The changing economics of youth subculture

From a Metafilter discussion, here is one comment:

Music distribution, music purchasing and the ethics around them have changed. When I was a mere slip of a girl, it really mattered whether one was on a major label or not, and everyone knew someone who ran a tiny label out of their bedroom, etc etc. I can’t get over how my fellow anarchists listen to, like, Beyonce. That would not have gone over well in 1996. As a result, fashion/music subcultures are, I think, more permeable and fluid, and there’s less oppositionality associated with music.

Also, fast fashion and big changes in the distribution and status of vintage and thrift store fashion. I’d argue that up through the nineties, second hand clothes were a little bit declasse; they aren’t anymore. Clothes more than 20 years old were easy to find in the thrift stores and were of fairly high quality. Now even the last of the union-made eighties clothes are hard to find and can be quite pricey. (I mean, I remember when I bought a 50s silk-satin Dior dress – not atelier, but still – for $5.99 at Saver’s.) So style changes faster and it’s harder to associate style with oppositionality and with a stable ‘style tribe’.

“Style tribes” themselves are pretty well commodified, too – you can make a nice living catering to goths or VLV folks or whatever. So there’s less, I guess, libidinal investmentthere.

Also, life is more precarious and it’s harder to get work. Back when I was properly young in the nineties, if you didn’t have a job you could just temp. It wasn’t fun (remember that zine Temp Slave) but you could keep a roof over your head. A lot easier to do subculture stuff then. Even the serious anarchists I know now scrabble a lot more for work, food and money than back then.

Rents are higher – where in 1995 you could run a whole anarchist community center on $300/month plus utilities – which could be paid with three people who had jobs and could chip in $100 each, now you’re looking at $1200/month plus utilities and fewer people who can kick down $100.

I mean, there’s still plenty of youth fashion, music and neat stuff going on – it’s just that the support structures are more fragile and temporary and the borders between things are thinner.

That is from Frowner.  Hat tip goes to @NatashaPlotkin, the most underrated tweeter I know of, with only 76 followers.


The Cowen effect. 35 extra followers before the post gets a single comment.

The number of followers has now doubled.


I do wonder about the politics of said youth subcultures. Is it still fashionable to be anarchist, even?

Anarchism is the hippest political posture at the moment, so absolutely yes.

I find it amusing though how conversant this individual is about high fashion, etc. I also think the whole rap culture of flaunting wealth and high pitched marketing has made it more difficult for white leftists to adopt the "no sell-out" mentality that this person described as existed in the 60s-80s.

Relying on the Internet as a leading indicator, there seems to be a wave of backlash against they're-all-the-same-ism, and increasingly melodramatic accusations of in-authenticity (!) amongst anarchists. That Black Bloc guy on TV burning cars being identified to work for Goldman Sachs, etc.


Everything was better when I was young as well.

WOW! Who would've thought, who could've thunk, that rental rates for anarchist community centers would quadruple in barely fifteen years! (Exactly what the hell is an "anarchist community center"? I'm not going to even bother going to Wikipedia with this query. Naively had I assumed that an anarchist community center would otherwise go by the pedestrian appellation "the outdoors".)

Next time, try reading the whole sentence before commenting.

Awww, shame on me! I'm always taking anarchism just seriously enough not to take it seriously at all.

My local "anarchist community center" was shut down due to noise violations. It turns out that The Man does not consider loud concerts in a residential neighborhood to be a valid form of civil disobedience.

I view it differently. I see the key to all "subgroups" as the ability of the in-group to police membership through raising the price of initiation. The higher the initiation price, the more uniform and recognizable the group, and the more loyal in-group members will be, given their prior sacrifices in time/money/w/e. Several commenters at Metafilter noted the more work that had to be done in the past to be "punk" or what have you (time in record stores, reading alt media, college radio, word of mouth). The internet has destroyed initiation costs, with the result that any vaguely motivated person can learn enough to "pass" as whatever subgroup they like in the space of an hour or so of googling. This, in turn, removes the motivation of anyone to police their group membership, and all groups are largely made up of fluid "amateur" scenesters who probably belong to multiple groups, and can change, chameleon-like, if they so desire. The lack of a recognizable "scene" to the degree it exists is lodged in the fact that modern youth are social sluts, so to speak, promiscuous in their attachments to social markers, and capable of maintaining may concurrent memberships. There are far more people who listen to Punk than there used to be, but there are far fewer Punks.

I'd just say the subgroups have changed considerably. Pretty much all music fandom from the 90s and before has become mainstream along with its paired political philosophy, etc. Some of the smaller parts (I might be thinking of Rockabilly, but I don't live that far south so can't be sure) have expanded and sit right at the edge of mainstream and a subculture). Folk and bluegrass sit on that edge too. A few sort of mainstream acts/songs, but mainly played by people in houses and bars. It's a fun and strange scene due to how multi-generational it is.

Even true subcultures have been able to expand thanks to the internet. Anime conventions are big business, but still mainly run by the fans who put in a lot of hours to make them happen. Some conventions have become large enough to be run by companies, but I guarantee you have no idea how many local conventions go on across the country (DC had one this weekend). Indie comic books are a great writer and reader driven subculture.

Honestly I have no sadness for the loss of music based subcultures. Most of it was generally full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I should know, I did the punk/hardcore thing when I was young. If you want to witness some socially interesting youth subculture, go watch some vlogbrothers and join a Nerd Fighters group.

You've touched on the reasons why subcultures are less "sub" than they used to be, and more mainstream, but I think that it is entertwined with the phenomenon I raised. The internet is serving several roles here in the shifting cultural landscape, and I agree that it is not a net negative. But neither is it an unalloyed positive. I certainly don't weep for the fall of the music industry proper, if I am still a bit nostalgic for the skate-punk days before driving. Another phenomenon is that no matter how tiny the minority of interested parties in any given item, there are always enough on the internet to provide social support and de-stigmatize the behavior, whether it is gore threads on /b/ or Bronies.

Within anime/manga subcutlure, there are extraordinarily capital intensive expressions of fandom. I've easily spent over $17k on my figure collection (anime/manga/Japanese game characters in pvc) from the premier figure companies (Alter, Max Factory, Good Smile Company, and the occassional boutique figure lines). If you're a figure otaku, then you're spending lots of money on quality figures. There's ultimately nothing "internet" about being an authentic member of that community, other than that the internet has provided a very powerful and important way to actually buy the figures (though, to be honest, if you live in a metro area in the US, you can probably find a brick and mortar anime store that will order the figures for you; that's how I get most of mine, though I also order through online retailers) ... as I write that I'm having to admit, though, that the internet does provide a vehicle through which the community (some members at least) can express themselves through blogs on their collections, blogs on current figrues to be released in Japan, etc.. But in the end, to be really part of it, you have to spend the money on the figures; and you should be spending your money on the quality figures, which of course are much more expensive (starting from $100 and often going over $200 per figure) than the junk.

Oh...dear...god. If only she knew how ridiculous she sounds.

It is a shame that the support structures for anarchism are so very fragile today. Maybe she should writer her Congresscritter.

Frowner is one of the best and most articulate Metafilter commenters. I disagree with her probably a majority of the time, but I disagree with lots of people. Rarely are they (or the people I agree with) so clear, sober, and well-argued.

Well I agree with one point, the rents are still too high, real estate is still too expensive post bubble.

As someone who started a theater company in Texas in the mid-nineties we were surfing on excess capacity from the savings and loan blow-out. There were abandoned buildings everywhere. I think the biggest difference between this real estate bust and the previous one is that there really wasn't excess commercial capacity built, thus the increase in price for commercial space.

Shorter Frowner: The rent is too damn high! Oh, and diversity is not our support structure.

Comments for this post are closed