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The Lifecycle of a Punk Band

From upping the punx to lowering your cholesterol.
February 4, 2015, 4:00pm

Illustration by JP Flexner

Anyone who’s ever started a punk band can tell you what a thoroughly terrible life choice it is. It’s a genre whose primary objective is to avoid working a real job but in which there is not enough money to make a living. That goes for its sister genres too—hardcore, emo, and so on. It’s a scene where the word “lifer” gets thrown around a lot as a point of pride. But the longer life drags on, the less it feels like a badge of honor and more like a badge of what-the-fuck-did-I-do-with-my-life? So if you’re thinking of starting that band, go for it! Here is the path you can expect your life to take…

Age 18: To kill the boredom on days when it’s too rainy to skateboard, you and your friends start a band in your parents’ basement. You can’t play your instruments for shit, you have no musical frame of reference, and objectively speaking, you suck. But you’re having fun covering four-chord classics and it’s just an excuse to hang out anyway, so who cares? You’ve got your youth, your looks, and the whole world ahead of you. Life is good.

Age 20: With the few hundred bucks you’ve made playing local shows over the last two years, you record your first album. Most of your lyrics and songwriting skills will be cringeworthy when you look back on them years later but still, there’s an undeniable raw, youthful energy behind it all. You’re young and idealistic and the weight of the world has not yet crushed your soul. This is the record that will build you a following.

Age 21: You spend most months of the year on tour—anything to avoid the real world and its dead-end retail jobs. You live out of a van, you dress awful, and you smell even worse. You don’t realize it at the time, but this will be the best time of your entire life.

Age 22: You release your sophomore album. By this time, you’ve finally learned your instruments (to a passable extent anyway) and have “clicked” as a band. This will be your best record and the last truly good thing you ever do.

Age 24: By now, the growing following you’ve amassed has gotten you some attention from bigger labels. You sign to one in the hopes of making enough money to not have six roommates for the rest of your life.

Your first big label album creates a dividing line in your fanbase. You’ve pissed off the diehards who’ve been with you since your first self-released EP. They call you a sellout and slash your van’s tires. But you’ve got an influx of new fans—mostly college frat dudes who heard you on the radio or saw your video on MTV19. They come to your shows and shout requests for your one single or for “Freebird” ironically.

Age 25: Your major label debut is your best-selling record by far—quadrupling the combined sales of your previous two records—but is still a colossal failure in the eyes of the label, who have learned, yet again, that punk bands aren’t a profitable financial investment. They take a huge hit on this record and recoup the loss by doubling their efforts on some 19-year-old pop star in a purple onesie whose song about partying goes quintuple platinum. Your label contact has stopped picking up the phone when you call. You go into a dark, existential place.

Age 27: To get out of your creative rut, you start a side project. It’s sort of acoustic anti-folk stuff and you release an album under the moniker in the format of “Your Name & The Somethings.” The songs are all mopey and self-deprecating and honestly, no one is really interested in hearing the inner workings of a person who wrote some decent songs half a decade ago. You throw a Replacements cover on the end for good measure. You play a few shows, billed as “member of Your Band” because no one would come otherwise. These shows give you a glimpse of the sad future ahead of you.

Age 28: At this point in your career (you call it a career now), everyone in the band hates each other. You’ve gone through three drummers and you yourself have threatened to quit multiple times. You cancel a week of your tour, telling the fans it was because you had come down with laryngitis but really, you physically couldn’t take another night playing the same stage with those assholes.

Age 29: Even though your label wants nothing to do with you, you still owe them another record to fulfill your two-album contract. By now, you’ve long run out of things to sing about anyway, so you shit something out that is so far from where you started as a band. It's experimental and boring and sounds like a watered down version of your former self. Only the dumbest, least discerning of your fans like it.

Age 31: After two years of inactive “hiatus,” you finally just call it a day. The announcement of your split hits the punk blogs and the comment sections fill up half with “I only liked their old stuff anyway” and half with “Wait, they were still a band?” LOL, you’re a joke.

Age 32: The reality dawns on you that you have no marketable skills since you either skipped or dropped out of college to play music. You’re also covered in tons of regrettable tattoos you’ve accumulated over the years which preclude you from all but the noisiest and most degrading jobs. Fortunately, your spouse has a steady career and goes to work to pay the rent while you become a stay-at-home parent. Maybe you should’ve just listened to your dad and gone to business school.

Age 35: Since your friends spend their days at their jobs, you now have plenty of free time which you waste the majority of on Facebook. Your profile picture is a photo of your baby. You rattle off one lengthy rant after another with your out-of-touch social commentary (which is leaning increasingly Republican, by the way). Most people have blocked you and you’ve coned yourself off into an echo chamber of like-minded aging individuals who also pine for the good old days and think the current state of punk is terrible (even though it sounds pretty much exactly the same as it did in your time).

Age 37: One day you’re cleaning out your basement and you stumble upon a box of first pressings of your old band’s LPs and some t-shirts. (Since when do you no longer fit into a medium, by the way?) Since the residual checks for your album sales only net you $500 a year, you put the merch on eBay to make a few extra bucks which you use to buy a little weed which you smoke in secret behind your car when you go out to buy diapers. This is the most dangerous thing you’ve got going.

Age 39: A band you used to tour with is playing in town. You get a babysitter for the night so you can stay out past 9 PM to catch their show. They put you on the guestlist to spare themselves your lecture about ticket prices and service fees. The venue is sold out and you suddenly realize that the punk scene has somehow managed to soldier on without you. In fact, it’s more vibrant and profitable than ever. This gives you an idea…

Age 40: You announce a reunion tour. All original members playing your classic album. You plan two weeks of shows for the following year and they sell out instantly. Your fans cream their pant emojis over it on Twitter, even though most of them are just feigning enthusiasm in a sad attempt to pretend that they’re familiar with the seminal acts of yesteryear. You also get booked on two huge summer music festivals, playing the Muscle Milk Energy Vape Rock Stage in between some rapper you’ve never heard of and a bigger, more seminal reunited band.

Based off of the popularity of the ticket sales, you release a 20-year anniversary edition reissue of your first album. It’s pretty much exactly the same except you charge extra for it because you put an additional three demo tracks on it that weren’t good enough to make the original cut.

Your band members put your egos aside, gets in the studio, and records a new reunion record. With the exception of that last-minute song you recorded 15 years ago for a benefit comp for Dog Food Not Bombs, it is the single worst thing you’ve ever released. Regardless of how unremarkable and devoid of passion it is, the mainstream press eats it up and publicly fellates you, mostly because the positive reviews are being written by people compensating for the fact that they were too young to have lived through your heyday.

Age 41: The first night of tour is great. It’s good to see old faces, most of which are now heavily bearded to compensate for recessed hairlines. You’re pretty out of shape though and that extra 20 pounds you’ve put on over the years is giving you embarrassing sweat stains on stage.

After the show, you’re bombarded with selfie requests and hit on by groupies who are young enough to be your kids. Speaking of which, you spend most of your downtime on tour FaceTiming with your family who you have a newfound appreciation for.

The rest of the tour is pretty taxing on you, physically. You quickly realize that you’re far too old to be doing this. Your back hurts from sleeping on floors, your knees hurt from being cramped in the van, and your head hurts because you are way too old to be doing coke. You also remember why you couldn’t stand to be in a van with these people for hours at a time in the first place.

After two weeks of sold out shows, it’s finally time for the payoff of your life’s work. The funds are settled up and after paying out your manager, your agent, your publicist, your merch person, your van rental, your travel accommodations, and your meals, you’ve each made… $1,700. Punk is bullshit.

Dan Ozzi is on Twitter, where all aging punks waste their time nowadays - @danozzi