Each January, patrons of Australian punk make a pilgrimage to ‘Unify Gathering’, an event that celebrates the community’s comradery. The faithful revel in the opportunity to express emotional vulnerability, worshipping at the stage of bands where their heroes’ angsty poeticism is a sacred text. At the merch tent, the same anguished lyrics are printed on the sleeves of baggy t-shirts that resemble pieces from Yeezy Season 4. Skate decks, flags and caps all don associated imagery. It’s catharsis; it’s a lifestyle. But with vulnerable audiences, does plastering suicidal imagery on merch irresponsibly commodify and exploit mental health struggles?
Australia’s heavy music scene has risen rapidly in popularity over the last decade. No longer exclusive to long-haired metalheads dressed in black t-shirts, young Australians have gravitated towards this community seeking an alternative to the vapid local indie rock championed by national media outlets. The heavy music scene is a support network where the sharing of deepest feelings and fears is celebrated. Or that’s what we’re sold.
I have repeatedly bought into the scene’s associated ideals. In 2016, Newcastle hardcore band Trophy Eyes released Chemical Miracle, an album deeply rooted in grieving and loss and celebrated for its beautifully crafted narrative storytelling that resonated with fans. I eagerly supported their efforts, buying vinyl, attending gigs and wearing their merch. It was later pointed out that the t-shirt I wore proudly featured a noose, a symbol that immediately connotes suicide.
Bands understand their position as facilitators of dialogue around mental health, yet often the only solution they present is an album bundle package valued at $89.95, emblazoned with lyrics like “death to misery”. Is this merely marketing, masquerading as a path to self-help?
Most of the scene’s operations are facilitated by independently-owned label UNFD, which kickstarted the careers of massive acts like The Amity Affliction, Hellions and Northlane. It has cashed in on the devotion of Australians through its subsidiary, the online merchandise distributor 24Hundred. In doing so, 24Hundred has homogenised the subculture’s identity.
Buying into the lifestyle has become essential to belonging in the scene. Although the ‘look’ seems tame in comparison to pioneering punks, a $40 navy t-shirt featuring a coffin and the lyrics “will you miss me when I’m gone” is a uniform that expresses connection.
Music sales in the last decade have diminished so steeply that they are now a tiny fraction of a band’s income. Their aesthetic appeal is therefore more important than ever, integral to ensuring fans are engaged. In a scene that receives little attention from multinational conglomerates, working with a tried and tested formula ensures the continual sale of their products.
The Amity Affliction are notorious for this formula. Frontman Joel Birch is the poster boy for tell-all poeticism, penning lyrics like: “All the panic, depression, the hurt and regret, Lying to myself ‘I don’t think of death’, All the ups, all the downs, all the petty concerns, my whole world’s imploding, I can’t find the words.”
Fans live and breathe this. In an open letter in May 2014, Birch responded to the influx of letters he receives from fans who elucidate how their personal experiences are mirrored in his music. “I don’t feel personally equipped to handle some of these notes,” he wrote.
Musical subcultures have always been associated with certain attitudes. When this attitude is so deeply rooted in mental health, there should be a line that determines the difference between healthy discourse and romanticising difficult experiences for commercial gain.
Artists can’t control how their audiences interpret their work, and the end goal of the music industry will always be profit. However, for a scene founded on the principle that it supports the underdogs, stakeholders involved should take caution with what they represent. To be truly ‘unified’, everyone involved should be respected, not exploited.