Culture and the formation of global subcultures

This is a talk I gave to the national marketing team of a large Australian brewer. The brief was to talk about Skate, Graff & Youth culture with a view to showing how a culture might be successfully influenced.

© SRGyory 2/2013

I was asked to speak to you about says Skate, Graff & Youth culture and before I start I want to qualify that I don’t skate, cant paint and I’m no longer a youth.

So why am I here?

Well, to assure you that I’m not going to be wasting anyone’s time, know that in my younger days I did skate (badly) and have the scars to prove it and while I’ve never picked up a spray can in my life, the business I co-own and operate has had Council Approved Street Art walls for 10 years, which I curate.

Lastly, as you can tell from my beard I am now old and wise and so must therefore, by definition, have been young and stupid at some stage.

My own field is dance music and I’d like actually to speak about my experiences within this sub-culture, as opposed to the Skate or Graf sub-cultures because there are some interesting parallels to be drawn.

I’ve been in what you’d call the dance music industry in Sydney for about 20 years. I’ve DJ’d here and abroad, written and released dance music, promoted parties and festivals, including one of the first multi-room, multi-genre parties ever in Sydney, the Platipus Sound System Tour at home nightclub in 2000.

I co-own and but solely operate a Recordstore called the Recordstore and while I’d like to be able to tell you that I saw Google coming a mile off, I have to admit that it was sheer lack of imagination that led to us snagging the generic name for out business, not that it’s hurt us.

I’ve been doing this with my not-silent-enough business partner for 10 years. Prior to that I managed another Sydney record store called BPM Records for 5 years and prior to that, I attended Sydney University where I somehow finished a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Psychology, while simultaneously taking part in the birth of warehouse parties and dance music festivals in Sydney.

I feel now and also did so at the time that I was experiencing something truly remarkable back then. I have the distinct memory of standing there in the field at one of the first ever outdoor raves in Sydney: Happy Valley 1, Saturday the 23rd of November, 1991, the the day after my HSC finished.

There I stood in my purple overalls and silver shoelaces listening to this techno music that I’d never really heard in context before, not knowing how or where it was made or by whom, in the middle of this crowd of 2000+ people all having the time of their lives and thinking to myself, this is insane, this has never happened before, and I’m here, in the middle of it, part of it. This is a revolution; this is like our generation’s Woodstock.

And it was like Woodstock, in that it wasn’t the first outdoor dance music festival in the world, and it wasn’t the first time that dance music had been played to a crowd like this, but it was part of that first wave of EDM [Electronic Dance Music] that pulsed around the world.

This wave began 20 years before that, with a drop; a blip, with a German band called Kraftwerk, who used “COM-PU-TERS” to make music; machine music. It took a generation, but by the late 80s the technology had become cheap enough and good enough that anyone could do it, and they did.

Obviously I’m oversimplifying, but it’s true enough.

So there in the late 80’s and early 80’s you’ve got all these elements coming together, relatively inexpensive Synthesisers, MIDI, Samplers, Drum machines, and a new wave of recreational pharmaceuticals and BAM, House music is born.

But did Frankie Knuckles and his crew set out to create House music when they plugged in their drum machines and began fiddling with repetitive beats at a nightclub in Chicago called the Warehouse in the mid 1980s? I’d wager not, it was just the name that got attached to the thing that they were doing.

Then what happened?

Dance music got popular and it diversified and split into many, many sub-genres. This ‘new music’ and the pastime of going out and dancing to it in big empty rooms spread around the world very quickly, and what started with small groups of people with a huge passion for this making this music then began to grow and started attracting other people; people who just loved to listen to it, but also people who just wanted to go to a big party and didn’t care what they listened to, and people who just wanted to be associated with the new big thing, and then, of course, people who wanted to sell stuff to all these people.

As more people got involved, other motivations came to play and some people simply viewed the whole thing as a money-making enterprise. So even though there were scrupulous people doing the right thing, there were also other kind of people; we called them dodgy promoters.

The whole thing blew up, and then literally, blew up. There were tragedies, farces … a number of avoidable deaths and all the bad press that went along with that – in fact, I still have a new paper clipping with the headline “Dance Craze That Kills”.

Nail in the coffin? Not so much, because what happened next was interesting.

After the big hullabaloo, some laws were enacted and/or (finally) enforced, and the media spotlight faded and the general pubic became used to the notion of kids going to dance parties because more often than not they didn’t die, in fact they died far less at dance parties than they did doing the others things kids had always done, and people realised that this is just what this generation had chosen to do for fun.

Internally, something else happened, because the people with the right intentions, generally the ones doing it because they really loved it, were shaken up by the bad press and the dodgy promoters and kinda realised that if they wanted to protect the thing they loved they had to take control, to self regulate, to intervene in events and a community began to form.

In Sydney it started with an Internet messaging board called Ausdance and many heated debates about how things should be done ensued. Obviously, through this board contacts were made, and people shared stories and essentially, and without really being aware of it, the core of an industry was born.

Other people set up other sites and, in fact, a University friend of mine, Libby Clarke, along with her friends – and partners – Neil and Dre, from the bedroom of their terrace in Redfern, set up a website to share the photos of these dance parties that were happening more and more frequently in and around Sydney, it was called inthemix.com.au.

Some of you may have heard of this, but if you haven’t it’s arguably now Australia’s largest go-to site for all things dance music. And it’s far more than just a photo-sharing site, with articles and interviews and big brand advertising, ticketing and Libby and her crew have set up more websites catering for other sub-cultures and employ 30+ people.

In a timely coincidence there was a post on my Facebook late last week, an acquaintance named Tim Hardaker was celebrating the 10th anniversary of his employment at The Sound Alliance, as Libby’s company is called. And he wrote a little story thanking Libby for convincing him to drop out of Uni to come work for them and more pertinently for you guys, to thank Neil for securing their first big sponsorship deal with Smirnoff to be able to afford to employ Tim full time.

I think it’s important to note that Smirnoff stepped in to support something that was already there, that is, they didn’t attempt re-create the wheel, but got involved in steering. This enabled a bunch of passionate driven people within in the industry to grow this community and keep the site authentic and relevant.

So that, in a nutshell, is the story of dance music in Sydney from my perspective, but before I talk a bit about Skate and Graf I think it’s worth having a think about what culture actually is.

For a start, I think we need to tweak the brief

This says Skate, Graff & Youth culture. But Skating and Graffiti are recently come of age youth cultures, just like Dance Music is. In fact I think it’s probably safe to say that it is actually usually always young people who invent new “CULTURES”.

I am sure there are exceptions and I know I am generalising, but on the whole I think it is spot on because I believe that culture is actually just the name of the stuff, any of the stuff we, humans, do to occupy ourselves, and seeing that adults generally are occupied, it down to the kids to dream up new ways to entertain and express themselves

But when does something become a true “sub-culture”, as opposed to just some stuff some kids are doing? I think there are two criteria. 1) The activity spreads from its place of origin all around our world and 2) Even though the activity takes on many different local flavours, the sense of identity between the practitioners is still very high. I.e. they have more in common than not. I think a successful sub-culture is one that embraces and feed on diversity.

It’s really only with the advent of global communication that this has been possible and so we are really seeing something quite new at this scale. This makes sense because for an activity to spread it has to be communicated, which is why the proto sub-cultures in Australia were taken from British and US TV shows and before that from the radio – think early to mid 20th century dance crazes.

This element of identifying a sub-culture as such is interesting too; it cuts both ways, enabling those involved to identify each other, but also opening the whole thing up to being labelled and marketed to.

My point here is that, for time immemorial, humans have bunged labels on things so that they could sell them. This is not necessarily bad, but it can change things for the better or worse.

To give you another example from my field: people sometimes come into the store and make jokes about all the many and varied sub and sub-sub and sub-sub–sub genres of music and they ask me about them. And I say to them that those sub genres only exist for two reasons 1) to talk about the music and 2) to sell the music.

Note that music is primarily for listening or dancing to, and so any labels in this regard are pointless. They’re an externality.

So we then point out that most really good DJ’s never, ever limit themselves to one style or another because each and every sub genre of dance music is just a way to refer to the many ways in which the structure of beats, melodies, tempo and instruments can be put together in dance music. It’s all still dance music and it can all go together.

For example the difference between house music and breakbeat is a missing kick drum. That’s it. That’s pretty much all, and yet you have these two huge sub genres and, you know, followers who rampantly believe that their arrangement of the drum pattern is superior to the other guys arrangement of a drum pattern.

And if you want to do a big event based around one of those drum patterns you have to work out how to engage the crowd of people who identify with that particular drum pattern.

This is where the naming thing comes in and I’m not cynical, I understand, it’s important to be able to name, and break down and identify for these purposes, especially when one persons idea of fun, has grown into a global phenomenon and become a ‘culture’ that young people can buy into emotionally and, therefore, economically.

But, there weren’t any sub genres at the start, when Mr Knuckles & Co invented House, and they weren’t really trying to sell anything, they were just come kids having fun.

But their fun was so much fun that other people wanted to have it to, and it grew and split and morphed and schismed and mended and grew even more until it came of age and became the global thing that it is today, where any kid can go out and get himself a virtual studio packed full of thousands and thousands 24-Bit high quality samples and sounds to pick and chose to make whatever style of dance music he or she wants to, and then sell to the world – if they are talented …  and lucky

So yeah, kids having fun, lets look at that, because when I was a kid, culture wasn’t fun and skating wasn’t considered a culture, it was still just a lowly pastime.

It used to be that culture was only what your parents approved. You know, you’d watching some rubbish on TV and your mum would get up you about how you needed to get some culture. I know now that she actually meant, broaden my horizons, get an education; learn stuff about history and the like.

But yeah, I remember this notion of High Culture, as if what dead people had done when they were alive was somehow far more valuable that what live people were doing. But I want to repeat, personally, I believe that culture really just is the stuff we do to stop ourselves being bored or killing each other.

I’d wager that if you could go and ask anyone who ever founded anything that became a ‘sub-culture’ why they did it, they’d shrug and go, ‘I dunno, I was bored and it seemed like fun’.

In a brief aside here, I saw Sir Tim Berners-Lee speak 2 weeks ago at Sydney Town Hall, he was the physicist who invented the file-sharing protocols of the World Wide Web. Long story short, he was working at CERN, the massive particle accelerator under the border of France and Switzerland, and one day was looking at all the mountains of printed documents they took to meetings and sat there thinking … ‘they’re all printed, so they’re all there spinning on a someone’s hard drive or a disk but we have to print them because it impossible for me to reach from my computer into their computer and grab that file in a way that I can import it to mine actually read it.’

Bear in mind the physical architecture of the Internet had been around for 20 years at that stage – computers were connected, but they were really speaking to each other properly. So he wrote a memo about it and took it to his boss and his boss – who later wrote on the memo “vague but exciting” – sent Tim off and told him to go have a play. And Tim recounted this, he said that he truly and honestly believed that all invention come from play.

So there.

Fun!

I think it’s really important that people never lose sight of the concept of fun. The human animal seeks out novelty and amusement, that’s its basic drive after food and sex.

So, back to the concept of culture when I grew up …

All that high culture, Greek vases, the classic paintings that the privileged or ‘educated’ hold over the ‘uneducated’ is really, just the stuff people did back then for fun.

Oh of course, you had serious painters getting paid serious money to paint serious pictures, but I suspect that it’s far more likely that that cave-person who drew that picture of the bison on the walls of the Lascaux Caves in France 17,000 years ago, was just having some fun!

I’d put money on that and, oh yeah, there, by the way, if you didn’t notice, I just brought graffiti into this spiel.

But yeah, the really fascinating thing about culture “kids having fun” is how it is seen and understood today.

The old picture, the one painted for me at school was that somehow, if you simply add time, culture becomes more valid. But let’s face it, an urn was just something someone needed to store a particular liquid, maybe their beer or wine.

And those lovely famous painted urns from 2000 years hence, you know, there’s two ways to see them.

You can (over)-intellectualise it and go on to talk about techniques and the chemical make-up of the paint and how those images offer a rare glimpse into the ancient culture, but I think that this is the wrong way to look at this. Because that’s just one urn from one village or city and there countless more from countless other cultures but we don’t get to see a lot of those, so we risk simplifying the past because of its limited ability to communicate with us.

All these ‘high culture’ considerations serve to remove us from this urn and the people using it and painting it, when really, the truth of the matter is that people just needed store things and so people started making urns. It’s not a big stretch to think that someone with some extra time on their hands then looked at that plain old functional urn and decided to spiff it up with some paint.

So you know, this thing, that we dug up out of the ocean and put on display as this rare and beautiful thing that speaks to our past, was just this thing to the people using it. A functional thing that someone painted because it looked plain – which, not at all coincidentally, is exactly the reason we started getting artists to paint the walls at our shop 🙂

So this “culture” from thousands of years ago, was just stuff they did to brighten up their lives – you know, have a bit of fun, express themselves. It was just what they did.

What’s changed now is simply the size and reach of global communication. For probably the first time ever we have the technology that enables behaviours to go global.

And they simply become sub-culture when a critical mass of people decide that they identify with it.

So how about the Skate subculture?

I always wanted to be a skater. Bought the clothes, had my decks, watched the videos, but I was just plain crap at it. So I dunno, I don’t know if I consider that I was ever a skater, I guess I was a wanna-be. I wanted to be part of that sub-culture, really badly, so badly that I cracked my head open and tore the cartridge of my right shoulder blade before I realised I was just not a skater.

But from the outside, you know, when I was 15 and skating down the street to get to the shops, the old geezer shouting abuse at me totally identified me with that sub-culture. So perceptions are key too. Because all the really good skaters knew I was crap, and therefore, I suppose, a fraud. But I had bought into it, because I wanted to buy into it, and so I spent my hard earned dollars on it, trying to be it.

Obviously, my background is music, but I think Skate, Graf and EDM have all developed in the same way.

Again, take skating. Those first cats in California who stuck wheels on the bottom of a bit of wood, they were in no way shape of form, setting out to create the culture of skateboarding. They were just a bunch of kids having fun …

By why them and why there?

I would say opportunity!

They were a generation of kids who had spare time. They weren’t working in factories, or dying in wars (well, not all of them) and so they had the chance and the opportunity. But there was one other really important factor.

Ball-bearings

By this I mean, I think culture is technology driven. If you think about urns, they only came about when someone figured out how to fire clay. That’s technology. The technology came first out of necessity and then someone figured out how to have fun with it.

And I would argue that all culture is technology driven if only because humanity is technology driven and, also, constantly looking for ways to express themselves or have fun.

Think about it, the first people to master fire, that was technology, and for those who did not have the technology they didn’t fare so well and potentially didn’t pass on their genes.

So humans have not just evolved with technology, but because of it, it’s facilitated our evolution. So much so, that it makes us!

We create it and it, in turn shapes us.

So there we are, California, post World War two technology boom, wealthy healthy educated kids with access to their dad’s equipment and tools and one wiseguy surfer unscrews his sister’s roller skate wheels and slaps them on a piece of wood so he can surf the streets.

But then some other kids see him it and think that looks like fun, and the thing grows and evolves, and the first group of kids give themselves a name to differentiate themselves from that next group of kids who then also get themselves a name, and so the crews form and compete and through plain old showing off and wanting to impress, tricks are invented, and boards refined and someone films it, and then sells a few copies of the tape and realises they can do better and sell more, and you know, at some point, this thing goes massive.

It gets out of anyone’s control, and then other people get involved and try to make a buck and people accuse people of selling out and then the recriminations start, and shit goes down, and it all seems to fall over, and the media decries that it was just a passing fad. Except that the cats who were just into it from the start, are still skating, everywhere, all around the world, as if the first wave serves to wash these ideas to every shore, and leaves them there as it pulls back.

But then, with the attention off them, and the money-makers having moved off to the next latest fad they can milk, the skaters get organised and they quietly go about building the kind of industry they want around the thing they love to do. And just like inthemix, the smart money doesn’t go in and try and re-create the culture, it finds the good elements and supports them and contributes. I mean look at the most popular skating computer game, it’s no coincidence that it’s called Tony Hawk

To jump back to graffiti for moment, now that Banksy has made street art cool, and the generations who grew up as it was forming have the money to buy it, there’s a full-on debate, and a fair bit of animosity, within the community about ‘selling out’, about people simply doing street art to promote shows.

This is a common theme in sub-cultures that come of age, because the coming of age really entails the sub-culture being taken out of the hands of the early practitioners – the old school, the hard core – and being put into the public domain, where it’s buffeted by many winds, including the unscrupulous and the just plain dumb.

It’s also worth noting that people have graffitied for millennia, that is, written their names on walls. The word was actually coined in to describe writing on the walls discovered in Pompeii in 1851, and comes from the Italian word ‘graffito’ which literally means “a scribbling”.

But Graff, as in, people using aerosolised paint sprayed from disposable cans, started appearing just around about the same time that disposable cans went into mass production in the USA.

There’s technology driving culture for you again. Obviously not every technological innovation has this effect, but you have to remember that in terms of self expression people have been dancing, drawing and doing sport for millennia, so it’s only natural that those innate urges are going to latch onto new appropriate technologies.

This is kind of interesting too because we’re currently going through a massive, massive technological revolution in communication, the very thing that’s facilitated the spread of these youth cultures.

And this is happening because people, and especially young people, have open and easy access to the virtual space and almost limitless virtual tools with which to create things in that space.

I don’t think the US Navy, when they invented the Internet, or Sir Tim Berners-Lee, when he created the Web, were thinking about self-expression, they were solving problems and create new technologies to do so.

We’re talking military projects, and international atomic physics, and yet, here we are, 40 and 20 years later respectively, with ‘designer’ being the job of the 21st century.

I think it’s interesting to note those time frames too. Those cycles of 40 and 20 years are repeated across music, skating, graffiti, the internet and why?
To me it smells like generations.

That’s three generations right there. It seems that one generation invents, the next refines and the third get to enjoy the fully-fledged culture in all its glorious fragmented detail.

And fragmentation is an interesting notion too and from what I read in the media I see it happening with alcohol. It’s often reported that drinking is a culture in Australia and it used to be one big mono-culture but it no longer is because it’s fragmented.
Well, I can tell you from experience in my own business that it’s hard to manage this. Not as in hard to figure out, that’s the easy part, but hard work to do.

To explain, in the heyday of DJ record stores in Darlinghurst, where our store is, there were 14 shops, all catering to specific sub-genres. This was fine when we had the monopoly of supply. When people could not order records online and download was not even a word. But now everyone can get everything everywhere. So how did we, the last remaining store in Darlinghurst, survive?

Well, we have fun! J

I’m not kidding, people don’t have to shop in our store, they want to, they want to come in for the genuine experience, for the 700 watt speakers, for the 3 decks and two mixers on the counter, to talk shit with out staff, to crack a beer or cider and listen to tunes.

They can get what we sell online faster and cheaper than we can get it, but they CHOOSE not to, because it’s fun to hang out and thus shop in our store. Having said this we also had to completely diversify our catalogue, which was also hard, really hard when you consider that we used to sell 100 copies of the latest 12” singles in a week, and now we might do 5.

We also don’t, ever, put the hard word on people to buy our stock and we don’t take ourselves seriously. For real, people these days are way too aware of when they are being gamed. They want to make their own decisions and the best you can do is just put the things they want in front of them in the funnest possible way.

(Of course, having great staff ordering in a great section of stock is also vital)

So, in terms of managing fragmentation – or graininess -I think it’s interesting to look at how Obama ran and won his last election campaign.

These guys built a massive, number crunching machine, built a nationwide integrated data-bass complete with iphone and ipad apps that could link a single activist with a single voter. And they did. They used data to target individual people, with individual tastes through their preferred networks of communication and then sent the appropriate kind of person to visit them or contact them in a way that would not grate with the potential voter.

Communication, marketing, life, everything is becoming grainer as we get more data and more ways to utilise the data. It’s this fragmentation again. So mass marketing is over. The days of fish in a barrel are over. People are too switched on to the alternatives, so you have to become the alternatives or at least associate yourself with them in a credible, authentic way.

Not to blow my own trumpet but we, the recordstore, often get complimented on ‘keeping it alive’  – as in, the culture of record buying, and it’s weird because as the world gets more and more digital and more and more things move into the virtual space people are now finding that they miss some of the physical things. More than once I’ve seen a digital DJ come back to vinyl because digital is, well, too easy, boring, too much like work, and vinyl is, yup, fun.

So, the tyranny of physical supply is over, it’s the telcos and the portals who have that monopoly now. What our store provides that the Internet cannot is a real experience, and we have to provide an experience that people want and what’s been interesting for me, is realising that when you can’t provide it you need to get out of the way.

I realised this just recently, because I only just realised that I’ve gotten old.

Not that I am, but it didn’t really hit me until two years ago one day in my store, that I was no longer a kid and that my industry had become a fully fledged cultural phenomenon.

A young guy came in, and we started speaking, turns out he was doing his HSC and he mentioned he was doing music and had just finished an assessment essay. I asked him what he’d done it on, expecting to hear about one of the classics, and he answered: “Detroit techno, specifically Derrick May.” And I thought, holy shit, I saw Derrick May play at an illegal rave in a car park when I was this guy’s age.

Then I was invited to a drinks evening with Inertia Music, which has gone from being a bedroom operation 10 years ago, to being one of Australia biggest Independent Music companies. We have a fantastic relationship with Inertia and I know and have known most of the people there longer than the company has been around – again more people doing what they love because they love it.

So I was completely taken aback when I was introduced to this really, really young guy, whom I had never met before and was informed that he was their new Aussie Music A&R guy. I mean I knew their old guy; he was older than me, and very good at his job, flying off overseas to Miami and PopComm to lock down the next big international thing.

But this young guy, they got him in because he didn’t just know about the local culture, or write about it, or work in it … he lived it and breathed … authentically … it and so he was best placed of anyone to see and hear what bands were coming up in the scene.

It’s the same reason I don’t work the counter at my store anymore, I got a young gun in who is passionate and loves it and goes to every gig he can and can basically talks the shit the kids want to talk in the shop, using their language on their terms.

Now obviously both these guys were chosen because they had talents, great ears and musical knowledge etc, but my point is simply this: I know that for my shop to stay relevant it needs to be involved, immersed in the sub-culture it’s part of.

We can’t just be a hole in the wall flogging a product, we need to be engaged; we need to be, and are, an active, authentic and, most of all, fun contributor to the sub-culture we love.

——————

NOTE: It was a kid called Steve Wozniak who invented personal computing, in his dad’s garage in California after WW2, having some fun playing around with the spare parts and circuits his dad brought home from his government defence job.

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2 responses to “Culture and the formation of global subcultures

  1. This was really mind opening for me . I didn’t realize how much that technology really impacts the different sub-cultures and that it creates new sub-cultures.

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