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Joe Steinhardt has a fear, a premonition.
Maybe it started with “poptimism,” this once-ironic but now very sober affection for music and musicians who operate in the dead center of the mainstream. Not just music, really, but anything—these alt kids rocking Minions backpacks and whatnot. It drives Steinhardt fucking crazy. Then there were all the music industry mergers—the “Big Five” record labels consolidated into the “Big Four” and then the “Big Three”—in which these supermassive music black holes absorb any and every independent label or distributor they can. Musicians have no place to turn. Now, every band is selling shoes. Every song asks you to buy a Honda.
If independent music isn’t already dead, Steinhardt believes it’s at death’s door.
Steinhardt is the co-founder and primary operator of New Jersey-based Don Giovanni Records, one of rock music’s most visible and influential independent record labels. Over the past 13 years, the label has become a destination for bands that have perhaps outgrown the production and distribution limits of their first labels but shun major label conglomerates and their myriad imprints. Steinhardt started Don Giovanni out of local pride, fandom, and ultimately, a belief that music, like art, could deflect the reach of corporate culture and remain art for art’s sake, unaffiliated and co-opted by no brand or multinational business.
But here we are in 2016, where there’s a Pepsi stage at every festival and most bands shill for fans on Twitter and Facebook. Steinhardt can feel the infrastructure that allows for truly independent music collapsing around him. “I think these corporations are using their power to push out the truly independent and alternative,” he says. “I’m terrified.”
If the death of independent music is imminent, Steinhardt decided to throw it a party instead of a funeral. He called it The New Alternative Music Festival—implying the old “alternative music” had long ago been bought and sold—and invited independent punk and indie bands to perform over three days in a physical and cultural space with no corporate involvement whatsoever. In that way, it was to be like no other major music festival in America—a fitting end, as he saw it, to a time when bands and labels didn’t need a corporate crutch to survive.
“This festival is a last gasp, and maybe someone will hear us,” he says.
Steinhardt’s festival is far from the only independent, multi-day music fest in America. Damaged City, here in D.C., is fueled entirely by DIY organizing and vegan donuts. U+N Fest, in Baltimore, earns support only from local, independent businesses. And the annual, multi-city Ladyfest continues to operate with no corporate assistance. But Steinhardt’s unique challenge, to both his festival and the music industry at large, is one of scale: The New Alternative Music Festival was a bold experiment to see exactly what independent music looks like in 2016, when expanded to the point of grandeur, at which point it would otherwise be fair to expect some degree of corporate sponsorship or support.
That exact concept—size without sacrifice—has been Steinhardt’s plan from the beginning.
Steinhardt and his friend Zach Gajewski launched the Don Giovanni label in 2003 as a passion project that intended to release records from New Jersey bands that couldn’t find another label. Since then, it has grown by a factor. New Brunswick punk band The Ergs! were the label’s first major band, and that success led to long-term relationships with underground rock darlings Screaming Females, Waxahatchee, and others. Last year, the label released 18 records, both EPs and LPs, including critically acclaimed albums from Screaming Females, Downtown Boys, Worriers, Aye Nako, and D.C.’s Priests.
But Steinhardt wasn’t just putting out music, he was hosting it too. The label’s annual winter showcases have grown in kind. They began in Hoboken as single, daylong shows, then grew to become three-night events at the Bowery Ballroom and elsewhere in New York. Three years ago, he began booking a summer showcase as well, in an outdoor park venue the city of New Brunswick donated that required no sponsors and cost nothing for attendees.
Still, Steinhardt saw room for more. He wanted to create this tangible juxtaposition: a big, three-day festival that would remain the ethical equivalent of a Tuesday night basement show. No sponsors, no branding, no contracts, no agents—just the music.
Live events, and the money they make, dominate the music industry. People under 34 spend the majority of their annual music-related budgets on seeing music live. The North American concert industry is worth about $6 billion annually, The Wall Street Journal reported last year, and an increasingly large share of that money is going to major, multi-day music festivals.
Two companies dominate the festival industry: Live Nation and Anschutz Entertainment Group, which have a combined market capitalization that is likely in the neighborhood of $10 billion (Live Nation was worth around $5 billion last year; AEG is a private company, but it is enormous, with sports franchises and major concert venues in its portfolio). Over the past several years, those companies have purchased essentially every major festival in the U.S. and many overseas. Coachella, Firefly, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival are now AEG Live properties, while Live Nation owns Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Lollapalooza, and many others.
Festivals are money-making ventures—precisely the motivation for Live Nation and AEG’s shopping spree. They are also extremely expensive to put on. Festivals turn to major corporate sponsors to help bankroll their events (and help turn a more significant profit). In exchange, the sponsors gain unfettered access to the exact demographic that turned off their televisions long ago and otherwise tend to shun advertising. According to the trade publication IEG, corporate sponsors spent $1.4 billion on live music event sponsorships in 2015, the most ever and nearly 5 percent more than the year before. Basically, if an artist wants to perform in front of the largest number of people they can, they are going to perform in a Live Nation or AEG-owned festival.
Likewise, if festivals want to attract the most people possible, in part to appease corporate sponsors, they have to book the most universally popular bands they can. So now, every summer, festival goers can see more or less the same bands, drink the same beer, and eat the same potato chips at dozens of different festivals around the country. That system also creates space for agents, lawyers, and other middle-man music industry types who help bands access festivals and the often-significant paydays they provide.
This “festival industrial complex,” as Steinhardt calls it, sprung up around his festival too. His inbox was filled with emails from agents trying to land bands on the roster, high-tech companies offering “solutions” for his festivals—mobile apps and so on—and, eventually, lawyers with contracts they wanted Steinhardt to sign. His plan was to avoid as much of that world as possible and essentially book a big show, rather than a “festival” and all the baggage that comes with it.
David Combs, singer and guitarist of the D.C. trio The Max Levine Ensemble looks at Steinhardt’s festival as creating a kind of power that did not exist before. There are scores of small, independent festivals around the country, and Combs and his band have played many of them. “That’s our favorite shit,” he says.
Despite its decade in existence, The Max Levine Ensemble has remained firmly entrenched in the underground punk scene, both by design and circumstance. Big labels and major festivals don’t often come calling. “We work with independent people because that ethically suits us, but it’s also not even a question really,” he says.
And so for the NAMF, Steinhardt started with a long list of like-minded bands and musicians, like The Max Levine Ensemble, that he respects. Freed from the constraints of hosting a showcase just for the label, he contacted them—including some other familiar D.C. bands like The Rememberables, Priests, and Puff Pieces—until he settled on 54 bands to fill the festival’s final roster. Only five or six of those had booking agents, and Steinhardt says he dealt with all the bands directly.
“Bands are going to show up, they’re going to fucking play, and I’m going to pay them,” he said a few weeks before the festival.
The Asbury Park Convention Hall is one of the East Coast’s grand old event spaces—a 60,000- square-foot hall built so close to the ocean that the water used to lap up against the building before a sea wall was built to restrain it.
Inside, its windows and mouldings mirror the intricate design details of Grand Central Station, with which it shares an architect. The hall’s foyer is lined with cafes, nautical-themed restaurants, and kitsch souvenir shops. Inside the main auditorium, the ceiling towers overhead, and its main stage, directly opposite the front doors, was clearly built to the scale of, say, Bruce Springsteen, not Girlpool. Just under 4,000 people can fit inside.
On mid-afternoon Friday, when we arrived at the festival, maybe 100 folks had made it to the gig to hear the first few bands open the festival. The building dwarfed the crowd and at times throughout the festival the proportion of human to building seemed off. But even at first blush, the whole thing—the room, the location, Steinhardt’s vision for what the festival might be—felt expansive and bold. The New Alternative Music Festival announced itself as a big event, intended to house big ideas.
To stock the event with talent, Steinhardt turned to bands that mostly represented a kind of awkward middle class within the music industry. Most bands on the roster were, at least at that moment in their careers, planted between the industry’s two magnetic poles: one that keeps bands firmly within the underground and one that draws bands to a strata where major labels, festival headlining gigs, and commercial radio are all a reality. Don Giovanni is perhaps uniquely populated with bands that straddle economic and ethical lines.
Screaming Females, Downtown Boys, Laura Stevenson, and others on the label’s roster have come to occupy a space Baltimore-based booking agent Dana Murphy says did not exist even a few years ago. Murphy, who runs Unregistered Nurse Booking, sees increasingly smaller bands think and act in business-oriented ways that had been the bailiwick of big bands on major labels—hiring booking agents, retaining publicists, and so on—in the hopes of competing for a bigger audience.
The trouble, Murphy says, is that these industry support professionals who help bands land slots in festivals and coverage in Pitchfork typically only care about that moment in the life of a band. They get paid for that moment, but the bands must carry on well after that festival ends and the Pitchfork article fades into memory.
“The entire trajectory of a band or a whole career is way less interesting to the people involved in that band than it is to the band itself,” she says. Still, Murphy respects the bands that occupy this world and the choices they make as they try to maintain and grow their careers. It’s great to stay in the underground, but for some bands, that’s not financially feasible. “They want to play music forever and they realize it won’t be under the exact conditions that they want,” she says.
So they hire the agent, play the corporate-sponsored gig, accept the sponsorship that makes touring a little bit easier. It’s up to people who create spaces for these bands—indeed, people like herself and Steinhardt—to build alternatives, so the interests of artists and others in the industry begin to converge, she says. The New American Music Festival was meant to be a step in that direction.
It’s early Friday evening, a few hours before Screaming Females headline the first day of the festival, and we’ve found a picnic table just outside the hall with a view of the ocean and an impossibly full and fast-rising moon. The band is here because Steinhardt asked them to play, of course, but also because the concept behind the festival dovetails with the band’s best version of itself—a stalwart of independent music that has remained steadfastly so into its second decade.
Over the course of Screaming Females’ decade-plus years as a band, they have also gained access to a world beyond the reach of its labelmates.
They famously collaborated with Shirley Manson and her band Garbage to cover Patti Smith’s “Because The Night,” which was released as a Record Store Day single. In case you’re curious, guitarist Marissa Paternoster burns the song to the ground. Their cover of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” for The Onion A.V. Club’s Undercover series has more than 1.2 million views on YouTube. Its most recent record, 2015’s acclaimed Rose Mountain, peaked at No. 12 on Billboard’s Heatseekers chart and at No. 21 on its Hard Rock chart. If The Ergs! helped launch Don Giovanni, Screaming Females bestowed importance on the label. It became the home of one of rock’s best bands and arguably its preeminent guitarist.
This is the reality for Screaming Females now. They are a big band in the independent music world and are sometimes sought after to play spaces organized by agents and branded by corporations. A couple of months before we talked, the band had played a concert sponsored by Vans, a shoe so ubiquitous it has become a cliché of punk culture.
“Every now and then there’s an event that happens, and cool bands might be playing it—like, ‘Oh awesome, I’m going to go see Dinosaur Jr.,’” says “King” Mike Abbate, the band’s bassist. “And then you get there and you realize, ‘Oh, this is just an advertisement for Converse, or this is just an advertisement for Vans.’”
The band remains resolutely independent, but their appeal clearly stretches beyond Steinhardt’s utopian vision for the music industry. The band’s presence on the label tests the extent to which independence is truly scaleable. After all, Fugazi are not climbing back on that stage, and bands with the profile of Screaming Females wind up playing the Converse stages and corporate-run festivals.
But for the members of Downtown Boys, the motivation is different. Since joining Don Giovanni, Downtown Boys have been one of its most visible bands. Publications large and small have praised the group’s bilingual, hyper-political dance-punk as the present and future of the genre. The band’s politics align precisely with Steinhardt’s: Their songs advocate for a 100 percent inheritance tax, lash out at systemic white supremacy, and challenge the age-old whitewashing of American history. But in large part because of their message, the members of Downtown Boys want something else. They want to be big.
The issue of whether to participate in corporate media or corporate-owned and -sponsored festivals is nuanced, guitarist and vocalist Joey DeFrancesco says. The band certainly does play such gigs. DeFrancesco says he understands the argument for remaining wholly outside of the corporate world, and insists the band wouldn’t know how to hedge their message on behalf of corporate interests if they were asked to do so. But, again, his band has a message. And the vehicles that will deliver that message to the most people also happens to be owned and operated by the corporations the band philosophically oppose.
“I think we’ve been pretty effective in figuring out how to use that corporate media, and I feel like it is necessary for our band to use the corporate media a little bit to get ourselves out there,” DeFrancesco says.
Getting themselves out there means using the media strategically to ensure their advocacy reaches people who exist outside of what DeFrancesco describes as the world of Dischord Records—a world of primarily white, straight men who have maintained easy and consistent access to underground music since the beginning.
“It has to be a bit more nuanced than just saying it’s all bad,” he says. DeFrancesco has made no secret of his thoughts on this, even from the band’s early days. Growing up, he idolized Rage Against The Machine and he thinks their career path could be a fine model for Downtown Boys.
Victoria Ruiz, the band’s lead singer and churning engine of energy, says she was excited to play Steinhardt’s fest, but she’s also “completely content and happy” to be sponsored by a corporation to play another festival if that means they can travel and spend time with people there. “Ultimately, there is no perfect ethos to getting punk out there,” she says. Truth is, the band probably wouldn’t even be headlining Steinhardt’s festival if they had declined to speak to and appear in corporate media.
Just days before the festival, the trans-positive Olympia, Washington hardcore band G.L.O.S.S. went public with their decision to reject a hefty record deal from the renowned punk label Epitaph Records, whose music is distributed by Warner Bros., one of “The Big Three.”
Sadie Switchblade, the singer of G.L.O.S.S., performed at the festival with her other band Dyke Drama. She and G.L.O.S.S. had come to be seen as the punk community’s clearest example of unwavering independence. The band shunned any and all corporate sponsors and media, despite being persistently courted. But the reaction to the Epitaph snub was more of disbelief than support, Steinhardt suggests. He heard from a lot of folks in the scene who believed the band should have taken advantage of Epitaph’s massive platform, rather than remain true to their principles of independence.
Ruiz appreciates larger platforms. She thinks a lot about mega artists like Beyoncé, Drake, and Rihanna. When she sees them, she doesn’t see the multi-million-dollar faces of corporate music culture. She sees black people running shit. “People say Beyoncé runs the world, a black woman from Texas running the world,” she says. “Her husband, Jay-Z, is talking about the drug war in The New York Times. Those people are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Does that mean their message is any less relevant, or that their message is any less important? Of course not.”
And it’s not like Downtown Boys are Beyoncé. They’re a punk band with saxophones and a very serious message, and their members are generally happy to get that message out however they can.
When Steinhardt first told Laura Stevenson about his idea for the festival, Stevenson says she thought back to the basement shows she used to play with her older bands, and how the community at those shows mattered more than anything else. She also thought about the bigger festivals she now plays with her eponymous band, the majority of which court and accept corporate sponsorships of some kind.
The Fest, in Gainesville, Florida, always struck her as the punkest festival in the country, but Pabst Blue Ribbon, Orange guitar amplifiers, and others have always sponsored it. The NAMF festival feels more punk, at least ethically, she says. Plus, here, things are personal. People help set up and exist to assist the bands with whatever they need. At bigger festivals, she says, it doesn’t always feel that way.
Riot Fest and its ilk are great, Stevenson says. (Indeed every artist I spoke to who mentioned the festival had good things to say about the shows and their organizers.) “It is like night and day, though,” compared to this, she says.
Asked why, then, does she decide to play those festivals—some of which are worse than the still ethically decent Riot Fest—she hesitates for a moment: “Well, I just feel like we aren’t very successful at all. Any way that we can have the opportunity to play for people who have never heard our band before is something that I feel like is a step in a direction. Maybe more people will come to our shows when we play that city next, you know?”
Some bands are lucky, Stevenson says. Critics fawn over them. But that’s not her band. Her band has to get out there and hustle if this thing is going to remain real. “I’m too poor to be as punk as I was when I was a kid, ethically,” she says. “I’ll play a festival that sucks.”
Just six days before it was to begin, Steinhardt realized the festival was not going to come together as he’d hoped. He had struggled to sell tickets, particularly for the Sunday show, and time had run out to try to sell more. He either had to cancel the last day of the festival or risk losing potentially tens of thousands of dollars. So, he canceled the Sunday portion.
Steinhardt chalked up lower-than-expected turnout to location and timing. He could have picked basically any city along the northeast I-95 corridor to host the New Alternative Music Festival, but he chose Asbury Park because he loves New Jersey deeply, and because he could hold the festival at the convention hall there and avoid any corporate interference, obvious or otherwise.
Those principled choices came with consequences. Many made the trip to far-off Asbury Park, but many more who perhaps wanted to attend did not. In all, he figures between 600 and 700 people including the bands attended over the weekend. And expecting people to stay to watch a late-night gig on the shore on a Sunday night was too much to ask, he thinks.
A couple of weeks later, Steinhardt had some time to reflect on the festival—how it went and what it meant. Ultimately, he says, it was a triumph because it happened at all. Yes, he cancelled a day of the festival, and it was seemingly difficult to get people to buy tickets and show up. “But we were able to hold it on our own terms,” he says. “In that sense it was a success.”
He left so excited that he began making calls to friends to discuss where and how to hold the festival next year. “I was kind of amped up on doing it again,” he says. “Maybe in Philly.” That urge has since subsided—he’ll probably just go back to hosting a showcase for the label next year—but the feeling that the festival did what it was intended to do remains, even if fewer people showed up than what was perhaps possible.
But for as many good vibes as the festival provided, Steinhardt says it did little to restore his faith in the ultimate survival of independent music. All festival long, he says, he had discussions with bands, about Don Giovanni and otherwise, that suggested ways the festival could improve next year. Several bands he respects greatly talked about the moves they were making, building their brands, Steinhardt says. “In some ways, I feel worse about it.”
Actually, Steinhardt feels beaten down in a lot of ways, both by the apathy within the scene and the expectation, spoken and unspoken, that bands and labels and festivals should keep trying to make moves, to get that good look, to grow bigger and bigger—the idea that success is somehow tied to doing things on a larger scale and permitting all of the brushes with corporate power that scale requires.
Combs spends a lot of time thinking about this, too: What does it mean to be an independent artist? There’s a balance most artists must strike between maintaining their pure, unbridled independence and taking part in the corporate music industry, the politics of which they may dislike.
He admires bands that stick to a Fugazi-style avoidance of corporate culture, like G.L.O.S.S. Steinhardt’s festival is a step toward creating a true alternative, so bands don’t have to settle for playing corporate-run festivals alongside shitty bands if they don’t want. “To try to do something on that level creates a sense of dual power, where bands have the option of not playing corporate festivals just because that’s what’s available to them,” Combs says.
And he wishes other festivals would shed some of their corporate baggage, he says. That’s not really going to happen, of course, so independent bands create space where they can. They deliver their message—musically or verbally—and hope people at the corporate-sponsored event they’re playing pick up on that, and it helps expand their artistic and political pallette. As for the Pabst banner behind the stage? That’s just one of the compromises some independent artists make.
Less than a week after the festival, G.L.O.S.S. published a short statement announcing its members had decided to dissolve the band. “We want to measure success in terms of how we’ve been able to move people and be moved by people, how we’ve been able to grow as individuals,” the band wrote in the post. “This band has become too large and unwieldy to feel sustainable or good anymore.”
Steinhardt can relate to the sentiment. “I get wanting to give up,” he says.