The truth may be that human beings are naturally tribal about many things, whether we like to admit it or not. But musical tribes, or subcultures — what are they? And are they even relevant any more?
As we all know, most are formed as the result of young people breaking away from the mainstream in whatever way possible. Movements like punk were just as much about fashion, lifestyles and political values as they were the music, with the movement gaining momentum amidst mainstream failures; namely the dire economic conditions for working class people in the mid-70s. Bands like The Sex Pistols became a voice for an angry generation and those of us who weren’t there can only imagine how good it felt to be a part of it.
But while the values and fashions of such subcultures can live on, a lot has changed since the 1970s. The impact on album and singles sales from the rise of illegal downloads and streaming services has been well documented, but what about its effects the sincerity and, dare I say, integrity of music? Listeners now have unlimited access to new and old music alike, via services like Spotify, with the result being a dipping in and out of genres, subcultures and experiences with ease.
Interested to find out whether tribal behaviour still exists in our corner of musical civilisation, I spoke to some of my favourite venues for their observations. Sam Dumont [Start The Bus] thinks we should leave the idea of tribes back in the pre-millennium where they belong. “We have a great community vibe here without people being categorised into ‘tribes’. I feel how people dress or look doesn’t really reflect their musical influences or background anymore. The days of mods and rockers fighting along Brighton pier and The Clash performing ‘White Man In The Palais’ are over.”
When talking about tribes it is easy to think of the negative aspects — the division, the exclusion — but did identifying yourself as part of a subculture ever mean you were categorising? Surely it is less to do with judging others, and more to do with finding solidarity with like minded people?
When growing up I was often labeled a ‘jitter’ by many kids at my school, owing to my band hoodies, skate shoes and jean chains. Although usually intended as an insult, my friends and I were happy to be together, representing part of the minority. As long as we weren’t considered ‘chavs’ we weren’t complaining.
Regardless, people today seem to prefer not to devote themselves to one particular genre and, with today’s diverse music scene, it seems individuals’ music tastes have become much more eclectic. Where once the only way to buy new music was in your local record shop, and discovering new music was really just about listening to the radio, these days we have so much choice that we are, to put it bluntly, spoilt. Deciding what to listen to on your device of choice can even become a painful process. I have broad tastes (and always will have) but there’s definitely something to envy those mods and rockers for. We don’t need to limit ourselves to any particular fashion or musical taste, but isn’t there something us millennials could learn from the days of tribes? Because sometimes, too much choice can be a bad thing.
In his TED talk ‘The Paradox of Choice’, psychologist Barry Schwartz stated that “everything was better back when everything was worse”. Taking his lead, I wonder if it was perhaps more possible for people to have pleasantly surprising experiences before we were bombarded with so many alternatives, so many decisions to make. That’s to say, too much choice can devalue the decisions we do make, when it comes to the music we listen to.
It seems clear that tribes are dissolving. Is the result a more contrived music scene, with less meaning to it? Or a more open one? It’s definitely something to think about.