Thoughts on cultural appropriation part II

So I started with looking at punk rock, because that is a scene I’ve been a part of for 20 or years now, and I know it best.  It was (and still mostly is) also low stakes.  There was no way anyone could have known in the late 80s that you could become a rock star by playing punk music, so anyone playing punk rock was doing so either for fun or because they thought they could make a career out of it by working hard in the underground.

Once punk bands did start having success there would be people who would consciously decide to put together a band in the hopes that they’d be famous.  Sometimes it worked.  Existing bands had several options, which I mentioned the last time- stay underground and make a small income that they could possibly live on or gamble with a major label recording deal.

I haven’t really talked about the smaller labels that existed at that time- they too had a similar choice- stay underground or try to get bigger.  Some, like Epitaph, signed distribution deals with larger labels and are now fairly large by the standards of our era.  Some, like Fat Wreck Chords, stayed underground and flourished by being smart businesspeople.  Of course labels that wanted to remain small had an interest in making sure that people who bought their records would continue to do so, and not spend all their money on bands that had jumped to major labels.  I don’t know how much influence they had on the fanzines that were taking their ad money, but I don’t doubt they had some.

But the bottom line is that punk rock was mostly a hobby for people at that point.  There weren’t tricky issues of race or downtrodden communities to deal with.  There wasn’t even a ton of money, because even the biggest bands, Green Day, Rancid, The Offspring, were still overshadowed by grunge.  Music’s big stars were mostly ignoring it, and still do.  Punk rock was no one’s ticket out of the ghetto and most musicians, at that point, could walk away from it fairly easily.

I’m not trying to write a college term paper here, but the key things to think about are- everyone involved in the conversation has a privilege or an opportunity to protect.  The stakes differ depending on how important those privileges or opportunities are.  There is often a power imbalance between key players and those player’s options will greatly affect their choices.

I think I’ve answered the question of –who cares? fairly well.  The tougher question is- who is right?

The answer is- it depends.  Obviously.  But I’m going to try to expand beyond the small, low stakes world of punk rock, see how things look.




  1. I hope people don’t start a legal war over this stuff. Artists are having enough trouble keeping alive without getting a lot of lawyers involved in a turf war. Can you imagine how Western music would have developed if Bach had legal ownership of the Baroque style so Mozart and Beethoven couldn’t build on it? All the arts build, borrow and sometimes outright steal from other artists, cultures, composers, performers. You name it. But that’s how creativity works. You can’t stop it, but you can make it harder and more expensive. You can make creation ever more burdensome until people give up in despair.

    1. There was a lot of legal wrangling over sampling in rap music, but that’s a slightly different issue. Mostly I’m interested in the ethics of this because I see people debating it all the time and I realized my own thoughts have changed over the years. Before I was really in a band I would throw around words like “poser” or “sell-out” pretty indiscriminately. They’re useful words, but I was probably being unfair a good deal of the time.

      1. We all say stuff like that, especially when we are young and convinced we are guardians of The Truth and all those old fogies don’t get it. We never imagine we will be held to it … or the weird ways our own words may come back to bite us!

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