Bomb the Music Industry! Is Dead (Probably, They’re Not Sure But Yeah Whatever, Probably)
Photos by Rebecca Reed.
Jeff Rosenstock shrugs a lot. He’s doing it right now in his Brooklyn apartment as he slouches into the grey sofa he bought on Craigslist, sips from a coffee mug, and recaps the origins of Bomb the Music Industry!: “I was like, ‘OK, maybe I’ll just make more songs or whatever.’” He also says “whatever” a lot.
He’s referring to the positive reception he received from posting the very first song he ever wrote under the Bomb the Music Industry! moniker on MySpace back in 2004. The story goes: On Christmas day, a 22-year-old Rosenstock was bored at his parents’ house on Long Island. Everyone else had gone out for the night and he had nothing to do. He sat down in front of his PowerBook with his guitar, recorded a song, named it “Sweet Home Cananada,” and posted it on the internet. And just like that, almost as if by accident, Bomb the Music Industry! was born.
This was shortly after Rosenstock’s first band, the Arrogant Sons of Bitches, broke up or went on hiatus—whatever you want to call it. The band toured several times before falling into the deathcycle bands often get trapped in. “We were in that groove where t-shirts pay for more t-shirts, everybody’s poor on tour, we’re not making music because we don’t have time because we’re just trying to tour to make a name for ourselves. I just had enough one day,” Rosenstock remembers. “I was like, ‘Guys, I don’t wanna fucking sell stuff anymore.’” He left and the Arrogant Sons of Bitches dissolved.
Not wanting to fall into the same pitfall he did with ASOB (and also because he just didn’t give much of a shit), Rosenstock gave “Sweet Home Cananada” away for free on the internet. In fact, every song ever recorded by the collective of musicians that came to be known as Bomb the Music Industry! was made available for free—and still is. That might not seem noteworthy today since music being readily available for free is a given. But back in 2005, it was a novel idea. “That was right around the time the RIAA was suing kids and grandmas for thousands and thousands of dollars for downloading a Metallica album or a Dr. Dre record,” recalls Rosenstock. Two years later, in 2007, Radiohead would release their album In Rainbows on their website for free, a move which the New York Times called, “the most audacious experiment in years.” But by the time it came out, Bomb had already released four albums this way. They were changing the musical landscape with punk/ska, all while not taking themselves very seriously, as evidenced by song titles like, "Can I Pay My Rent in Fun?" and "It's Official! We're Borrrrring!"
In addition to their practice of giving away music to whomever wanted to listen, Bomb also held themselves to a few other standards. They made it a point to play all ages shows whenever possible and tried to keep the ticket prices as low as they could, usually under $10. They even offered explanations/apologies in cases when they weren’t able to do so.
Some of Bomb’s shows featured a small musical army of band members, including trombone players, keyboardists, and friends holding up cue cards with lyrics on them. Other shows were no more than Rosenstock and a drum machine. And since Rosenstock saw Bomb the Music Industry! as less of a band and more of a rotating collective of friends who happened to play music, he would often let fans come on stage, grab an instrument, and play a song if they knew it (or didn't, which was often the case). “I remember starting out,” he says. “I thought, ‘Man, wouldn’t it be cool if Bomb the Music Industry! was a band anybody could be in?'” Rosenstock says he took inspiration for this approach to live music from Less Than Jake, who he saw as a teenager in a Long Island church. “They let my friend Dave play trombone with them during ‘My Very Own Flag’ and I just thought it was the coolest fucking thing,” remembers Rosenstock. It was an experience that seemingly instilled in him the groundwork for how to make music, how to perform, how to be a band. “I just thought, ‘Yeah why don’t we let somebody do that? That would be great.’”
BtMI! took the same DIY approach to its merch, spraypainting custom t-shirts for people, which they only did out of necessity. “We started selling t-shirts because people would be mad at us because we weren’t selling shirts,” says Rosenstock. “They’d be like, ‘I just wanna support you guys. I wanna give you money for something and you’re not letting us do that,’” he laughs. If someone brought a blank CD to a show, he’d burn them a copy of their album on the spot.
Rosenstock released all of Bomb’s albums digitally on his own label, Quote Unquote Records, bucking the trend punk was drifting towards in the early-to-mid-2000s where bands would ride their growing success to a major label deal. Bands like Alkaline Trio, Against Me!, Saves the Day, and Thursday had managed to make the jump to various degrees of success. But Bomb never went that route. That may seem admirable on paper but in reality, the band never had a deal to turn down. “No one’s ever come up to us and been like, ‘Hey, here’s a million dollars to make a record. No one’s ever come up to us and said, ‘Here’s 10,000 dollars to make a record,” says Rosenstock, noting that larger punk labels like Epitaph or SideOneDummy never approached them. “I think that’s because people who are in that position who like what we do want to see us keep doing what we do. Or probably just because they don’t fucking know us. We’ve existed on the fringes in a really neat way.” As demand grew, vinyl LPs were released via smaller independent labels like Asbestos Records and Asian Man Records.
Even Bomb the Music Industry’s! name was meant to stand for something. Not in the literal sense, though. “I like the idea of ‘bombing’ as more of a positive takeover or leaving your mark instead of blowing something up,” says Rosenstock. Bomb the Music Industry! as an entity came to represent a giant middle finger pointed at the traditional systems that confine you and instead doing things on your own terms. The band picked up a cult-like following in the process. “I think a lot of good art gets made out of saying ‘fuck you’ to something else and doing your own thing.”
But waving the DIY flag, even if unintentionally, is asking for trouble. It’s like painting a neon target on your back within the punk scene, with everyone ready to turn on you for any move people arbitrarily deem unpunk. Just look at fellow exclamation marked band, Against Me!, who Rosenstock lists as a major personal influence. Against Me! seemed to lose fans along every step of their career as they climbed from banging on makeshift drums in Florida basements to opening for Green Day in massive stadiums. While on tour shortly after leaving No Idea! Records for Fat Wreck Chords, an incredibly minor but seemingly symbolic move in the punk world, a few former fans let them know how much they appreciated the jump by slashing their van’s tires. Lord knows what kind of shit they got after later signing to Sire, a division of Warner Brothers Records.
Against Me!’s story is not unique. Countless bands have developed passionate cult followings, only to be torn down by the same fans who built them up. But for the majority of its nine years of existence, Bomb the Music Industry! has largely avoided the typical trappings that come with being in a rising punk band. They somehow beat the system, only hearing mild shittalking when Rosenstock stopped recording the albums in his bedroom and started using an actual studio. Even when the band’s song “Can’t Complain” was featured in an episode of The Office, a death kiss for most punk bands, fans stuck by Bomb.
Perhaps the reason Bomb the Music Industry! has maintained a good reputation in the punk scene is because of Jeff Rosenstock himself. Much like Ian Mackaye accidentally set a standard of punk to be followed in the early 80s, Rosenstock serendipitously wrote the new rules of DIY ethics for the MySpace generation. But unlike Mackaye, who, although well-respected, has garnered a reputation as punk rock’s ornery elder statesman, Rosenstock is charismatic and has a charming everyman quality. You'd walk past the hoodie-clad frontman in a crowd without noticing nine out of ten times. But stop him to talk about music and be prepared to make a new friend.
Rosenstock laughs off the Mackaye comparison, saying he’s in a reverse Ian Mackaye situation: “I remember hearing that he drinks wine. What a fucking weird news story that is to hear, that a person drinks wine.” Rosenstock tends to write songs about drunken fuck ups and got the opposite reaction from fans. “I would get phone calls while I was on tour at three o’clock in the afternoon from people, just like, ‘Hey man, are you drunk right now?’ I’d be like, ‘Uh, I’m driving a car.’ ...‘Drunk driving, bro?!’ ...Like, no, bro.”
It’s hard to get a grasp on Rosenstock. Indie punk songstress and original Bomb the Music Industry! keyboard player, Laura Stevenson, notes that Rosenstock has the most brilliant musical mind of anyone she’s ever met. But at the same time, he doesn't seem to take himself seriously enough to care about any kind of critical acclaim. So is he a musical genius or a lucky beneficiary of circumstance? A DIY pioneer for the digital age or an underachiever afraid of success? An astute visionary or someone who tripped and fell ass backwards into a modern era of punk? He rejects all of these labels, in typical Rosenstock fashion, saying simply, “I just do what I do, man.” Frances Quinlan, whose band, Hop Along, has played with Bomb several times puts it best: “Jeff is just Jeff, always and forever.”
However it happened, for a small but ravenous fanbase, Bomb the Music Industry! became the Fugazi for the internet age of punk. If that sounds like an exaggeration, by all means, ask one of the hundreds of bands who started up in garages and bedrooms because Bomb made music seem accessible. Ask anyone who identified with Bomb’s lyrics so deeply that they got them tattooed on their body. Ask the people who openly cried at Bomb the Music Industry!’s two farewell shows this weekend at Warsaw, a Polish music hall located down the block from Rosenstock’s apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
The final shows sold out in just hours, with attendees travelling from all over to catch one last glimpse of the spectacle that is Bomb the Music Industry!’s live show. And Bomb didn’t disappoint. On Friday and Sunday nights, the band played almost every song they ever wrote until they were drenched in sweat while still maintaining their trademark laid-back "whatever, dude" attitude. As they took the stage the first night, they spent almost 20 minutes of set up time just fucking around. They half-started Weakerthans songs, made inside jokes about god knows what, recommended Bill Cosby reggae videos on YouTube to the audience, and asked to borrow a floor tom. Their last shows ever and they weren’t even prepared enough to have a fucking floor tom. Finally, after a good 15 minutes of dicking around, Rosenstock looked out at the thousand-plus people chomping at the bit to go apeshit and said, “Alright, let’s just do this. Hi, we’re Bomb the Music Industry!.” He played the opening chords and immediately dove headfirst into the crowd.
Every single person in the venue, and what momentarily seemed like the entire punk scene, was completely absorbed into the pure unadulterated energy of Bomb the Music Industry!. Even the traditionally stoic older Polish women who operate the venue briefly took a break from picking up empty beer cups—and there were a lot of them—to marvel. The gruff bartenders, who look like excommunicated members of the Polish mafia, came out to stand against the wall and scratched their heads as to what the hell was going on.
Several hours of sweaty hugs, emphatic fingerpoints, and desperate, teary final chants of “Woah, woah, woah!” later, the final show neared an end. As Rosenstock sang the lyric, “I’ll probably never see your face again,” a confetti gun shot brightly colored paper over the crowd. And just as randomly and haphazardly as it started, Bomb the Music Industry! was over.
When asked if there’s a chance Bomb the Music Industry! will ever return, Rosenstock, without hesitation, responds, “Sure, right?” I never thought I’d get a chance to see Pavement play again and I saw them three days in a row, so I don’t know, probably. It would be a complete lie if I said there’s no way.” Rosenstock realizes he has possibly gotten ahead of himself, almost foreseeing the field day commenters on punk blogs would have interpreting that quote. He clarifies: “I would say though, that if something like that happens, there’s a better chance that we’ll all just be in a bar somewhere. And we’d be like, ‘Let’s just play for a second.’ That’s how I imagine it would be.”
Rosenstock shrugs. “But who fucking knows?”
Dan Ozzi is not crying, YOU’RE crying, shut up. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi