Thursday, May 13, 2004

On the death and rebirth of "ska"

Someone posed the question of "why did ska die". This is my take.

The ska scene did a lot to kill off ska. I'm not pointing fingers and blaming, hell in the long run I think it's good that it happened, but let's be honest: we all had a hand in killing ska. I helped kill ska. Sure I worked my ass off to write magazines, put on concerts, play in bands, DJ, you name it I did it. Yet as much as I built up the ska scene in Denver (which fuck, I'll say it, I did more for than anyone else) I'm also responsible for killing it. Coming out of the dearth of the 80s we were all so excited about having 'ska' bands around that we didn't stop and say "wait, is Mustard Plug really good enough to support?" Instead we bought their records, we went to their shows, we promoted them. We were hypnotized by the idea of "ska" without taking a step back and saying "are these bands really worth it?". This trend started in the very early 90s (91, 92) and we set up this attitude that all we were open to all ska bands. Of course bands got lazy, bands got opportunistic. Why put the effort into being creative and interesting when you can tour and put out records with little effort. We the fans, we the promoters, we the record labels, we the bands, we the media, we the "tastemakers" of the scene exhibited an appalling lack of quality control. That was the problem. Not enough of us (myself definitely included) stepped back and said "Now wait...this is awful." Instead we played up the "ska" angle. We promoted the cliches. We put out the crap. And people ate it up, but we weren't far sighted enough to see that it was a one trick pony and people would get sick of it. People would eventually look past the hype and realize there wasn't much there with 80% of the "ska" bands. We built our scene on cliches and shit. We can't be surprised that it collapsed. It was our fault. Stop blaming Reel Big Fish, and definitely stop blaming No Doubt, who did nothing but distance themselves from the ska label as far back as 1992. The role RBF played in the demise of ska could just as easily have been played by The Invaders or The Mudsharks or Mealticket or any number of total shit bands that we embraced in the scene. RBF and Save Ferris were just in the right place at the right time to get paid.

So that's what happened, the problem? It's happening again.

This isn't a personal slam against anyone or any band, but if people are interested in keeping ska from walking down the same road it walked in the 90s, it's time to change the way things work. We're still doing the same thing we did to get us into this mess.

We're busy promoting "ska" as a thing instead of individual bands that deserve recognition. The commodification of ska means that it's either all up or all down. We don't separate the wheat from the chaff. The great end up being equal to the terrible, they're all "ska".

Things like "3 Floors of Ska" end up doing as much harm as good. Sure it shows that "ska" is alive, but at what price? I'll be honest, I've been to two 3 Floors shows and they were awful. With the exception of a couple good bands, most of the bands playing were terrible. I walked from floor to floor (alongside another notable west coast scene 'tastemaker") grimacing at each band that was playing, this was what the East Coast had to offer. It was embarrassing. Instead of having one up and coming band that was awful opening a normal show we were surrounded by terrible "Ska!" bands.

The same thing can be said about "Still Standing". Sure it showed there were a lot of 'ska' bands out there. It showed there were a lot of terrible ska bands out there. That doesn't do anything to shake off the image of ska as a joke genre, that just makes it worse. It's something which is supposed to tell the world "Hey we're still here and we're worth paying attention to" and it's full of garbage. I mean really, who thinks that 60 of those bands were good enough to be promoted on any sort of national level?

Let's be honest here, a lot of the "ska" bands that are out there now aren't yet ready for prime time. I'm not saying that they won't get better, or that they shouldn't be out there practicing and getting better, but there also isn't any need for false promotion. I'll put it this way, just because Megalith CAN put out 12 albums a year doesn't mean they SHOULD.

I also think that it might help if the scene weren't so self contained. Ska bands signing to ska labels playing ska shows. Let's be honest here, Hellcat (beyond their better funding), is in a better position to break ska into new markets than a ska only label is. For one thing being a non-genre exclusive label means that can be more discerning about what they put out. A label like Moon had its hands tied. If they wanted to put out a new album they had a limited pool of bands to pick from, and they ended up overfishing as it were. Unless a label is willing to seriously cut back on its release schedule (which makes it hard to have good distro, etc) and only release quality material than it's going to end up putting out subpar material. That's not helping anyone, not the bands, not the fans, and in the end, not the labels.

So I guess to sum all this up, what I'm saying is call a spade a spade. Most ska sucks. Which means we shouldn't be ready to engage in a full "ska" comeback until we clean up our own shop and figure out that we should be promoting good bands instead of "ska" bands.


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