Ska-Boom and Ska-Bust
Published Feb 01, 2000Something has changed in the ska world. Ska shows, with attendance in the thousands, local bar ska nights and even television ads with ska jingles are becoming ever less frequent. Frat kids are tuning into rap-metal instead of ska-punk, and ska sections in record stores are becoming ever smaller. Ska's Third Wave, it seems, has crashed on the surf; the tide has turned and is ebbing away.
But few people seem to be panicking. The situation as it regards fans, bands and labels isn't as dire as some people are quick (and happy) to point out. "The general consensus out there seems to say that right now there is a lull the waters are pretty still for ska," says "Venice Shoreline" Chris Murray and singer of Toronto ska mainstays King Apparatus. "But it's not dead in any sense."
Merely mentioning the phrase "ska is dead" will lead to snorts of contempt and dismissal from those intimately involved. Ska's decline in popular appeal will only have strengthened it in the long run, many say. And ska itself is no longer an alien term in the minds of music fans.
"Now that it's out of the public eye," says Matt Collyer, of Montreal's Planet Smashers and the Stomp Records label, "ska culture will go back into the clubs and out of the malls, which I think is a good thing. It's much more healthy there because that's where it belongs when it was mainstream it faded within a year."
But while ska is returning to the clubs and the streets and to the internet, where a huge ska community of newsletters, fan pages, discussion forums and chat groups thrives its boom and bust flirtation with the mainstream has exacted a heavy toll within the community.
In late December, fans of ska music the world over were surprised and saddened by the closing of Moon Ska Records, the pioneering New York label that effectively brought the music to North American shores. In a press release posted on the Moon web site, Buck Hingley, the label's founder and the leading force behind the label's flagship band the Toasters, cited "distributor failure, massive product returns, vanishing bands and evaporating sales" as the primary reasons behind Moon's crash. He also referred to having "discovered the bitterest truth that there is no such thing as a friend in the music business. Personal and financial betrayals have undermined my will to carry on." A recent embezzlement scandal involving the Moon store manager Noah Wildman is still before the courts. Buck Hingley refuses to talk about the label's collapse but has vowed to carry on with the Toasters.
How could Moon, the label synonymous with American Third Wave ska, fail? From riding the crest of ska's massive popularity burst in the late 90s to its demise at the tail end of last year, Moon's rise and subsequent fall are, many say, examples of bad business decisions and lessons on indie label viability.
"Moon was always considered more of an artists' collective. From the start it was very do-it-yourself, and bands had to make their own support-base," says Murray, whose King Apparatus signed with Moon in the early 90s, and although he didn't suffer from Moon's business style, the label's narrow focus eventually limited what it could do. Moon was a ska label and always would be it would never make the cross-over jump to other genres that might ultimately have saved it.
"Moon was a great thing for ska because it created a hub and there were a lot of fantastic bands on that label," says Lorraine Muller of Montreal ska band the Kingpins. "But a lot of those bands left for labels that were bigger and better able to support them big bands, like the Dance Hall Crashers, No Doubt, the Slackers and Hepcat."
Moon's emphasis, many ska insiders say, was on quantity of releases rather than on the quality (and integrity) of the bands. "Moon was weakened by putting out lots of bands in a short time, and a lot of those bands would quit as soon as their records came out," says Chuck Wren, manager of Chicago's Jump Up! Records. Without the ability of touring revenues to recoup the cost of producing the album, expenses added up.
Another serious problem for Moon as a genre-specific label was the fickle nature of audiences and the music industry. While Moon was filling out relatively very large orders for distributors in its late 90s heyday, by 2000, not surprisingly, returns were replacing pay checks. "By the late 90s ska was more successful than it was supposed to be," says Eric Rosen, the former A & R representative for New York City's hardcore-oi-ska-punk label Radical Records. "Ska is a very specific genre to be into, and when the major labels didn't want to buy it anymore, the distributors dropped it. Moon's mistake was in putting all its eggs in one basket, and when that basket is no longer attractive, you're in big trouble. They signed way too many bands and when it came crashing down it crashed really hard."
Over-saturation is the term heard most when asking for the reasons for ska's slip from the mainstream limelight. Too many mediocre bands were offering nothing new, or even playing anything particularly well. "Ska strangled itself with over-saturation," says the Kingpins' Muller. "Every week for over two years in New York you could find at least ten ska shows to go to within a four or five-mile radius, and that's just too much for an underground music."
Jump Up's Chuck Wren agrees: "People got sick of hearing ska everywhere. Some ad came on the television that had a ska soundtrack and a friend of mine said Hey, that's ska! Who is that?' And three years ago, I could have told you about every band, every song, and every riff but now I just don't care anymore."
Johnny Chiba, Radical Records' A & R and "Press and Advertising Fucker" (according to the web site), sums up the entire change: "There are fewer fans, which means fewer bands which means less music being put out. Ska's no longer the flavour of the month."
The ska body count does not stop with Moon Ska Records and dozens of forgettable bands. Some of the music's biggest names, including Hepcat, the Allstonians, Skavoovie and the Epitones, the Agents, Sturgeon General, the Skoidats and the Pilfers have either disbanded or been dropped from their labels. And bigger mainstream bands that made their names as ska (or at least ska-influenced) bands like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and No Doubt can no longer be considered such by any stretch of the imagination.
What, then, do those in the know think about ska's immediate future? "It's gonna get bleaker," says Radical's Rosen. "I don't see the bigger labels like Hellcat or Mojo picking up new ska bands anytime soon. Maybe," he says with a half-laugh, "maybe in eight to ten years. And why should they? They're not going to make their money back."
Jump Up's Chuck Wren is also fairly pessimistic. "A purely ska label is just not viable," he says. He should know: he latched on to the Midwest punk label Victory Records in 1999 to secure distribution for Jump Up CDs, an act that may well have saved the label's life. "No one would care if you put out records and no one would stock your product. Most stores are apathetic towards ska. The kids are buying Jump Up records at mainstream stores like Tower because the indie stores don't think ska's cool anymore." In Montreal, Matt Collyer of Stomp Records and Planet Smashers front man says simply "Ska bands shouldn't have high aspirations."
But if the long-term survival of a ska-only label is not viable, ska as a label element certainly is. Stomp merged with Montreal punk label 2112 and garage-mod Tyrant Records to form the Union label group; Jump Up! deals with Victory; Radical holds a wide array of bands that are in a vague way in the same underground boat as ska; and Hellcat Records, which handles the Slackers, the Pietasters, Voodoo Glowskulls and Hepcat, is a subsidiary of Epitaph.
Stomp, for instance, has what Collyer thinks will be "a great year ahead of us." Two Kingpins videos, for "Bordel" and "Supernova" are in production, a new Planet Smashers album is planned for a spring release, and General Rudie, a young up-and-coming Montreal ska band, are planning to release their debut album sometime this year. The Kingpins and Subb both have European tours planned. Stomp also recently picked up the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble from the Moon rubble. King Apparatus will also be releasing an EP, with eyes towards a possible full-length album, sometime soon.
What does this signify, then, for ska culture and popularity? If ska is dead, why are some of the music's best bands, including the Slackers, releasing new albums in 2001? If the only place to go is down, why is there still so much activity?
"Artists are going to still do it because they love it, and because they can develop more as artists," according to King Appartus's Murray. "Ska can and did transcend the core scene because what the artists are doing is true to the scene but is also inclusive."
Ska became inclusive by amalgamating pop-punk sounds into a traditional sound. There still does not seem to be a return to the traditional ska sound as it emerged from Jamaica. Although it was brought back to life by bands like the Slackers, Hepcat and the New York Ska Jazz Ensemble, most modern bands will probably stay away from that niche to avoid pigeon-holing and limited commercial success.
"I'd look stupid wearing a suit," Collyer says, and anyone who has seen or heard the band play would most likely agree. Perhaps the country's most successful ska band, and the one approaching the closest to popular acceptance, the Planet Smashers have never been anything other than what they are: a pop group that grew up in the 1980s.
"We always wanted to be honest in our music," he says. "We all feel a lot more comfortable playing pop ska music because that has left a lot of options open for us: we played the Montreal Jazz Fest last summer because we had horns, but we can play the punk shows because we're fast."
The same goes for the planned King Apparatus return. Although Murray's solo stint had a very strong traditional element to it, King Apparatus was always an aggressive, punk-paced band, drawing its influence from the late 70s 2Tone movement rather than from the 1960s.
"The new songs we're writing will indicate some kind of development but will be closely related to what King Apparatus always was," Murray explains. "We'll see where we are and then ask where do we go. We just have to take enough time to see it all come together rather than just take a random shot."
The cross-over into pop, into punk, into jazz, even into house and techno will ensure a band's viability. That, and their own inherent talent. Now that ska has moved out of the mass market, and the signing spree is over, labels like Radical will be looking at the quality of bands and their songs rather than their particular sound.
"If a band has great songs, we'll sign them," offers Radical's Chiba. "We're not going to go after ska in particular, just after the best bands, which we judge by their records and their live performance. And as long as bands have energetic and talented musicians, ska won't die."
"When King Apparatus started, ska was much more dead than it is now," Murray says. "There will always be a core scene that's into ska even though it's not the next big thing. And it's comforting to me to think that the grass-roots support will allow me to live as a professional artist and share my craft."
And as for wide-spread commercial success, on an MTV-commercial radio level, many musicians are happy to be out of the pressure and hype mass appeal demands. "Did you watch the American Music Awards?" asks the Kingpins' Muller. "My God, it made me sick. I'd really rather be part of something that the mainstream thinks is dead."