The battle between culture and commerce is something that’s always on the agenda, whether we’re actively talking about it or not. The UK Hardcore scene is one that has been enjoying a surge in popularity over the past few years but why is that? Tomas Doyle talks to prominent figures in the scene to try to discover whether the divide that appears to be growing is really there and if it is, what we can do about it…
Few scenes, if any, have enjoyed such a leap to mainstream popularity as hardcore has in the last ten years. The rise and rise of its sister genre, post-hardcore, package tours both domestic and foreign and a proliferation of the niche as a lifestyle package have all played their part in making the counter culture a big deal but has this move overground diluted what hardcore once stood for and is the UK scene in particular splitting in two? One side more underground, the other sprawling into more public consciousness. What does it mean to be in a hardcore band, either under the radar or more high profile in 2013 and does it even matter anyway?
“Hardcore stands for different things to different people,” muses David Standley, drummer of Holy Roar Records’ MINE. “I’m definitely seeing more of what I’ve heard people call ‘management-core’ bands but to me that just seems like people making the most of the current popularity of certain types of hardcore.”
Yet there seems to be some question about what philosophical, ethical or even moral quandaries come with this grasp for popularity. Has a move into academy-sized venues left bands with fanbases that have little to no concept of the heritage of the music they are watching?
“We’re definitely seeing different kids coming to the shows,” admits Ash Gray from Welsh bruisers Brutality Will Prevail. “It just seems like some people think that being in a magazine or wearing a bands t-shirt are the heart of hardcore ethics but the reality is that if you like bands then you go to shows and you support your scene,” he surmises with a sigh. “You definitely do get people around now who are in it for the cool points – there’s more of that these days than there ever was.”
So what are those ethics then? Zac Birchley from Bastions sums it up thusly: “Doing what you want to do in the most honest way, that is truest to yourself is most important. Going with your gut rather than being worried about what someone will say after the fact.”
But for a band who seemingly held in high esteem for their DIY ethos, Bastions themselves seem to think that such things are actually relatively minor concerns. “The act of playing music is artistic expression so at what point does a fan decide they will or will not continue to respect and follow the band and their art?” Birchley continues. “Just because they have a driver, tour manager or booking agent? I don’t respect a band because of how well they can drive a van, I think about their music!”
Perhaps what is at the centre of the traditional hardcore ethic is an awareness of notions of equality, social justice and unity as well as hard work and glory-less graft. It is easy to see how a perception that these are being washed away might form as every small town kid with a microphone thinks he can become a rockstar as he yells over a beatdown. More worrying seems to be a prevailing streak in certain sections of hardcore for being pretty (and in the case of girls taking their tops off in magazines and on the internet) and having up-to-the-minute designer clothes to be the most important trait one can possess.
“I feel like there are certain bands who definitely fob the kids off with a brand rather than the music” says Mike Kirkby of CB6. “At the moment hardcore is the cool thing, and everyone wants to listen to the most underground band ever and impress their mates on tumblr.”
Stu Paice from soon-to-be-defunct hardcore giants, Your Demise comes to the debate from the position of someone whose band has stepped beyond what the defined remit of UK hardcore might have been up until relatively recently.
“The reason the scene seems to separate itself to me is that once a band gets a bit of popularity it becomes uncool to like said band,” Paice says, “but if you really look into it, our ethics are still the same – all that changes are the people who like the band, not the band itself, at least that’s how it was for us.”
Does he see problems with the scene in it’s current state? Yes, yes he does. “The thing that is fucking up UK hardcore is the little dickheads who like it. It seems to me that the majority of the kids that are into the new wave of UKHC are the ones who from what I see online have no ethics or value for life.”
Ultimately a cracking in the scene’s moral fibre has taken its toll on Stu. “To be honest, it’s the reason I don’t want to have anything to do with being in a band any more,” he adds, wryly.
If there really is a scene split emerging – a culture obsessed with tattoos, limited run XXXL t shirts and Instagram on the one hand and something more earthy and aggro on the other, is that something hardcore bands are themselves concerned about?
“The sects of hardcore that have been diluted and commercialised are shitty and have compromised their sound (nine times out of ten) directly in order to make money,” offers Birchley. “But I don’t think that warrants need for too much thought.”
Standley broadly agrees: “We’ve all gotta start somewhere, and no scene can carry on living without an injection of new blood from time to time. If kids hear something on the radio that might motivate them to check out other bands, it can only be a good thing, right?”
So while a fracturing scene seems to be obvious and the divide is perhaps growing, there’s also a recognition from those on the front line (at all levels) that scenes have to reinvent themselves from time to time and change is, in some senses, inevitable. Whether or not there is consistent quality from the new blood is perhaps the most obvious bone of contention.
“You don’t have to really do anything these days to be in a band,” sums up Paice. “When we started you had to go to a studio, record it, burn it onto 20 discs and then give it out for free, whereas now people can build big reputations very quickly off very little. It doesn’t breed good bands.”
Despite all this, the raging underbelly of UK hardcore seems to be in rude health with a solid underground churning away.
The most important message from all the musicians we speak to seems to be a simple one – get out and support your friends, bands and your scene, rather than adhering to some self-perpetuating code of online cool. The prevailing mainstream narrative that getting fucked up and having a tie-dye t-shirt is really edgy will never be any match for the kind of shows that are put on by kids up and down the country week in, week out. By that measure, UK hardcore is doing brilliantly and the more people who get involved and check it out, rather than just paying it lip service, the stronger and more unified it will be.
Buy a record, buy a ticket, pledge your allegiance, show some care for the bands you watch and some respect for the heritage of this thing we call UK hardcore and any divisions there might be will soon mean very little.