Published May 24th, 2017
by Swanchita Haze

Brewdog, the plucky young hipster upstart of the craft beer revolution, has made a lot of headlines lately for making itself a shit ton of money. The Aberdeen-born company recently sold 22% of itself to private equity firm TSG Consumer Partnerships in a deal that valued the brewery at over £1 billion.

It’s very cliched to go, ‘You’re not punk.’ We don’t care if we are, and we don’t care if we aren’t.

– Joel Madden

The latest profitable chapter in their short but eventful history has prompted a barrage of thinkpieces on how they’ve changed, or why this partnership doesn’t fit with their self-styled punk ethics and attitude. It’s not the first time they’ve been accused of growing up and losing their cred and I’m sure it won’t be the last either.

Punk cred in action

If anything, this is the latest in a series of stories that proves they are exactly as punk as they claim to be.

When I was a teenager, you couldn’t get straight pants. Then in ’76, when punk started to hit, it was a revelation that you could find straight pants again.

– Denis Leary

Grassroots punk rock developed as a way for young musicians, with no money, little talent or zero training to get access to audiences and make a living. Like every generation since, they saw the bloated state of musicians and popular rock and decided it no longer spoke to them, so they started creating something that did. And punk often tried to define itself more by what it isn’t than what it is, driven mainly by anger at the establishment, and the total failure of “soft” hippie subculture to upend it. True grassroots punk was an incredibly short-lived movement, because the people whose livelihoods were threatened by changes to the musical status quo saw its appeal and started to find ways to profit from it.

It was such a powerful shift in popular culture that you will still find at least half a dozen new books on the subject released every year. (For my money, I recommend One Chord Wonders: Power and Meaning in Punk Rock or John Robb’s Punk Rock: An Oral History) One thing that’s clear, is that the punk subculture as we know it now was largely devised and encouraged by companies like EMI and sold through the glossy pages of Melody Maker and the NME. The aesthetic, the music, the gigs, the figureheads of the movement and the myths built behind them were hugely desirable, and therefore saleable. Record companies tripped over themselves to sign and invest in the latest Oi! band and skinny jean wearing heroin addicts in the 70s, american aggressive hardcore acts in the 80s, riot grrl zine collectives in the 90s and pop punk scene boys in the 00s.

The craft beer revolution, like the punk revolution that came before, has been out of the DIY-let’s-make-a-living stage since the 70s. It’s a well-funded, corporate pursuit, with multiple organisations and investors using careful, polished marketing strategies to generate profit and growth. It also commodifies an appealing aesthetic and attitude to make products that will sell to people seeking out authenticity in a world of fakes and fogeys. Both of these movements co-opted the language and socialist-leaning, ethical sheen of an artistic movements, filtered it through some white guys in tweed caps, and delivered final products as rich and life affirming as Razorlight, the Kaiser Chiefs, and Speedball IPA (which I imagine probably tastes about as dire as John Belushi’s overdose felt).

John Belushi acts how we feel

Like the punks who climbed over the heads of their brethren in the moshpit, Brewdog does everything within its power to maintain its status as this generation’s craft beer headliners. In business, this doesn’t mean abandoning the kids in the pit doing windmills while you add caviar to your rider, it involves suing the living daylights out of other small brewers or bars trying to commodify the punk name in exactly the same way you did.

Now they’re not the first company – or even the first industry – to appropriate punk subculture for profit. Fashion in particular has entire empires built on punk aesthetic, and the annual MET Ball and accompanying exhibition in 2013 was even dedicated to the fashion industry’s pillaging of the genre. It’s become such a stock, colour-in-the-lines look, feel and attitude that it’s one of the simplest, cheapest and most effective to co-opt and use for marketing.

“I’ve only been in love with a beer bottle and a mirror.”

– Sid Vicious

As a Marketer, I spent most of 2012 to 2015 listening to eager manufacturing CEOs tell me they wanted a marketing campaign “just like Brewdog’s”. I naturally assumed they meant “half planned with swears” (the exact brief I usually get from Habanero) and tried to divert them to something more sensible, because I never thought their approach was anything special. Swearing isn’t a substitute for a good idea – and I love swearing – but I rarely saw an approach that felt to me like it had more substance than shouting FUCK at a pensioner then giggling in a hedge. (disclaimer: personal opinion; do not sue)

Despite their claims to not really be trying too hard at this marketing and business stuff, Brewdog have always been confident in their own genius, even offering business advice in ‘Business for Punks: Break All the Rules – the BrewDog Way’ (sitting neatly on Amazon alongside such literary giants as Punk Rock People Management: A No-Nonsense Guide to Hiring, Inspiring and Firing Staff). The book contains ostensibly awful advice on running a business, such as not bothering to have a business plan, and “love your haters. For without these weasels you would not have built an army of love”.

How to fight an army of love

Another problem I have with Brewdog, is that they either genuinely don’t know what they’re doing with their marketing, or they’re grossly underestimating everyone’s intelligence. Their assertions that advertising is “a medium that is shallow, it’s fake and we want nothing to do with it” were part of their promotion of a planned reality TV show (a much deeper and more contemplative medium) called “Brewdogs”. Not since Jenny From the Block have we been subjected to such a complete failure of realness.

Doubling down on their commitment to the “right kind” of promotion, co-owner James Watt turned up on BBC’s Who’s the Boss? – a sort of Apprentice-lite for daytime audiences – where he managed to make his company’s culture and career prospects look so appealing, the eventual winner of the job decided not to bother taking it.

The only way to be punk rock in L.A. is to be a Republican.

– Trey Parker

In Brewdog’s defence, they have gotten political. They lobbied parliament and got a bill passed allowing them to sell their average beverages in ⅔ pint glasses, instead of a full or half pint. This kind of vessel gives both the illusion of more volume, and that beer is something to be savoured and enjoyed and not just something mankind has been necking for generations to drown out the misery of existence. Their blog proudly announced this, and credited the whole thing to a dwarf-based PR stunt, (exactly the type of idea which would normally be warning against letting 12 year olds or edgelords drink).

They’ve also railed against supervillains like The Portman Group, accusing them of acting like a “suppressive monopolistic cartel” for asking them to, you know, stop breaching advertising rules around associating bravado with excessive alcohol consumption.

Not to sound like an old normie who just doesn’t “get it”, but I have nothing against The Portman group, who ensures that the alcohol industry is one of the most tightly regulated when it comes to marketing. The body and their rules exist because alcohol is essentially a poison, is sold as a controlled substance, and – particularly in Scotland – was the cause of a full scale public health crisis.

Because authenticity is everything in punk, and that means commitment to pig-headed rebellion of any kind, Brewdog decided that instead of following these rules they’d just continually release products that are labelled and marketed in a way that breaks them. Which strikes me as a waste of their shareholders money if nothing else, because they keep having to be taken off the shelves. Brewdog has also continued the punk tradition of aggressive flailing against establishment figures by feuding with industry stalwarts like Diageo.

They wouldn’t play my records on American radio because I had spiky hair. They said, ‘Punk rock doesn’t sell advertising, it won’t make any money.’

– Billy Idol

Brewdog’s founders are making a lot of cash. And when Malcolm McLaren’s son is burning £5m piles of punk artifacts as an artistic statement, it’s hard to argue that punk doesn’t have a hell of a lot to do with money.

Equity for Punks was the highly publicised, and genuinely effective, method they used to crowdfund their brewery, and they recently launched a fourth round seeking beer lovers and committed hipsters to invest. The problem is in the way they market the scheme as it’s not always clear that it wont be possible for new investors to make the kind of returns that early investors can. Part of that is just the nature of financial investment, but it’s also to do with the scheme itself. For one thing, the stock isn’t publicly traded, so even though initial investors saw the value of their shares rise by up to 443%, they aren’t allowed to actually sell them (turns out even rebels have to follow rules sometimes).

More interestingly, the press has raised some concerns about the accuracy of their financial documentation. The Telegraph reported last month that “just days after starting Equity for Punks IV, BrewDog had to withdraw the assertion it made in material distributed to investors that the raise had been “approved” by the UK Listing Authority.”. They also had to retract a statement to prospective shareholders about the increase in share value seen by previous investors. I haven’t seen any angry blog posts about the UK Listing Authority acting like suppressive monopolistic cartels, but I assume one is on the way, right?

Monopolistic cartels always keeping the small businessman down

The most curious idea is the Dogtank, an “ideas platform” that basically involves asking their 55,000 investors what the hell they should do next. Their equity stakes are so tiny, that they don’t have the power to enact any of these, so 20 lucky punters will be shortlisted, and their acumen rewarded with “an exclusive ‘Top Dog’ enamel pin badge and patch set” and free delivery on orders in the UK for a year. Perfect for decorating those torn denim jackets. I also assume there’s another reality TV pitch kicking around somewhere.

When the ‘godfather of punk’ thing started floatin’ around, it was, I was really, really embarrassed.

– Iggy Pop

Punk is lame. It’s a music genre for dads. It’s manufactured nostalgia. It’s a buzzfeed listicle.  And the inherent lameness of trying to capture its essence should be pitied, not revered. The most punk things to do are either die young or get old, get into advertising, take up gardening and start voting UKIP. And no amount of rabid media fervour about sweary rude boi PR stunts is going to change that.

I created Punk for this day and age. Do you see Britney walking around wearing ties and singing punk? Hell no. That’s what I do. I’m like a Sid Vicious for a new generation.

– Avril Lavigne

Oh, and whoever came up with the word “Brewnicorn” needs to re-evaluate their whole life.

Note: This post originally appeared on the Habanero Digital blog meaning certain parts are probably weirdly self referential or talk about ongoing feuds that probably exist almost exclusively in the mind of the author.

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by Swanchita Haze

The true identity of Swanchita is a mystery wrapped in an enigma. We receive her blog submissions written by hand using ink on parchment, delivered by a small Dickensian orphan boy.

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