2016 marks the 15th year since [Michael] Azerrad’s seminal anthological survey of the ’80s underground punk and rock scenes was published. Despite its subject matter detailing the histories of 13 different bands, Our Band Could Be Your Life isn’t really a book about music at all. It’s a collection of stories about people creating amazing art out of sheer compulsion and love of the process. It’s a story of doing it yourself and helping others along the way. It’s a story about communities built, whole cloth, from the ground up to express like-minded ideas and lifestyle choices. Throughout the years, the spirit of that particular period has endured as a guiding light to thousands of bands for whom there is no place in the mainstream. And on the flip side, the enthusiasm of Azerrad the historian has inspired countless writers to dig deep and tell the tales of less-heralded musicians so that their art would receive its due.
Michael Azerrad: "The epigram for Our Band Could Be Your Life comes from William Blake: ‘I must create my own system, lest I be enslaved by another man’s.’ All of the bands in the book were creating their own system.
“The spirit of DIY wasn’t just critical to the success of that community. It was an entire way of life. You didn’t have to be a huge rock star; you just had to do well enough to continue doing what you wanted to do. It wasn’t about hitting the jackpot, it was about sustainability. That was a revolutionary, or at least heretical, idea—especially in a culture that valued getting rich even more than it already had. This idea could apply not just to music but to just about anything—that’s why the book is called Our Band Could Be Your Life.”
I’m not alone in naming Our Band Could Be Your Life one of my favorite music history books. I know that’s in part because I was immersed at the time (as a fan) in the scene it documents. I’m not sure how much enjoyment one could get out of it if unfamiliar with the bands or distanced from the period, but I’d like to think it remains entertaining with many great lessons for those struggling with the art vs. making a living conundrum. Of course there were independent, DIY scenes before the ’80s, but it’s special how the community and interconnectedness of the labels and bands at this time created a modest and lasting ethos. You can see fingerprints all over the independent creative industries today, and not just in music.