Band Shirts and the Live Experience: Consumer Signaling in the Hierarchy of Brands
With cameos by 1476, Street Sects, and Winds of Leng.
In the underground (we are in the underground), when we go to shows we do not simply leave the house in whatever we’re wearing. Most of us spend at least thirty seconds, if not thirty minutes, painstakingly selecting a band shirt to wear. It is never a simple decision based merely on preference; it is, in essence, a bet, one laid in faith that there is something to be gained or lost in the spread between choosing wisely and choosing poorly. The winnings of the bet are dealt in Social Mana, universally accepted units of prestige, and can be exchanged in life for fiat feelings of Status and Well Being or in death for Eternal Glory.
Even if we make a conscious choice to buck conformity and not wear a band shirt, we have still lain a bet: that someone at the show will notice that we are not wearing a band shirt and subsequently marvel at how cool and non-conformist we are. In this instance, we collect a special currency called Nonconformity Mana, which can be used to instill shame in band-shirt-wearing conformists who think of themselves as non-conformists, although such mana is really only valued more highly than the mana mined from wearing a band shirt by other nonconformists.
A band is a brand, and a band shirt is a signal of consumer preference. Yet not all b(r)ands are created equal, and so in signaling (or emphatically refusing to signal) said preference, we enter into the brutal and dreaded Hierarchy of Brands. I shall henceforth demonstrate the mechanics and dynamics of this most unholy hierarchy using three examples cut from the cloth of personal experience. (These examples are going to cast me as a smug, caché-farming elitist. That’s okay; the Hierarchy of Character Flaws is another story altogether.)
Example #1: 3TEETH and Street Sects Live, Phoenix, 3/30/2018
(For a narrative analysis of the aesthetic merits and demerits of this show, proceed here.)
For this show, I chose a Crowhurst shirt (pictured below). If memory serves, my photographic assistant for the assignment chose an All Your Sisters shirt (recreated poorly below). Thus, before we even set foot out the door, we were already competing (or trapped, if you prefer) within the merciless and savage Hierarchy of Brands. You’ll notice that both bands are more or less equally obscure within the industrial/electronic/post-punk underground. If you are the kind of person who is in possession of correct opinions, you will doubtless also notice that, of the two, Crowhurst is the better band. As a result, as we made our way to the show, I was already in possession of more Social Mana than my assistant. Or, in any case, more Potential Social Mana, as she took umbrage with basic Crowhurst > All Your Sisters proof, so in order for me to convert my Potential Mana into Kinetic Mana, I would have to find agreement with others at the show. (Agreement in this case is primarily signaled in eyes that shine with solidarity, admiration, and esteem; a protracted glance or a double-take is also a sure sign.)
Given two factors, (1) that 3Teeth was the headlining band, and (2) that 3TEETH is a mangy nü-industrial dog still chasing a stick that Marilyn Manson threw into the mud over 20 years ago, I felt confident that my Crowhurst shirt was going to win the night. Amidst the obligatory spackling of NIN, Ministry and Rob Zombie prints, there did not appear to be a lick of competition; not even the fleeting specter of a Skinny Puppy T. I was in the clear — until some sly one-upper waltzed through the doors wearing a Gott-danged brown Einstürzende Neubauten shirt (pictured inaccurately below). When I saw it, my inner gatekeeper fell to his knees to grovel in the muck. I was defeated. The only thing that could have given this consummate Mana-farmer a run for his money was someone sporting, say, a Throbbing Gristle hoodie or backpatch.
Example #2: 1476 and Take Over and Destroy Live, Phoenix, 9/15/2018
I fantasized about what shirt I would wear to see 1476 for days, even weeks. I could sense that some future Mana Surplus depended on the decision, in karmic if not tangible terms. If I were to Choose Poorly, I was better off staying home. A Leviathan shirt seemed like a safe bet — but this shirt was dirty and I didn’t have enough other dirty band shirts to justify doing a load of laundry (note: band shirts must be washed together to preserve their Karmic Value). At worst, choosing a Skàphe shirt instead (pictured below) was a lateral move; it was even possible to imagine a scenario in which a Skàphe shirt would completely obliterate a Leviathan shirt. Either way, my photographic assistant’s insistence upon wearing the same fucking All Your Sisters shirt to this show put me ahead in the Potential Social Mana column right from the get-go. It was with an enormous sense of self-satisfaction that I entered the venue. As more and more people piled in wearing Black Dahlia Murder shirts or Cryptopsy shirts or 1476 shirts (concert faux pas alert, weewooweewooweewoo), I felt the relief wash over me like a shower of neutrinos. Skàphe was a thousandfold more obscure; Skàphe was objectively better. I drank one victory beer, then another.
The lesson here, as we will shortly see, is that Time is always Your Enemy, and no matter how late it is in the night, there is always the opportunity for some clever prick to materialize in the audience wearing a shirt that kicks you down a rung or two on the Mana Ladder. In this case, I was sucker-punched in quick succession by a young lad wearing a Death shirt with the cover art from Leprosy, then another lad wearing a Christian Death shirt with the cover art from Only Theater of Pain. Now, most of you will probably jerk your knees out of the sockets insisting that the lad in the Death shirt automatically wins. But you’d better pop those knees back into place, because this shirt was a hideous, discolored knock-off of an abomination: the color scheme was all wrong (yellow and blue, what the fuck?), and the print looked all glossy and cheap. A truly gaudy affront to the memory of that magnificent album. Meanwhile the Christian Death shirt looked faded, threadbare, either a true vintage piece or a masterful counterfeit. The Old School Cred asserted by this shirt was . . . well, let’s just say that if Social Mana could be physically embodied in coins of some sort, I would have thrown all of mine at this young lad. (Irrelevant side note: both of these latecoming lads in question belonged to the show openers, local Phoenix dark metal band Take Over and Destroy.)
Example #3: Winds of Leng and Some Other Bands Live, Mesa, 5/7/2018
This show would mark not only the live debut of death metal newcomers Winds of Leng but also the first time that I would meet fellow Toiletmonger Merol Streep (alias Jimmy McNulty) in person. As you can imagine, the pressure to hedge my Social Mana bets was exceedingly high. Luckily on the date in question the aforementioned Leviathan shirt was clean (pictured below). I pulled it on, smirked patronizingly at my photographic assistant in her beloved All Your Sisters shirt, and we set off. To my surprise, McNulty is a card-carrying nonconformist. I don’t know what the fuck shirt he was wearing but it was colorful and confrontationally not underground. I was given serious pause, and spent the entirety of our pre-show dinner together second-guessing my true degree of eliteness. In the end, I decided that in this instance McNulty’s emphatic disregard for the classic Hierarchy of Brands left me in the lead. Then we got to the venue, where it dawned on me that most of the bands on the bill were brutal death metal (Horde Casket, Vore, Center of Disease and others). I found myself lost in a deluge of unreadable brutal death metal logo shirts; by comparison, my Leviathan shirt was laughably readable. “Who is this fucking black metal nerd,” they were all thinking to themselves. I could see it in their faces; I could practically read their minds. I’d misjudged the genre-spread, and in a rare twist, the singularity of my shirt-choice had left me Mana-less, while McNulty in his mockingly un-black whateverthefuck shirt suddenly seemed like the George Soros of Social Mana. The joke was on all of us.
It is impossible to control all the factors at play in the Hierarchy of Brands. And yet the key to collecting enough Social Mana to reach the top is to foresee as many adversarial factors as possible and hedge against them. Or actually, as demonstrated by my staggering string of near-wins (read: Losses), the key is to buy really old shirts from really old obscure-but-not-too-obscure bands and wear them everywhere. You can die penniless in the street, covered in pustulating sores and drowning in a puddle of your own piss — but if you’re wearing a badass Manilla Road or Bolt Thrower or Demilich shirt when you do it, you’ll have all the Social Mana you need to buy a seat at the head of the table in Valhalla.