'Punk, DIY culture, The Internet, & OneWebDay'

A couple of years ago my friend Vivien Goldman - The Punk Professor - asked to me to talk to her class at NYU about fanzines. Back in the late 70s I ran Better Badges, making millions of punk badges, and, after acquiring printing equipment, printed and published fanzines on a walk-in basis. Now, Vivien had given her students a thorough cultural grounding - extending punk's roots back through rock'n'roll to blues, jazz, constructivism and dada. I was able, I hope, to bring an additional perspective as to the technological developments that enabled such an upswell just at this time, well before most of the students were born.

First I showed them a Beatles 'fan' magazine from the 60s noting how it was printed using letterpress and individual etched blocks for each photograph, then a late 60s pop magazine printed using photo offset litho to produce glorious color pin-ups. In these days 'image' was a major concern of popular artists - the outlets were few and far between and controlled by corporate interests with publicity machines. The same thing went for radio and distribution. The gulf between publishers and consumers was practically infinite. Replication of anything was beyond the means of the average person.

But then things started to change. Philips had introduced the Compact Cassette in 1964, but it was only in the early 70s, with the introduction of dolby and better tapes that it began to be used for music. Manufacturers, mostly Asian, began cranking out double-cassette decks that could be used for duplication. At the same time Xerox, previously prohibitively expensive and of poor quality, became more widely available and decent looking. This was matched by new cheaper offset presses such as the 'Multilith 1250' and 'Instant Printing' processes that dramatically reduced the cost of making plates.

Thus by 1976, for the first time, the enabling means of viral culture were available. Using just such technology I started making & selling promotional badges in London. At very the first show I tried it at, a new band from NYC called The Ramones played - I made badges of them and sold lots! Punk rock was on! An essential component of the punk ethos was rejection of the seperation between producer and consumer - anyone could do it, and often did. Means of participation included fashion, painting a band's name on your clothing, or wearing a badge. I coined the phrase "Image As Virus" as a slogan. Impromptu publications aka fanzines such as Sniffing Glue sprang up to map the scene.

At this point in the narrative I gave Viv's students some examples to look at, including one example that was printed off an evidently disintegrating paper offset-plate. Viv had made a big issue of how the 'blackmail' typography was a symbolic reaction against authority but - in my version - it was just a practical necessity as the only alternative - dry transfer lettering - cost way too much. The only way to reduce the size of a graphic required a photo mechanical transfer (PMT) camera - a large item that used expensive film that was my first capital purchase at Better Badges. I had a constant stream of punk graphic artists needing pics adjusted.. Fortunately, before the end of the decade even better photocopiers arrived that allowed reduced size copies. I could tell that, for students raised with WYSIWYG desktop publishing as a given, the whole concept was almost unfathomable.

As for the music, we were lucky in the UK to have a champion of punk on the BBC - John Peel. He'd invite the bands, few of whom had records, to visit his studios and record sessions for broadcast on his program. This is where all those accumulated twin-cassette players suddenly came into play. Kids exchanging a Peel session of a new punk band could actually outnumber sales of many pop records of the day! Fanzines sprung up like weeds everywhere, reviewing shows & tapes. For the first time pop music was a truly bottom-up culture with the outside leading the center, as the labels tried to keep up. Those first punk bands, on the strength of all this, were able to sign big deals - the notes passed at the back of class had thus eventually become the curricula. To many fans, this violated the original principles, so, as the second generation of 'post-punk' bands developed, something known as the DIY ethic was established - a sustainable way of going about your business on your own terms. This was around the same time I got onto printing fanzines. The zines I printed, and others,acted as the promotional arm of new labels like Factory, Mute, and Rough Trade, laying the ground for the growth of indie rock. While it just about paid for itself over time, it was still a capital intensive business, with a publishing run of 1000-5000 copies of each issue.

A big deal by 1980 was the advent of personal computers and modems. It seemed to me at the time they opened up a whole world of possibility for open information exchange and user-promotion. Meanwhile as the mainstream media adopted the graphic immediacy of fanzines, and adopted bands as fast as they could, the surrounding alternative media culture became less important. Holding onto the online idea in 1982 I sold Better Badges and moved to California, home to the most bustling BBS scene in the world. My staff, to whom I'd sold the business in the UK couldn't keep it up and it soon folded. As major labels grabbed the leading post-punk acts, and put their promotional push behind watered-down 'new-wave' there wasn't much of a scene left that merited the kids' support. South California oddly enough was a hold-out with a crazy hard-core scene which I had a lot of fun promoting for Goldenvoice. However, even there, I was disappointed to find that there was practically no crossover between online geeks and the music.

Moving to NYC I actually started blogging the local scene by email in 1987 or so, but since email in those days cost money I soon ran up a big bill and had to quit. I'd have to wait another 7 years, and the release of Netcruiser for the World Wide Web to become a practical reality for the average user. At first there were practically no band homepages but for some reason the Raleigh News and Observer ran one for the Beastie Boys. In those days there were virtually no search engines just something called the NCSA What's New that listed new websites. In April 1995 I started blogging and put up a page for the Bad Brains. I also joined the Internet Society of which I'm still an active member. I've been overjoyed, in the years since, to see my original hopes for a free and open medium of egalitarian cultural exchange exceeded beyond my wildest dreams.

What has all this to do with OneWebDay you might ask? The first point is that that first radical explosion of punk rock culture presaged the P2P and web2.0 user-participation that we now take for granted. The second is that, just like punk rock, which was initially considered indigestible by the mainstream, and yet became ghetto-ized, or co-opted and bastardized into the totally ineffectual new-wave, the Internet which was in its original incarnation considered an uncontrollable fount of ideas is also threatened by the forces of corporate consolidation.

OneWebDay is an event/cause - now in its 3rd year - an earthday for the Internet - is the one universal banner behind which we can all gather to prevent that from happening.

Sep 22 2008. I'll be there. And so should you. Punk rock!

Joly MacFie

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