Downhill Battle's Interview with Ian MacKaye
(note: This interview was first published on the Downhill Battle’s website on January 20, 2004. The interview was done by Holmes Wilson. This website has nothing to do with the interview, but the website appears to be gone, so I’ve put it up here in order to preserve it)
Ian MacKaye is a giant, whether he likes it or not. His band Minor Threat was the seminal DC hardcore punk band. Dischord, the record label he started and still runs, is artistically impeccable. And his current band Fugazi is it’s own legend– they’re about as big as a band can get without signing to a corporate label and about as independent and principled as a band can be without living in a closet. Fugazi’s fans worship the band and it’s influence on music is everywhere. Ian MacKaye is the biggest rock star that you might not have heard of. (Here’s some basic Ian MacKaye history.)
Everything Ian does flows from his values and it wouldn’t occur to him to compromise them, to a degree that almost seems to exceed human nature. He’s passed on chances to be rich and famous, he never charges more than $7 for a show, and he answers every single email he gets. He’s the precise inverse of the corporate music industry, but his bands and his label have still succeeded by anyone’s standard.
The example is important. When self-proclaimed realists say that the music industry has its downsides, but “that’s the way things always work”, Fugazi proves them dead wrong. Still, as inspiring as Ian’s example is, we can’t sit around hoping that record executives will wake up one day and see the light; just as it would be a waste of time to pray that every young band will follow Fugazi’s lead and stop seeking fame and fortune. What we can do is change the direction that the music industry is headed; and the turmoil the major labels are in right now presents us with an incredible opportunity.
Most mainstream media has yet to realize that there’s a better way that record labels can run, and so they’ve become implicit advocates for the manipulative and monopolistic major label system. Their assumption is that, if there exists a corporate music industry (dirty as it may be), it must exist for a reason and it must still serve some economic function (e.g., filtering the good music from the bad, linking “music producers” and “music consumers”, allowing broad distribution). So, for the project of music industry reform, Dischord demonstrates that the business of putting out records will continue to work well long after the corporate pop machine dies. And Dischord also shows that the transition from a corporate music industry to an industry driven by community and small businesses is hardly “music in decline” (in fact it’s the opposite: creativity soars when music comes first and bands dare each other to do better).
These days, when major label sales fall, newspapers start asking “How can the record industry be saved?” Reporters genuinely don’t think that they’re taking sides, it seems like a perfectly reasonable topic for examination. But if enough people and enough respected musicians start saying “Maybe it shouldn’t be saved” then the debate changes and we can shift focus to the real problem in the music industry: the major labels’ indefensible business practices. As the music monopolists lose their PR war, they’ll begin a final nosedive. In just a couple years all labels might be a little bit more like Dischord, and that would be a very good thing.
HOLMES: Obviously Fugazi is a huge band, you’re known internationally. Why have you never signed with a major?
IAN: I think primarily because, you have to remember that we started out we all came from punk rock, and we all started playing music in the early eighties and we were all coming from a pretty deep community of punk rock kids in Washington DC and the ethic we were raised in was one that was not so much focused on stopping the major labels or smashing the major labels as just not waiting for permission. If you grow up in Washington DC, especially if you go to public schools in Washington, you learn that lesson– you never ask permission because you know the answer’s always no, so you you just end up doing things on your own. I think what we took away from first hearing about the punk stuff in England and then the early American punk stuff was a sense of self-definition and also sort of playing music for music’s sake and being part of a family for family’s sake. We were never thinking in terms of making money or being famous. The first interview I ever did, when I was in the Teen Idles in 1979, for this local music paper and the woman interviewing us said “so why are you in a band? Is it for the girls or the money?”, and it never occurred to me until that moment that anybody would play music or be in a band for any one of those reasons, ’cause I always thought that you play music to play music and you were in a band to be in a band– that was so obvious so that’s just where we were coming from. If you grew up in Washington DC you also know that there is no entertainment industry in this town, particularly not any local. If there is an entertainment industry it’s a federal industry, sort of like you have Hollywood and Broadway and the major labels and so forth, but there is no local music industry– when we first started playing music everyone told us if you want to play music, if you want to be a punk rocker you have to move to New York, because that’s where you go to play music, and then you’re from New York, but we were from Washington, and we weren’t gonna go to New York, most of us were too young to move anyway, we’re still living at home and also it just seemed absurd that creativity, anger, boredom, frustration passion, being constructive, these are not geographic notions, wherever you are these things can exist so why do you have to go to New York to realize them, why not just realize ways to fight those things at your own home? So we started playing music, then after a while, you know, we started writing our own songs, forming bands, we played shows, and eventually we wanted to document this music because it was important to us. We weren’t thinking in terms of creating a label that was going to be discussed, you know people were going to think about in 20 years, we just wanted to make copies of our own records; and at the time a thousand was the smallest run you could do of 7″ vinyl, so we made 1000 7″ vinyl, but we were really just thinking in terms of really just local people and maybe some kid we had met or written to around the country so basically we just created our own label but again we just did it to document our own music and create our own thing so the major labels were just always out of our picture, we’re not interested. So by the time fugazi formed in 1987 it was never something we’d even think about. Major labels didn’t start showing up really until they smelled money and that’s all they’re ever going to be attracted to is money– that’s the business they’re in- making money. And they got involved, the major labels got involved with punk rock or underground music because it had become really substantial, significant sort of community there, bands like the Minutemen, Sonic Youth, Husker Du, and other bands that were really making a living and selling a lot of records and playing all around the country and it was so established and the major labels were like “Hey, we can make money here,” it was fertile ground, and so once they got up-wind of that they just sort of — I’ve often used this sort of analogy, it’s like the farms, each label had a kind of organic farm, people were growing all kinds of good vegetables, but because of the low volume they weren’t selling that much stuff, they were able to just kind of tend to the soil and kept took care of it so it continued to produce and it was really fertile ground and it was in a valley and eventually somebody, some major label, flew over and was like “Fuck, that looks like good fertile ground, let’s buy it,” and they went down and bought it and the first farm they really bought was well I guess Husker Du early on, but really I guess Nirvana. once they got a hold of that Nirvana thing, all the other major labels were like, “Hey, where’s that valley at?” You know? They all came flying over and they all just started buying the farms. And these farmers or label owners or bands were like “Wow, that’s an awful lot of money sir, we’ll take it.” The major labels didn’t give a fuck about the soil, all they cared about was really just the product, because that’s how they’re gonna make their money. So they just raped the soil, they just beat it to hell, and then once they’re done with it they get back in their planes or cars or whatever and they go to the next valley, looking for another valley. From our point of view, however, since we were already established, Minor Threat had been a relative success and Dischord was already an established label, and we were just never interested whatsoever and it was just really clear to us that what was really a value to us was our control, it was worth much more money than they could give us. But you know there are many people who think we’re fools, we were offered quite a bit of money in one form or another over the years, but my position is that the money thing is the most boring part of everything and I find it much more interesting and engaging to be part of a community where money and contracts are not the central conversation, and that’s what happened to music.
NICHOLAS: So thinking about contracts and control and signing bands, now that you’re running your own label, what’s the difference between how you approach those issues and how the major labels approach it?
IAN: Well, I’m a co-founder and co-owner of Dischord and we’ve been doing it for 23 years now, but we’ve never used a contract ever, for any band, we do straight profit share. In other words, the way we account to our bands is they get a straight share of the profits, it’s not tied into a particular rate or royalty kind of structure that can so often be sort of dicked around with; also we just account different. Because we know we’re going to sell less records, we can’t spend the sort of money major labels do on not just production but really, where they spend most of their money is promotion and we just don’t participate in any of that. We don’t even hire outside publicists. Now if a band that’s on Dischord decides they want a publicist and they want to go ahead and hire them, that’s fine. We feel like our job is to make and to distribute the records. That’s what we do, but we don’t get involved with the more traditional or orthodox approaches to the music business primarily because it’s so nauseating and so discouraging and it’s just really like gambling for the most part. Most of the folks I know who plunked a bunch of dough into promotions, they lose money on the deal. There’s only one thing in my mind that’s important in terms of records, and that’s the songs.
NICHOLAS: How involved do you get with the music that’s coming out on Dischord, in terms of working with the bands, shaping their production.
IAN: I only, in terms of other bands, it’s only through encouragement. When I think of Washington, I think because of the fact that there never has been an industry here and really if you going to make it, and by that I mean the more traditional forms of making it, like living off your music and so forth, it’s basically almost an impossibility if you live in this town– it’s not going to happen. This town just doesn’t have the kind of– you’re not going to make enough money off your music to support everybody. Fugazi is an exception, and a few other bands have been able to do it but really it’s the result of years and years of work and eventually things start to come together. Keep in mind that at the beginning of Fugazi, I mean we all worked, we all had jobs, we were all working and touring, and people say to me now “you live the way you live off your music, it’s easy for you to say,” but I actually would take some exception to that because I haven’t played like music in you know, two weeks right now, with anybody, and yet I work every fuckin’ day, so what’s going on here? I’m not living off my music, I work! I’m working right now! And the stuff we do with the label, we’re not playing music, we’re dealing with a business, we’re making and selling records and distributing records and dealing with all sorts of stuff so that’s actually work, it’s not just playing music…
NICHOLAS: You’re doing interviews with websites… “…when I go in there, my philosophy is that there’s different kinds of records, there’s people who make records that sound like other people’s records and there’s other people that make records that people want to sound like, and that’s the fucking record I’m going to make!”
IAN: Right, exactly that’s part of my work but see I don’t see work as a job– my life is my work I just do it. To go on a slight tangent, I actually have a concept of indirect compensation which means I work for free and get paid for nothing, and as far as going up and doing that thing in Worcester, going out and doing that talk, they gave me a hundred bucks or something, to offset some expenses, I rented a car… but I don’t care, I was so happy to come up and have the opportunity to talk! At the same time, talking to you guys right now and hearing these sort of thoughts, this is interesting to me so, but I’m not making any money off of it, so I work for free! But on the other hand, I’ll just get money, I’ll go do a talk at some college and they’ll give me a few thousand dollars, or I’ll go play music, which I love, and someone will hand me money at the end of the night, which is crazy. So it all works out, it all works well. What I was getting at is that if you’re in this town, a band in this town, you’re not going to make dough for the most part but what does exist as a result of that kind of reality is that where people really sort of get engaged is a sort of musical conversation. I think in Washington people have always been trying to– there’s been a lot of emphasis on raising the bar musically and new ideas, new approaches, new sounds, and really challenging each other with sort of being blown away, seeing a band and being blown away and going home and saying, “ok, now I’m going to write a fucking song to blown them away,” and that’s always been the case and I think it’s really well represented and I think right now Washington, Dischord, you have a band like the Black Eyes, El Guapo, Q and Not U, Lungfish, the Beauty Pill, Antelope, all these bands are all really engaged in making music that raises the bar and inspires them. They all get really inspired by that music and for me I encourage that people push themselves and they realize they’re in a — like I talked to one of the guys, one of the bands last night and they’re working on some songs and I said keep in mind you can do anything you want so fucking do something cool, don’t worry about, it’s an unusual position for most bands because most labels they want songs they think are going to be hits. I don’t want songs that I think are going to be hits, I want songs that are going to be interesting and good and feel like they’re creative. I was talking to another band at some point and we were talking about recording and they were talking about they like this other record and they thought it sounded good and they wanted to make their recording sound like that. And I said, “Well, basically, I’m working in the studio and when I go in there my philosophy is that there’s different kinds of records, there’s people who make records that sound like other people’s records and there’s other people that make records that people want to sound like, and that’s the fucking record I’m going to make!” Like, I know it may sell less, but it’s going to mean more, and that’s more important to me. I don’t want to– I understand it, it’s sort of like the phenomenon of Jason Dylan and the Wallflowers sold more records, one of the records sold more than any one of his father’s records– that’s insane, but it just goes to show that numbers don’t really have a damn thing to do with anything. The question is, you want to make music that makes an impact, like for instance, I would say it’s arguable that fugazi has had more of a cultural impact than the Presidents of the United States of America, you ever heard of them?
HOLMES: Yeah, fugazi’s definitely had a bigger cultural impact.
IAN: Right, and they sold ten times as many records as us!
HOLMES: I don’t even remember that song.
IAN:Me neither, but they sold ten times as many records as us, they were huge! They sold millions and millions of records. But that’s just to underscore, just trying to get people away from the idea that numbers have anything to do with anything it’s just ridiculous.
NICHOLAS: So what do you think about, with all the technology changes that we’re seeing, how do you feel about people downloading your music from filesharing networks?
IAN:Oh, I’m happy to have them download the music, it doesn’t bother me at all, because that’s why I made the music, because I want people to hear it, that’s it, that’s the point. And obviously, someone selling it? They’re fucked. But that would just be another example of the sort of avarice and greed that exist in this music world.
HOLMES: You mean if someone’s copying your music and selling your songs …
IAN: Yeah, if someone’s selling downloads and collecting money for our songs I would be unhappy about that but if they’re trading it I don’t mind, obviously if I make a thousand records or CDs or whatever, I like to sell a thousand. I don’t need all the plastic. Obviously I would like people to support us, that’d be great. But at the end of the day, I’d rather people hear the music. You know I don’t own any Bob Dylan music, well actually I think I do, but you know when I was growing up I didn’t, but I certainly knew his music because of the radio, I didn’t pay for that. I only mention him because I just mentioned him, I’m not saying like “Oh he’s a huge Bob Dylan fan”, I’m just saying that I do have respect for a lot of his work, and I’m glad to have been able to hear it and I think radio is so crucial to be able to have that. And frankly, though I actually recently got DSL, which has certainly helped in the terms of downloading songs, and I found the process a little bit frustrating because everyone seems to be putting up ‘in the joint’ or ‘get the pay’ or whatever, but when I first heard about napster, and those kinds of things, the orignal napster, the idea of having a resource where you could hear music– it was a giant resource library– was so intoxicating to me. I thought it was the most amazing thing in the world. Most music will never be made available commercially because it just doesn’t make any sense for it to be made available commercially, you’ll never sell enough copies to merit it, but I want to hear Hendrix practicing something, I want to hear a weird Al Jolson recording, I want to hear these things. The idea of going to a computer and listening to them once or twice like you heard them on the radio I think is incredible. But if I downloaded something and it just blew my mind, you’d better believe I’d go and try and find the fucking record if I could, if one existed. So from my point of view, any way that Fugazi or any band on Dischord or any kind of underground music, any way we have for people to be able to check it out and have access to the world at large, I’m all for. Obviously the major labels have, at this time at least, have fairly sewn up the avenues of the media, they own it all so obviously they have it all sewn up– obviously it’s not a coincidence that on new years eve ABC TV had their New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Dick Clark reporting from Times Square, which is sort of the traditional new years thing, but they also reported in from Disneyworld, but they’re owned by Disney! So of course, that’s why suddenly disneyland is the same thing as Times Ssquare. It’s all so disgusting. So the idea that somebody in wherever, whether they’re in a small town somewhere in the middle of america or in Pakistan or whatever, if they’re interested, and they want to check out Fugazi, I want it out there. I don’t want them to have to pay some service to get to it and listen to it and hopefully that would compel them to do further research. I mean, how cool would it be to know that there’s some kid in Pakistan who downloaded all our records and listens to them all the time– I’m happy, I don’t give a damn. I mean the argument against it is always just monetary, and again, that’s the least interesting aspect of music for me.
HOLMES: So, you just said that you see networks like that as a library, as a resource, but other people, not all people, but some people see the music they make as their property and they’re worried that if we don’t lock it down, there won’t be an incentive to create more music. And some folks in the music industry are actually saying that the music industry’s decline means that music is in decline.
IAN:I don’t agree with that at all, either one of those sentiments. If people lose their incentive to make music because they’re not making money, they’re not musicians. They’re business people. Musicians don’t have a choice in the matter, you gotta make music. There’s no choice! It’s not a fucking job description, there’s no choice! You make music because it’s what you do and the idea that it’s sort of like saying that, “Well, this person is an artist, they’re a painter, but because they can’t sell their paintings they’re going to quit.” If they do, they’re not artists! They’re business people. I have to say that I feel like music, when I make music, the creation aspect of it, that may be my experience. I may have written the song, so I think, “I authored that song” but it’s not property, it’s not property for anybody! Now if I make a record, if I make a CD of that song, that’s property because I paid to make it. And if I sell that property, the money that comes back is my money– I’ll take that money and I’ll share it with the other people involved in making that CD. But this is my position: you can sell CDs, you can sell records and tapes, and you can sell mini-discs if you’re foolhardy, and you can sell mp3s and digital downloads, you can sell all of these things, but you can’t sell music because music is free. I’m serious about that. I really believe that. Music is like air, you can’t sell it. I know that people have, not to fall back to my oft-used metaphors and analogies, but this is the way I process things, but I see music as a river, and the water in a river is there for everyone and anyone that wants to have a sip can have a sip and have some water. Now somewhere along the line someone came up with the idea of putting the river water in bottles and selling the bottles of water. That’s the record industry. Music is a river, music is water, and the bottling company is the industry, and it’s not inherently evil, because it’s frankly, convenient to have water in a bottle, so if you’re driving in your car and you’re thirsty you don’t have to drive to the nearest river and take a sip, you can just reach down and take a sip out of your bottle. The same way if I’m driving in my car and I want to hear a song, I don’t have to drive over to the people’s house and ask them to play it for me, I can put the CD in and listen to it, or turn on the radio. Where it gets ugly is that when the bottling company, since their aim is to make money– at some point they may have thought like, “Let’s bottle this water and that way we can share the healthful qualities of water with all the people.” At some point it becomes, “This is our industry, we need to make money, and how can we increase profits?” Well, the way to increase profits is to try to discourage people from going to the river, and having to buy the bottled water. And they’ll start with that but eventually what they’re going to get into is they’re going to start blocking the river or they’re going to poison the river. But water is always moving, and it’s very difficult to poison a river, very hard indeed. And that’s the good news about music, it can’t be stopped, it will always happen, people will always make music, and regardless of whether or not there’s money to be made form it or not, it’s still going to happen, it can’t be stopped. So in my mind with the sales of records, the industry has done their best to claim ownership of music but they don’t– they only own the things that they sell, so when people who are songwriters say, “That’s my property and if you give it away for free then I lose my incentive,” then, well, good riddance.
(Introduction by Nicholas Reville)