How Online Digital Music May Have Contributed to the Decline of the American Racist Skinhead

By Jonathan Pieslak

In late June 2012 the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC)—one of the premier hate-group and extremism watchdog organizations in the United States—published a report on racist skinhead subculture, describing the movement as “…among the most dangerous far-right threats facing law enforcement today.” Sadly, the report offered an all-too-accurate description of the potency of the movement at that time. Only weeks after it was published, a fully patched Hammerskin Nation (HSN) member fatally shot six people and wounded four others at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The perpetrator, Wade Page, was attempting to ignite the Racial Holy War (RaHoWa) romanticized in white-power circles as the final establishment of white racial supremacy.

Less than a decade later, the SPLC would publish another report, but this time a starkly different assessment of the movement was presented. Far from being “…among the most dangerous far-right threats…”, the racist skinheads were described as a community in tailspin decline, “The movement will continue to stagnate and slowly lose relevance in this country…With almost no young recruits, the racist skinhead movement’s prominence within this country’s white power movement has been diminishing steadily for years.”

There are any number of plausible reasons to explain this downturn, among them: the aging-out of participants, the dissolution/inactivity of a small cadre of members who are responsible for organizing the scene, and the attraction to newer groups, like Proud Boys or Rise Above Movement, of potential skinhead recruits. Even the COVID pandemic, which severely restricted travel and group gatherings over the last few years, may have played a role in limiting the social interactions at music shows that were a foundational element of the HSN and racist skin subculture in general.

While any of these explanations, alone or in combination, seem logical, interrogating them a bit further does not prove entirely convincing. Historically speaking, the HSN has been able to form a small but sustaining membership since the group’s founding in 1988; they have no doubt weathered the aging-out of movement members and organizers during this period, and they have been able to successfully recruit within the sphere of competing white-power groups. They did all of this effectively for decades.

What, then, may have happened within the last few years that triggered such a collapse?

It may not be so much what happened as much as what didn’t. Certainly, the racist skins have been able to exploit the possibilities of the Internet to organize, communicate, and spread ideology. Even in 2015 I wrote how the Internet had been one of the key factors in the enduring success of the HSN and the white-power movement in general as it has amplified communication and community building (Pieslak 2015). Yet, the mid 2010s witnessed a dramatic shift in the music industry, from CDs and physical media to online downloads and streaming, and it is interesting to consider the impact this had on the movement.

The racists skins and especially the HSN have, since their inception, been a musically-driven subculture. The 1990s and 2000s represented a golden-age of “hate rock” as record companies like Resistance Records and Panzerfaust Records flourished, and the CD was, literally, the “widget” that grew and sustained the movement, both financially and culturally. White-power bands were able to sign records deals with small, independent labels that funded the production and distribution of their music at shows and especially through online CD sales. Even on this small scale, bands generated royalties through CD sales and the record companies pocketed a tidy profit—at least enough to keep the bands and record companies active. Bands played and sold CDs at racist skin shows, and the community grew and prospered through its musical subculture. At its peak in 2002, the white nationalist icon William Pierce was making enough money (grossing more than one million USD annually) from online CD sales at Resistance Records that he employed 17 full-time staffers to work for his group, the National Alliance.

Of course, this reflected the overall state of the music industry. The 1990s, 2000s, and early 2010s was the age of the enormously profitable CD. Yet, the collapse of physical music media and the rise of digital audio sharing and online digital downloads radically altered the music industry’s established revenue model. The once-lucrative revenue structure in which record companies paid bands royalties through CD sales has been dismantled by online digital downloads, YouTube videos (nearly all of YouTube’s top-50 viewed videos are music videos), and streaming services.

Perhaps the racist skins declined, not so much because of the aging-out or loss of movement organizers and figureheads, but because the revenue model that allowed the movement to grow and kept it alive has been crippled—just as the entire music industry has—by the advent of online digital music consumption. The technological shift of music consumption to a strongly online presence rendered the CD a museum artifact, and white-power labels have been left behind by the fact that physical music media has been phased out.

Neither the bands nor the labels have been able to transition from the sale of CDs online to online downloads. And even if they had been able to adapt, online digital downloads severely undercut the profit margin on music revenue when compared to CD sales. The major record companies, music distributors, artists, and bands have all been able to adapt, but the small-scale, independent labels that once made their money by selling actual things (like CDs) have, in most cases, vanished. With deteriorating online CD sales, white-power labels were no longer able to survive, and without the labels, the bands had no sustaining mechanism for the distribution of their music. Taking this a step further, without a consistent line-up of bands and music, shows became less frequent and the social backbone of activity and recruitment for the movement collapsed.

It is tempting to assume that the Internet has been a great amplifier and enabler for extremist groups. Indeed, it has. The Internet has enabled extremist communication possibilities and propaganda dissemination in unprecedented ways, and when racist skinhead culture moved online, it flourished… for a while.

We don’t tend to think that the Internet introduces major obstacles for extremist groups, or that it may hinder their operating capacity in some way. Yet, the Internet fundamentally changed the way we consume music, catalyzing a seismic shift in recent years from physical media, like CDs, to online digital downloads and streaming. Tracing the rise and fall of the American racist skinhead movement may be an historical reflection of the rise and fall of the compact disc and its profitability. For an extremist subculture that was rooted in music and had always relied on the revenue from online CD sales to support movement activity, this may be a key contributor to the group’s decline as much as anything else.

Jonathan Pieslak is Professor at The City College of New York and Graduate Center, CUNY. He specializes in the cultural dimensions of extremism.

Image credit: Pexels

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