A friend of mine was telling a story about a small business event where a sponsor chose to order food from a nearby chain instead of getting it from one of the local restaurants the sponsor had personally invited to attend(!). The sponsor proceeded to eat the takeout in front of the restaurant owners. In front of them.
I wanted to scream hearing about it. My friend said he walked out. We grew up in a local music scene together, I invoked the ethics of our youth –
“Don’t they know punk rock economics? Nothing is cool without a scene – and if you’re trying to make a scene, you know, like by sponsoring events – you have to be an active participant. You have to be in the band AND in the audience as a fan.”
My friend added, “Exactly. Total corporate rock whore vibes. All sellout, no soul.”
“I should write a post about this.”
“Yeah, you should write a post about it. What we saw with bands years ago is the same as this crap I just saw. Some of us want to make a scene. Others want to exploit it. I just want to be a part of something I, and a bunch of my friends, can be proud of. This area used to be so good at it. I know we can bring it back, just to have to call BS on idiots like this. You should write the post, I’d read that.”
He had a point. In an ever-polarized, increasingly non-local world, these lessons are really important. How do you make a scene without selling-out, and elevate your friends and their work at the same time?
Punk Rock Economics. That’s how. Let’s do this.
I never got the MBA. I got some certifications and even some letters after the name – but the lessons I learned playing in bands, through high school and college, seem more applicable than anything I’d learn in a school. One of the most useful ideas is one I call Punk Rock Economics.
It feels almost like a magic trick. But through experience and (much later, a LOT of) personal reflection – I think I’ve cracked it. It applies any time you’re trying to gather people around an idea you really believe in. I didn’t just study this case, I lived it. You’ve lived a version of it too I bet, but let me break it down for you:
Gather 2 or more of your friends. Make something cool. Invite some friends to check it out. Find other groups of creators and friends to expand your collective audiences. Repeat – adding more groups and more friends as you go. You now have a scene.
It’s not just marketing. It’s not just business school case studying. This is Punk Rock Economics.
Let’s make it even more concrete.
Gather 4 friends and start a (5-piece) band. Write some songs you collectively think are cool. Never forget: “good” doesn’t matter – only “cool” does. Feels baby. Feels.
Everybody invite a friend, or boyfriend/girlfriend, or a weird kid from class who A. at least sort of likes you, and B. is likely to think this idea is cool too. If they say as little as, “hey, not bad” you’re onto something.
Oh, and if the friends or boyfriends/girlfriends make no comment or don’t want to come back – go back to the drawing board on what you’re making OR get new friends. The latter path is acceptable. Sometimes, if the core band is really vibing, this is the way. Other times, you might just be bad and not cool. It’s not hard to troubleshoot if you’re willing to be honest and vulnerable.
Congratulations. You have fans. Now it’s time to find some other bands and a play a show.
If you can find 5 other bands who all #1. think they themselves are cool, #2. have some friends who agree they’re cool, and #3. are willing to play in public, book a venue and put on a show.
Here’s the economics part: let’s say each band has 5 members each. 5 bands on the bill means there’s automatically 25 people at the show. If every band member has one friend who shows up, 50 people are at the show. (note: 5 piece bands are here only to make the math easier)
Nobody is getting financially rich off of this – but 45 people packed into a small area in front of a stage and agreeing you are cool can make you status-rich.
This is a good time to remind you to never ever overlook the size of the room. A 300-person hall with 30 people always sucks. A 100-person room with 120 people in it may be a fire hazard, but it’s also got religious experience potential.
Critically, before you get carried away, never ever ever overlook you are in a band AND in the audience. More on this later.
Do all this successfully and you now have a scene. A real scene. With bands and fans and shows and great vibes. Neat.
If the scene, or at least a few of the bands really are cool – more friends are going to be made. More people are going to show up. Scaling is real and unavoidable.
A headlining act might be able to pull 250 people to see their 5 piece band. If your band can pull the 45 people from your scene to support the “cooler” headliner, you’re playing in front of 300 people. Suddenly your scene is getting seen.
And if it’s truly cool, it’s really going to grow from here. More people playing on your cool status. Bigger rooms to support the vibes.
As shared bills with headliners grow your audience, your band is headed towards headliner status. You’ll get bigger and bigger rooms to pack your fans and friends into. You’ll also get to repeat the favor for others. If you choose to. You can and will say “no” at times, but your help can change lives.
But this is still punk rock economics. There’s a dark side. Enter the reality of the bad type of selling out (and the existential crisis of reconciling how “selling out” of stuff is the whole friggin’ point of starting a business).
If the headlining act draws 2,500 people (or 25,000!), you must beware the sellout phenomena. This is where once cool-status gets stained with the appearance of having been traded in for financial gain.
Different friends and fan groups view “selling out” in different ways. Some things are only special when they’re small – you have to keep this in mind. And, mo’ fans, mo’ problems. Not mo’ money, mo’ problems necessarily. It sucks, but it’s the honest truth.
A good way to know if you’re dealing with a classic Punk Rock Economics scale conundrum is to ask:
Is what makes your scene cool the communal mix of local ideas and friends?
Is your scene indicative of many more communities, where local ideas and friends can be made on the spot in new locations? Does “small” matter relative to “cool”? Are there benefits of scaling up?
Can you scale up in the latter scenario without selling out?
This question is almost too important. It brings us back to the original point about always being in the band and in the audience. If you ever stop being a fan or showing up to support others, you’ve sold out. You’ve traded social status for financial gain and you can’t trade it back anymore. If you keep being a fan, it is possible to scale the fan base, keep selling out venues, merch, and misc. stuff, but not be labeled as a sellout.
Why does any of this matter? Because all scenes have have social and financial rules. All scenes have size constraints. Most importantly, all scenes have fans – and the most important way to have status within a scene is to be both a creator and a pro-active fan at the same time.
Everything that’s all about money, everything that’s too big, or too “corporate” – it’s because the people sold out. They’re not fans anymore. They’re in it for the money and the status.
Everything that’s all about the people, that still feels small, and “local” – it’s because the people refuse to sell out. They’re still fans. They’re in it for the scenes status, and they’re in it to make something cool. Something bigger than any one of them.
That’s punk rock economics.
We need more of it. Cool bands and cool fans. It might just be the thing that saves us all.
Saving the global has to start local.
Pin that to your jacket.