Subbacultcha! the “Unruly Underground” and the Tyranny of Free Stuff

September 18, 2013
by Richard Foster

SubbaThe Tyranny of Free Stuff and the Vagaries of English Letters” (or “Promoting Free Stuff and the Establishment of Erzatz Kultur in the Garden of Eden”).

(Author’s note) This is a part serious, part piss-take look at Subbacultcha!. I tell you this now before you think I’m completely losing my marbles, or drowning in a sea of self-righteous, ambitious loathing. I’m also going to let the ever gracious Leon Caren come back and give his twopenn’oth. His reply will be the basis of a later article. And please, take this on board; this is NOT meant as a hatchet piece ok?

Looking forward looking back – by way of introduction.

And so it came to pass, early in 2013, and nearly 10 years after my consciousness was first alerted to Subbacultcha!, that this seemingly ubiquitous “underground” platform announced a big bash celebrating “the Dutch underground”.  And on the 20th February 2013, the national pop music platform (and wannabe “cultural hegemony outlet”) 3voor12 duly posted a compilation, the musical version of Subbacultcha!’s line-up on their Luisterpaal service.

The Sound of the Dutch Underground. There for all to see.

Happy? Well, yes in a way. Despite some glaring line up omissions for me, (Rats on Rafts plus Katadreuffe and Spoelstra, but that’s just taste), it was certainly good to see Subba veer away from dealing with artists from Brooklyn – that veritable Pet Cemetery for bands it seems – and look closer to home: a refocusing on their roots, (anyone remember Not Everybody’s Compilation?) through celebrating the remarkable scene that has been developing under their noses this past 6 to 7 years.

And lo! I went to the gig, and it was full of people who I knew, and people I knew who should make more of an effort normally but probably had this time because they couldn’t avoid not being seen after the heavy promotion by VPRO and some stupid radio shows and yes, I did enjoy. A lot.

Here’s proof for your later perusal.

However, I don’t think the night was just about celebrating the bands who played. I get the hunch that Subbacultcha! was drawing a line under other things, things that have almost begun to define the podium, almost begun to make it a target. I’m hoping they are some of the things I’m going to take a look at now.

So without further ado, let me introduce you to this important player in the cultural and entertainment establishment in Holland, an organisation that spreads some of the stickiest social glue in terms of keeping things “nice & netjes”. Step forward, Subbacultcha!. A platform that is often more effective, (and some could say corrosive), than the real cultural establishment in laying down the kultur law; because unlike the hapless De Wereld Draait Door or the increasingly insipid 3voor12, no-one openly questions its behaviour, its language, its image, its modus operandi. Also, again unlike those other behemoths of the mainstream scene, it also has a very finely attuned appreciation of the times we are living in. It second guesses those who can’t be bothered mind-mapping their landscape with remarkable precision, fine tuning its own business model along the way.

And to be fair, this is understandable and reasonable, because those without a moral rudder are those who will be most likely to pay for one.

Pay attention to this magazine, give it some thought, because like many signals emanating from Subbacultcha!, things are not always what they seem at first glance.  Not evil, not at all, and not wrong, but just not what they seem. And maybe by looking at this magazine again, you could start to question yourself.

Let me make something clear right now. I don’t want to do down Subbacultcha!, they do after all give a platform to many things that aren’t promoted elsewhere, they often do a lot of good: what I want to do is examine its language, pick away at its image, to examine like seers of yore examining the entrails of birds, what is the path, what is the way we must take. For I believe it is a top-down organisation that realises – like managers who operate the classic pyramid selling scheme – that inaction is often power, that silence and a sense of mystery is power. Just reflect back the actions of others for your own benefit.  Keep cool, be auto-suggestive, and prompt action by suggestion. Because eventually someone, the inexperienced tiddler swimming in the social shoal who is eager to join in, or the person who feels the weight of obligation to “the cause”, will pick up the baton in a misguided sense of honour or duty or restlessness, and then they’ll do it for you.

“Little Lambs, Bless…”

The by-line used by Subba is “promoting the unruly underground”. Whilst many of the people who Subbacultcha would want to class as their preferred underground  may be unruly in their private lives– taking their cue from Peter Cook*, I don’t think there is an unruly Dutch underground. The Dutch underground plays VERY MUCH by the rules, sometimes in an antagonistic or vociferous manner, but very much by the rules. From my experience of the underground, certainly over the last few years, I think there are very few unruly people. Genuinely unruly in the manner of their antecedents, like Simon Vinkenoog, or Dr Rat, say or Diana Ozon, or the Gabba bunch? Not a chance. The shenanigans over the Baar en Boos squat in Leiden and the eventual compromise reached with the recently opened Vrijplaats should show that the one thing the underground (in its most DIY form) does, is communicate and eventually accept the rule of law. Otherwise, if things escalate, or the law has had enough, eventually (as we saw with some of the recent the squat clearances in Amsterdam) the police heavy mob goes in.

No, Subbacultcha! would not want to openly promote insurrection like in 1965-6 or 1977-81. An unruly underground has to at least try to kick out the existing order and places like Melkweg & Paradiso, whilst having a history of housing subversive elements, (see the extraordinary pictures of the punks at Paradiso here, for example**) would be the first on the list of targets if a truly new cultural map was being drawn up.  And neither venue would give Subba tix if they thought their crowd was looking to bring down the walls crashing down. These places are just venues now, well-run leisure outlets with a carefully curated past that not only mean money through an associated cool quotient but a past has been safely boxed away.

*“I don’t want to be bombarded with images of sex and violence, I can get all that at home”

** A truly unruly underground

“Crabs in a Barrel – What do Subba promote in reality?”

No, Subba don’t promote an unruly underground; they promote gigs by offering free tickets to members; which helps draw attention to the concert, and raises the profile of the organisation. Just good marketing, good middle men practice: the way that flogging Scandinavian wood round Europe in the 15th century was a good way to earn a crust.

But we can’t say that… it’s uncool.

Well, yes…

But there’s a two way contract here, one that is unspoken. WE ALL KNOW WHAT’S GOING ON… Unruly is used here – I think – in the sense that plays up to someone’s desire to be branded unruly by others. You know, “hey you’re unruly aren’t you?” in a sort of (sorry time for some “trendy” word association now), “Nathan Barley comfort blanket” way. Unruly in their imagination: albeit without the hassle of behaving in an unruly manner, certainly without the smell of burning flesh. Unruly as suggested to them by Subbacultcha!. In fact I would wager the posh students that occasionally bray froth from their bunks in Leiden, Delft and Rotterdam are far more unruly, as are some nights out in the deep northern grasslands of Friesland or Groningen amongst the amorphous bored from those identikit, well-kept, DULL middle class housing estates, a place where heavy metal/Gabba/techno Is The Law, and refreshment comes in tins of Heineken.

So, when we talk of Subbacultacha’s unruliness we see branding used – in both a materialistic and a metaphorical sense – at one remove: and at the unspoken, compliant behest of its market.

“Satan Your correspondent disguised as the Cormorant, in his Sound & The Fury T-shirt perched on the Tree of Life sat at that bloody awful round bar in The Garden of Eden  at De Nieuwe Anita searching for Eve looking at hipsters.”

What Subba presides over is an essentially safe underground, a busy, sometimes talented, often creative and essentially student-led underground; people who like to hang out away from the rougher, more uncouth elements,  just like art students have done since time immemorial. Like I did in the 1980s, avoiding hooligans and dockers and scrotes from the estates. That’s fine. And if you want to see this hothouse in all its peacock, “Breakfast Club in NL”, dress-down trustafarian finery go to Nieuwe Anita. It’s a laugh. Sometimes… not always.

But what is interesting looking outside to in, is that this is a set of people that is small enough to keep an eye on itself, a set of people THAT SEEMS TO POLICE ITSELF. And not in the normal insider, outsider manner either.

“Play nicely Richard or I will have to ban you”.

I am serious; someone replied to me once, using those words, for making a joke about Subbacultcha! on a spoof F***book page set up specifically to take the piss out of the magazine. I mention it here not to expose any “lingering sour grapes on my behalf” – as I said before I’m not looking to bring Subba down. I actually like Leon Caren a lot and he’s been very gracious to me in the past and fair play to him. But I mention this to illustrate the sort of discomfort attacking it seems to engender with some people on its outer, “worker ant” margins. Debate isn’t healthy, but more of this later. But note: this seems to be an underground that uses its own contacts to feed content to Subbacultcha!, to constantly inform the centre of the outer tendrils, to ensure seamless appropriation into the centre by means of patronage. It really is Machiavellian, albeit using the dead hand of cool.  Probably people – including the supposed protagonists – don’t realise this at all. More probably, people will think I am uncool/square/unhip saying this.

Nicked bit from Wikipedia coming right up.

“the employment of cunning and duplicity in statecraft or in general conduct”, deriving from the Italian Renaissance diplomat and writer Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote Il Principe (The Prince) and other works. The word has a similar use in modern psychology where it describes one of the dark triad personalities, characterised by a duplicitous interpersonal style associated with cynical beliefs and pragmatic morality.

A thought. Am I turning into Adam Krug* here? Will I be saved by an invisible, omnipotent force that will save my babbling worry and send me mad?

(*Adam Krug. Like a guy in a book written by like that cool band, the Fall.)

Paranoid interlude, a conversation piece …….

“I imagine the leader of Subbacultcha!, reclining on a 100% recycled sea-drift-plastic chez longue (imported from Berlin) being fed grapes by backstage wannabe haircut dudes who are as THICK AS A PAIR OF PLYWOOD BOARDS ROUGHLY HEWN FROM FINEST CALIFORNIAN REDWOOD as all around the country people unwittingly do his work for him: because they’re mates with some of his lieutenants.  Fair enough. Competing with or even commenting on all of this is naughty, it’s not allowed, no, that spells disaster, that way lies Absinthe, that way lies embarrassment and social hari kiri.”

“Free Stuff. Stuff. You know, stuff, stuff for free. That stuff.”

Let’s look elsewhere at the language Subbacultcha uses. Let’s look at the word stuff. What does stuff mean? What is classified by Subbacultcha’s use of the word stuff?

Actually, let’s stop this lunatic parade for a minute.

Before we start down any more fanciful socio-linguistic cul de sacs, before we “uncover the wizard of Oz”, maybe we should draw breath for a second.  Maybe we’re thinking out ideas at a level that the Subbacultcha! bunch never really envisaged. They’re just a platform that can take advantage of a reasonably passive scene and make some money. I think if you’re skint and wondering how to get in to see things then this magazine is a very good service indeed. That the rest is just icing on the cake is neither here nor there.

Fine. OK, draw back the curtain: there’s the wizard, just a couple of blokes looking to make a buck in hard times. If you think it’s anything more, more fool you. Put the veil back, let’s leave them to it. Doubtless I’m going to be waxed naked with an adder’s tongue for saying all this anyway. So let’s look elsewhere. Let’s turn our fire on the audience.

It’s All Your Fault (By Way of Introduction).

Recently a respected Dutch journalist, Rob Riemen, wrote an article where he railed against the “tyranny” of the Dutch word “leuk”. He was also moved enough to address the herds of tousle haired Jeugd attending the 2011 Lowlands festival with this message. Ostensibly he was having a pop at Geert Wilders & the slide towards a sort of readiness to accept apparently fascist ideas presented as something else. His main bone of contention was that constantly using blanket terms like leuk and lekker –their indiscriminate use shall we say – softened up our critical facilities; and in turn potentially facilitated the acceptance of more sinister things. I’m going to quote / paraphrase bits of his speech to make a different point. Fascism is off the agenda in my argument.

(BTW: I’ve nabbed and paraphrased this from the 3voor12 site, original article in Dutch.)

Riemen pleaded fervently for resisting what he sees as a general and ingrained acceptance of stupidity. “Why have we forgotten what is important in life?” was his central question; and in trying to find an answer, he drew on Socrates and Nietzsche. “The Greeks believed that our life is meaningful if we constantly ask ourselves what is important. Riemen stated that spiritual life is no longer counts, and many people only seek pleasure.” “Fun is the ultimate measure of how you evaluate your time.” Riemen saw  Nietzsche’s statement “The man of dignity lost, Europe is in the grip of nihilism and the highest values ​​have no value”as prophetic and expounded further; “the things (that are valued most are those) that make life pleasant, if a daze. At one time it worked, and when there are concerns, crises, we are disappointed, even bitter.”

Using German philosopher Max Scheler’s philosophical concept of Ressentiment, Riemen stated that the real danger was “the man of the masses, the one who loves to do and think what everyone does and thinks. It was filmmaker Fellini who saw fascism came from a provincial spirit, out of laziness, bias, laziness or arrogance. People who boasted of their ignorance.”

Riemen pleaded: “The only way to fight is by fighting against the stupidity in ourselves. Dare to think, dare to be critical and cherish the arts. Resist all that is stupid and be brave.”

Which in some ways is the message that Subbacultcha! puts out. And I’m sure those who run Subba would wholeheartedly agree with cherishing the arts and free artistic expression as a means of self-enlightenment.

But in some ways the promoting of the arts as free stuff deactivates some of your critical faculties.

“Oh go on then, let’s talk about free stuff again”

OR: What has all this got to do with promoting a music scene?

I can appreciate the beauty in openly sharing things. The concept of (especially online) sharing has passionate adherents, yes it’s here to stay, and yes  everyone has benefitted from being able to access some genuinely astonishing art, music and literature and wotnot via the net. Home taping never killed music after all. But the fact that you don’t have to buy things sometimes makes you want things less. That you can have more of whatever you want at any time sometimes makes you value it less. You don’t use your imagination to wonder why you want it, what it is about the thing that you want is so desirable, why wanting something says something about you, and the other people who want this thing. Your active membership of a tribe has in essence been cut off. Your passive membership has been rubber-stamped by the essentially passive actions of just taking more and more free stuff without questioning why or without really appreciating why. Or where it leads. I don’t as yet see an answer to this.

Recently Brunel University had a set of debates on this fine line the consumer unwittingly walks.

The Good Life is a Matter of Aesthetics rather than Ethics

 “Can we have a good life without being good people? Can good art be produced by bad people? Can we separate the aesthetic from the ethical?”


Triviality is More Oppressive than Tyranny

“Tyranny seems so out of place today – but what about the tyranny of triviality and the triviality of restrictions imposed by tyrants? And then there is the all-pervading internet with the trivialisation of understanding by search engines, or the trivialisation of human relationships through internet dating. Have our modern Western societies created surplus attention, and is that attention directed towards the trivial?”

The road to hell paved with good intentions I wonder…

Let’s listen to my mate Arnold from the MIGHTY Kill All Hipsters organization. I’ve appropriated some of his F***book updates for this article. Please note this text is the property of F***book and they can wipe it from this article at any time, with my total, pepper-sprayed, mewling and PASSIVE compliance.  Highlighting is by me.

“ate half a chicken, then watched Toronto based goth-synth outfit TRUST do their thing at TROUW. As part of a Subbacultcha package + electronic so average age was 22 & people were GAY-Y & dressed up. Musically i liked Trust’s sinister sound, but 3 yrs ago and not under the Subba flag 80% of the visitors would have thought it too fetish Front 242-y for their slightly more fashionable/underground than average student taste. Now it was full. Not sure if content is random these days but packaging sure means a lot! Shame you can’t really see the stage in Trouw’s basement. Not that the singer hung crucified upside down with dangling TESTICLES but still…”

“What is extra interesting for me, job-deformation you can call it, is that a relatively high percentage of gig visitors doesn’t really know the bands which are playing but that they ‘trust’ the brand ( this time Subba ) and a few leading blog-scrutinizing people in their sub-scene so 20 strong genre-leaders can move 400+ people to a show. In itself that is both great and scary. With tunes meaning more than albums and the previous important media ( record companies, magazines, mtv ) in decline it’s kind of interesting to see how niches are now bigger than ever although they tend to only last 14 months at most. It also means that regular shows attract an older audience ( becuz you pay 10 to 20 bucks for one gig instead of one fee for a cluster of nights ) which is similar to flying with Easy Jet ( single tickets available, cheap yet lively, int.nat. yoof crowd ) or with KLM ( focus on comfort, yet more and more 30+ crowd ). Funny, for a long time we thought that barely anything would change in the structures of the music world but now everything seems changed. It doesn’t mean any subculture stops though, it just means there is more on offer, values change, money streams take different forms, attitudes change and everyone has to realise he/she can’t see/do it all since instead of 10 festivals and 5 new releases there are now 80 festivals and 1500 releases….”

Let’s ponder these lines for a moment.

Packaging sure means a lot!

They don’t really know the bands that are playing but ‘trust’ the brand

Subba’s genius is realising that for the vast majority of their target group, the actual point of this sharing culture is all about the punter trusting the brand or cultural filter, the punter getting a self-worth by a reflective process, a self-worth by association. And a self-worth that doesn’t have to be constantly challenged or defined by that punter; after all if the filter isn’t felt to be cool, you can just replace it with another.  Given the Dutch predilection to joining clubs (think all of those sports verenigingen, etc.), this is an action that comes as second nature, and one that Subba are keen to curate, to shepherd, and to second guess. Especially in the capital; still the fons et origo of what is accepted as cool. I’m quoting a friend: “in A’dam, contrary of R’dam – hard work is not valued, but success, no matter how you achieved it, or how shallow it is.”  In Riemen’s nightmare scenario this means that people will just uncritically walk into accepting more sinister social ideas and behavioural patterns without thinking. Especially if it’s got a patina of cool and if “leuk” and gezellig” are the only prerequisites to membership. Fuck thinking about the content in the round.

So it’s not always about the art.

And where does that leave the artists? And where is the value in the exercise for the artists?

Well, you could say they’re the dupes in an increasingly cynical contract. No longer the source of ideas, no longer the first point of reference for their audience, but rather acting out a role of castrated cheerleaders for something else. And at some point you can see the nauseous pay to play concept (the sure kiss of death to live music IMHO) elbowing its way in here.

And it’s all very well to hand out guides to let you know what a band’s about, it’s great to promote these things, and regardless of my cynicism on the use of Subba’s language, I am convinced of the good intentions that permeates most of what Subba does in this regard. But when you overhear people reading the guide and NOT watching the band, then making a calculation based on the guide and not what they’re hearing or seeing, you start to wonder. Forget having a pop at a person filming a band on their phone, at least that is a form of interaction.

Let’s hope it’s just more paranoia on my part.

But here’s a thought…

Audience! Before it’s too late! Heal thyself!

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