about their blood-related family. Compromises in creativity and behavioural tolerance have often been made, some even to the extent of condoning parasitic or abusive behaviour of other bandmates. If these people don’t care for their bands, there is nothing in this world that they will care about.
Scenes as neotribes
These are perhaps some of the reasons why, to put bands back into the broader network of a scene, there is a strong bond and loyalty among members in a band and the network that they belong to. Bonds that sometimes lead people to overlook undesirable attitudes because “he’s not like that, we know he always likes to joke”. There are also cases where sexual harassment was swept under the rug so as not to reflect on the scene badly, lest it would bring shame to the tribe. These incidences and patterns of behaviour, present in scenes across the world, have proven over time to be worthy of serious attention for anybody interested in understanding these groupings in society.
In a world that sees people establishing affiliations that go beyond geographical belonging and traditionally inherited cultural identity, music-oriented grouping appears to be a more relevant unit of analysis to be studied, alongside other non-traditional communities that exist online or offline. As sociologist Andy Bennett argued back in 1999, there is a need for the departure from the subcultural framework to the adoption of the concept of tribe (as neo-tribe). Scenes should be seen as a self-containing grouping in itself instead as an offshoot, a sub of a parental unit of ‘culture’. I am speculating, but after years of existence as subcultures, music scenes have probably graduated to be lone-standing culture in and of themselves, especially ones that are in perennial resistance to the mass culture.
As ethnic culture is being replaced by musical genres, as donning band t-shirts becomes more common than putting on Baju Melayu, perhaps it is time to give some thought to the gigs that you attended (and continue to attend) and the bands that you played in, all those things that your family sees as hobbies, as part of “just another phase” that you are going through, are all things that have actually defined you more than your village, school, income level, religion or ethnicity ever did on their own.
Yuen still hasn’t been able to keep a band going and is evidently compensating by writing articles about the scene.