How Giving Builds Community: The Case of Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth advanced alternative music by creating a culture of generosity

Posted May 22, 2013

“We wanted to do as good as Sonic Youth” – Krist Novoselic, bassist for Nirvana, in 1992 (emphasis mine)

The avant garde noise rock band and Do-It-Yourself pioneer Sonic Youth is better known for getting talked about by famous musicians than for the number of albums it sold. It was a major influence on the guitar feedback-laden sound of grunge-era bands, such as Pavement, Radiohead, and Nirvana. More importantly, perhaps, it was also major professional advocate for these bands.

Sonic Youth was a giving band that sat at the nexus of a large and diverse network of independent musicians. According to Wharton professor Adam Grant, givers such as Sonic Youth benefit in many ways from their generosity. In his new book, Give and Take, Grant distinguishes between givers, takers, and matchers. Givers are generous and provide help without keeping tabs about who owes them what. Takers try to get as much for themselves and as little as possible for others. Matchers work on a tit-for-tat basis.

Sonic Youth On Stage

The early alternative music community sustained itself through a culture of giving: giving information about how to book and promote shows, giving know-how about how the music industry works, giving shelter and food to visiting bands, and giving unknown bands visibility. Sonic Youth embodied this ethic. As Grant discusses in his book, a consistent pattern of giving by key members of a community can establish a giving culture within that community. As a result of their giving, Sonic Youth created more value for everyone by shepherding a growing movement of like-minded bands into mainstream awareness. By 1992, the bands they had inspired and helped were selling millions of albums and dominating radio and MTV.

Sonic Youth gave struggling bands advice on how to book their own shows, grow their fan base, and keep their costs lost so that can make a living outside of the mainstream. They counseled them on the transition from independent to major label. They championed their favorite bands to their own major record label, DGC, a subsidiary of Geffen Records. They drew attention to unknown actresses, such as Chloe Savigny, and directors, such Spike Jonze, by inviting them to participate in their videos.

For example, Sonic Youth took the then-unknown Nirvana as an opening act for seven shows in August 1990. For Nirvana, those shows were the biggest they had ever played, giving them the exposure they needed to create a buzz. Sonic Youth’s singer Thurston Moore called his band’s management company and personally asked them to consider representing Nirvana, which they did. He recommended Nirvana to his representative at Geffen Records, who ultimately signed Nirvana to the label.

Once Nirvana became successful, it mimicked Sonic Youth’s mode of behavior. It sponsored unknown bands such as The Raincoats, The Vaselines, and The Melvins, bringing them on tour as opening acts and speaking to industry professionals on their behalf.

Have you heard of Nirvana? They're opening for Sonic Youth

In the end, Sonic Youth chose to stay left of center. Its music, though innovative and hauntingly beautiful, is challenging to mainstream audiences. By not bending to commercial pressures, Sonic Youth upheld an important value of its community: it stayed true to its artistic vision. As a result, except for a headlining spot at 1995 Lollapalooza, Sonic Youth did not attain the level of fame of the bands it helped.

But their giving benefitted them in other ways. They generated goodwill and credibility that granted them almost complete creative freedom during their eighteen years with Geffen Records. Even though they hadn’t generated a lot of income for the label, “No one wanted to be known as the person who dropped Sonic Youth,” a former colleague told band biographer David Browne.

The continuous interaction with young bands also helped Sonic Youth maintain its own creativity. It consistently delivered high quality albums, even late into its career. In fact, its sixteenth album, The Eternal, was a favorite among critics and was their highest charting album, peaking at number 18 on the Billboard chart. Not many bands see that kind of growth 28 years into their career.

Sonic Youth’s giving approach helped grow the underground alternative movement from the margins to the mainstream and helped perpetuate a musician-led culture of mutual support. Along the way, it granted the band the freedom and support to keep making music it believed in.

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