Subvert Normality: Hacking Punk Culture
With the possible exception of electronic music, punk has been the most disruptive musical and cultural force since the blue-rinse brigade were getting their knickers knotted over The Twist. Punk obliterated modern culture to such an extent that no one really knew how to categorise the aftermath, labelling it only as post-punk. It’s strange how much influence the scene had on society given how little musical talent there was in the movement, so what lessons can event professionals learn from this seminal counterculture and the subsequent DIY music scene that has thrived in its wake? Although it may seem that the raucous, phlegm-projecting world of punk is completely at odds with the suited-and-booted world of business, you may be surprised at some of the parallels.
First, don’t spit on your audience. It’s rude. You don’t need me to tell you that though. I’m sure your Mum has already fully briefed you.
Second, do it yourself. About 99% of punk records were self-written, self-recorded, self-produced and self-released on a very limited budget. Punks were revered for their attitude to self-empowerment which fuelled many of the aesthetic aspects of the scene, including the spray-painted shirts, ripped jeans and self-coiffed mohawks. Gigs were generally self-promoted and self-staged too, so does this make punks the original start-up gurus? The ultimate entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson signed the Sex Pistols to Virgin Records in 1977 (though any cultural kudos he built from this was lost last year when he brought out a range of Sex Pistols credit cards ‘to bring rebellion to your wallet’). What’s important to note however, is that much of the DIY philosophy implemented by punk came through necessity, with both bands and fans creating zines, flyers and record sleeves because there was no-one to support them, either financially or logistically.
In a business context, with money and resources available, doing it yourself does not mean that you are expected to do everything from manning the reception desk to delivering board meetings and cleaning the toilets. Instead, the DIY ethic empowers you to take immediate action on your ideas and impulses rather than waiting for those higher up the food chain to give their input or approval. Instead of wasting time and resources on research – which is prudent but expensive – just experiment and see what happens. Strive for cheap accelerated learning and don’t worry about failing; learn from your peers, keep costs down and have complete control of the whole process. The ethos of punk was always more about individual effort than a preferred chain of suppliers.
Third, question everything, especially authority. Punk subculture was, and still is, largely characterised by anti-establishment views. Common punk viewpoints include anti-authoritarianism, non-conformity and direct action. In business, taking the same inquisitive approach and disrupting the status quo or popular consensus is integral to survival. Fresh ideas and perspectives have never been more relevant, especially given the current technology-led societal shifts. Businesses need to be proactive rather than reactive, creating a new noise and reaching new markets. This also follows with the punk ethos of rejecting trends and fads.
Fourth, keep it simple. Punk became popular because suddenly everyone realised they could do it themselves. A whole raft of seminal bands (Joy Division, The Clash, The Buzzcocks, The Fall) formed after witnessing the Sex Pistols inaugural UK tour. This wasn’t because they were blown away by the musicianship, but instead because they realised they too could have the same adulation by learning three basic chords and spouting some attitude.
The same focus on simplicity is key in event management where simplicity should always be a key goal in programme design. Unnecessary complexity, especially that which adds no tangible value or elevation in audience engagement, should always be avoided.
As well as simplicity, brevity should also be embraced. Cut the chuff from your keynote speech. Shave two paragraphs off your next blog. Get your point across in a memorable and succinct manner. Judy Is A Punk by The Ramones clocked in at a mere one-and-a-half minutes but even that was lengthy compared to Short Music For Short People, a 1999 compilation album released on Fat Wreck Chords that features 101 punk and hardcore bands playing songs averaging half-a-minute in length (the shortest is eight seconds).
Fifth, create a community. Punk’s success was that it fostered an insular community of like-minded individuals, most of whom felt isolated or at odds with society. As no support was forthcoming from labels (largely due to the bands’ penchant for creating controversy and mayhem) the punk community had to look within its ranks for support, promotion and help, and this tight-knit approach spilled over from the music and out of the squats into angry art, anarchic literature and disruptive fashion.
The creation of event communities, either around a company, a product or a specialism, can greatly lengthen the event lifecycle. Such an approach enables companies to start conversations with delegates long before an event has started, meaning the event programme can be designed with the input of everyone involved. Post-event, marketing messages can be reinforced, new relationships forged and key messages disseminated. The event itself just becomes the live embodiment of the community that are invited to attend.
Sixth, another one your Mum probably told you – don’t be lazy. If you want something doing, be proactive. The most popular punk bands and the most successful businesses are usually the hardest working. Attitude and conviction are better than natural talent because they influence the way you think about something, your subsequent behaviour, how you approach challenges and how you make decisions. Punks may not have been virtuoso musicians but their work ethic was rarely questioned.
Finally, be authentic and true to yourself. Punk started with bold artistic expression and genuine acts of rebellion. It may have evolved into a mainstream concept that sold out on its original roots but the base concept remains – question everything, work hard, keep it simple, do it yourself and build a community of like-minded peers. Hell, why not even crack an egg in your hair, spike it and spray it pink. Just memorise some of the above points so you can explain your radical new look to your clients or customers the next time you see them.