This past weekend I watched a documentary about the 1980s punk/pop band Blondie, produced by the BBC. It’s available on YouTube if you want to look for it (I don’t think it’s legally there, so I’m not linking — a silly little concession to the copyright police but, you know, whatever).
Along with the Ramones, Talking Heads, and Patti Smith, etc., Blondie was one of the acts that came out of the downtown New York punk rock scene of the time, a scene whose center was the splendidly filthy hole-in-the-wall club CBGB. I’ve heard a lot about CBGB over the years, and had imagined that it must have been an amazing place to be. I guess it was. What I had never heard was this: at the time, the vast majority of the people in the audience were the members of the other bands. “It was so incestuous. You couldn’t throw a guitar pick out into the crowd without hitting a Ramone or a Talking Head,” said one of the Blondie bandmembers.
This reminded me of the complaints I see on Twitter, and in blog posts here and there, about how most of the people buying self-published eBooks are the same people who are writing them. That’s not completely true (you kind of have to doubt that every single one of Amanda Hocking’s fans are preparing a manuscript), but it is true enough that it feels completely true sometimes.
I used to hear the same thing in the webcomics scene, back in the late 90s and early 00s, when I first got involved in that cluster of fun. We were all worried that the only people reading webcomics were making them, and there was no real audience.
But we were wrong. A lot of successes came out of the webcomics scene, people actually making a living creating non-superhero, non-Marmadukey, non-anything-familiar comics, comics like xkcd and Hark, a Vagrant — something that would not have been possible if the webcomics scene hadn’t been there.
Likewise, the “incestuous” CBGB scene gave us “Top 10” acts like Blondie and Talking Heads, as well as “perennials” like The Ramones and Patti Smith who, though relatively less popular in their day, will always be selling albums, as long as albums are sold.
Maybe an “incestuous” period is a necessary phase of any successful indie movement. Maybe there’s something about the early days, when the only people paying attention are really just waiting for their chance at the microphone, that makes for particularly fertile art-making? Could be the competition. Or just the showing off for your peers. The lightning-fast exchange of energy. Invention requires imitation, and imitation requires invention. I dunno. Here’s what I do know: years later, you’ll brag about having been a part of this thing, the same way people brag about having taken a dump (or made love, or shot up) in the infamous CBGB toilet. Even if you feel kind of annoyed by the whole incestuous scene right now. Because those people at CGBG — they were annoyed at the time, too.
I mean: have you seen those toilets?
See what I’m saying?