WP 5: Sustainability

In Conversation with Ian MacKaye: Records

Brian Price

Brian Price: In the history of art, so many important artistic communities have been unable—despite their importance—to sustain themselves, and for a number of reasons. I have in mind the Dadaists, the Surrealists, and the Situationists—to name just a few. These communities coalesced around forceful figures, and yet none of them remained in tact nearly as long as Dischord has. Now that Dischord is 30 years in, I wonder to what you attribute its sustainability.

Ian MacKaye: Probably, the idea that we weren’t thinking about it, about why it’s working. I don’t know; I’m not an art student. I haven’t studied the history of those scenes. I’m aware of them, but I don’t know much about them. One of the things about our sustainability that might be worth thinking about is that most people are thinking about ways to make a living. Originally they group and come together and say: “Hey, we’re going to make something. We’re a family. We’re a group.” They’re teenagers, they’re in their early 20s, and they’re clustering because they’re looking for a context to flourish, to have a pond to swim in, you know. And then with that energy a conversation begins—whether it’s about music or about art or writing, whatever—but there’s a conversation within that group, and that would be a community, I reckon. And then people start to pay attention to it, and because they’re interested, because they’re fans of the work, they become a part of the community because they’re connected by their interests. And their interest becomes a part of the conversation. Great. But at some point, people begin to think: “Well, how can I make a living out of it?” But once you start thinking about making a living out of it, a community becomes a competition, or a community becomes a clientele. There’s a moment, I think, when people really shift. I’m sorry, it’s actually not that clear of a moment. There’s a point in time when people are like: “How do I make money with this?” And one person starts to excel at it and other people don’t like that. In my experience, as someone who got a lot of attention, there were some people who were not particularly psyched about me getting attention, you know.

BP: I’m sure.

IM: It might be jealousy. Who knows? I don’t know. But this kind of thing happens. But also the idea is—say, well—let’s imagine that me, you, and five other people get together and we say: “Let’s make an incredible feast” and we sit down and make the feast. And it could be glorious; it could be unparalleled. But four days later, it’s gonna be rotten food. I think the problem is that people get hung up on the feast instead of the idea of the food. It’s like continuing to evolve with time: every day we have to get up and make something again. And one of the other things—and I’m not an expert, I don’t mean to say it—I think with a lot of the scenes is that people were drunks, or junkies, or basically, they burned out. I don’t know this but it seemed that with a lot of those people there was a pretty serious brain demolition going on at all times, and I think that shortens the life-span of the community, frankly. But there’s also what I call the schematic of fucking. With a lot of these communities there are these underlying romantic relationship structures and that plays a role in how these communities are formed and how these communities come apart. I’ve thought a lot about this in terms of history. Just from my experience, from my weird little sort of relationship with history in terms of the D.C. punk scene. I haven’t actually read the books, like Mark Anderson’s Dance of Days. I’ve kind of avoided reading books that deal directly with times and situations that I was actually present for because it’s kind of depressing to read that kind of summation of one’s life, or an aspect of one’s life. But the little that I’m aware of it, the little that I hear people talking about it, there’s a really missing component, which is all the relationships. This is a theory on my part, but I think it holds water—that everything is affectation. It’s all add on, every bit of this. I think of human beings as straight lines—singular, equal, straight lines. Everything after that is just additive. The color of our skin: that might not be something we chose, but we choose to give it significance. The way we dress, where we live, some of this stuff is not our choosing, but we do choose to stay. I think that really, when you boil it down to the human organism it’s air, water, food, fucking. So it doesn’t surprise me that really, in my mind, the central part of a lot of these things is that people are trying to figure out how to be a part of something, and how to be a part of something more; they’re instinctually trying to perpetuate the race; the kind, the breed. But in terms of Dischord, what I can tell you is that we’re a record label, which is essentially a music business in a town where there is no such thing. We were actually punks in a town where it wasn’t even recognized. We were basically told to go to New York—and by our peers—by punks, even. “You can’t be a punk here. You gotta go to New York.” When we decided to stay here, it was like a perfect isolation chamber. There was no business to pervert us; there was no industry to say you’re doing it wrong. But what do they know? Imagine if you had a really intense pottery movement in Franklin, North Carolina, or something. Well, in Franklin North Carolina, that shit can grow. But if they were all to pick up and move to New York—Brooklyn, for instance—you know, that would probably disappear because the art world there would assimilate them, because that’s a business up there. I think it’s the fact that we stayed in Washington and that we’ve always focused on Washington. On the one hand, people might say that it really limited you because there’s a lot of records you could have put out. But in my mind it perpetuated us because we didn’t have to contend with it all. Here’s an example. Because we didn’t work with bands outside of Washington, it ended up with us knowing all of the people we worked with as friends, which meant that we didn’t have to deal with contracts. We didn’t have that gulf, that expanse of geography to exacerbate the paranoia. Our decision to work with only D.C. bands limited the situation and perpetuated it. It also made it so that we never made that much money. If you want to blow something up, make a lot of money on it, it’s sort of like the industry. They’re like scavengers, you know. If there’s money to be made somewhere you can bet they’re going to show up at people’s doorsteps. I can tell you for sure that major labels did not start coming around punk rock until there was money to be made. There were some little things here and there, but it wasn’t until they were like: “Wait a minute, there’s money being made and we’re not getting a part of it.” But because we kept our operation so small there was no money to be made.

BP: What’s fascinating to me about your commitment to the Dischord model, even when there were options for you to do otherwise, is that the model and the commitment itself could be very useful to other communities that want to sustain their own projects.

IM: For people that don’t want to be rich.

BP: That’s a beautiful alternative to lots of things, of course, but also to not being completely poor and having to do lots of things that you don’t want to do, which makes doing what you want to do even harder. But that model is situated in a particular place with a particular economy, in D.C., and I wonder if you also think of it as transferrable.

IM: Of course. Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve had people say: “you can’t do this.” And I’m like, “Why not?” Usually the answer is: “Because people have never done it.” It’s all relative. I’m not poor by any means. I own a house. But I’m also almost fifty, and I’ve been working really hard for thirty years. Compared to people I know who are in bands less well known than mine, they’re far more wealthy than I am. When you called, I said that I have a guy coming to work on the garage because we’re working on building a warehouse in the garage now. And I’m doing it. It’s not like I have staff that I’ve hired to come over and do it. I have to do it. And this is the thing about the D.I.Y. thing that people can’t quite get their minds around: you actually do it yourself. And people imagine—even friends of mine imagine “oh, you must have so much money”—but not really. I’m not sweating it, but I didn’t sweat it to begin with. I save. I’m frugal and I save money. I don’t live like most people because I don’t find it interesting. The consumer aspect of life is not interesting to me at all. I mean, with Dischord, most of the people in the bands, they weren’t living off of the money they made on their record sales. Some of them were doing ok, but they weren’t living off of it. Neither am I. I live off of my work. My work is what I’m doing right this second. My work is dealing with all the records. My work is booking shows for my bands, doing all the things I do. I’m working all the time. But I do this work so that I’m free to play music whenever, wherever, however.

BP: I wonder what you think, then, of the way in which the ethos of D.I.Y has become appealing to corporations. For example, there’s a very chilling scene in The Social Network, in which you see Shawn Fanning of Napster talking with the soon to be disenfranchised partner of Facebook, and he says to him something like: “The point now is not to find a job, but to create your own job.” What he’s talking about is structurally similar to what you’ve described and done with Dischord and yet it exists for radically different reasons. I wonder what you think about the way in which these two logics may have merged, or if they have; about how being poor is now understood as a way of becoming even more rich. Is the underlying ethos of D.I.Y today actually greed?

IM: I guess I feel like it’s nothing new. People are getting rich off of love or peace, and that’s nothing new. You think that people are driven by greed, but I don’t think that people even realize it. I don’t think that it occurs to people that if there is a hundred of anything and they have seventy-five of those things then that means everyone else has twenty-five of those things. To me, it just seems obvious. But to them, it just seems that you’re supposed to get as many of those things as you can get. And weren’t those guys Harvard people? Or M.I.T.?

BP: Harvard.

IM: Harvard, for being such a respected institution, it’s like a den of sin. It’s like the most evil fucking place. I had a friend who was in the business school up there and she told me about this class that she was in, or at least a part of that class, and there was a discussion of whether it was possible for corporations to be ethical, whether it was even a consideration. Or, could a corporation be unethical? The argument was that corporations are not people and I said, obviously, corporations are unethical and another guy from there weighs in and says: “Well, give me an example.” So I pulled out a stock one, the Nestlés formula, remember that one?

BP: I do.1

IM: Well, I started talking about putting profits over people. But he said: “Well, yeah, but who’s to say that the formula that they got in Africa wasn’t better than the mother’s milk?” Well, then I said: “What about the Gerber’s thing?” You know, they had little baby food jars of applesauce, those little Gerber jars. And there was just caramel colored water with sugar in them. And he says: “Yeah, well apples have sugar in them.” And I said: “You’re perfect for this.” To me, it’s obviously unethical to lie, especially for profit’s sake. But that’s the thing, Harvard, and the people who go there—not all of them, but many of them—the sense of entitlement is incredible to me. I don’t know much about him, but I read an article—Zuckerberg, is that his name? I don’t know anything about him. He’s like The Wizard of Oz to me, and yet he has twenty-six billion dollars? And I know people who are killing themselves over a ten thousand dollar debt—people who have actually killed themselves over that. Come on.

BP: Interestingly, what comes forward in The Social Network is that the most important thing in the development of Facebook was actually the Harvard email address. Of course, one of the things you notice in places like Harvard is that the students there are already enfranchised, already well-connected. They will learn a lot of things, to be sure, but above all else they’re there—whether they understand it or not—to fortify and make use of a set of social relations that exist well in advance of their arrival.

IM: Right. You’re given the illusion that universities are like plateaus and that people matriculate up to various plateaus, and once they reach those various plateaus they’re actually at the same level. But that’s just not the case. I was actually at a salad bar yesterday and there was a woman on her cell phone, and I always find it strange when people are serving themselves with one hand, and talking on the phone with the other. She worked, I think, for the government, at some government agency here and she says: “I think that there might be a job opening here. But I can tell you right now, for sure, that it’s going to be someone from Yale or Harvard. That’s just the way it is now.” And I thought, wow, they’ve got it locked down. And in fact, the idea that there’s so many things that you can’t do without a college degree. I don’t think the idea of the college degree is that someone is smarter. The people who lobby on behalf of the university system have really managed to firm up their tollbooths. I think it’s crazy. I don’t know if you know, but I didn’t go to college. I don’t have a beef with college, with education and learning and social interaction. I just think that college becomes a turnstile that one must pass through. It becomes a perfunctory thing instead of a choice thing.

BP: That’s certainly true from within the university, especially for those of us who teach in the humanities, which are generally regarded—or better to say, disregarded—as having no use value. Increasingly, universities are concerning themselves—and at the expense of people who teach in the humanities—with what they think is practical. Enrollments are going down in the humanities and we all know why. It’s the economy, or rather, how students or the parents of students now see the university as a site of vocational training because of the economy. And maybe that works, but what I suspect to be more likely is that students are leaving the university with degrees but not abilities of their own.

IM: It’s like the cogs have been more finely honed. The machines that they’re going to work for are not interested in that kind of thing. Their role is to fulfill very specific kinds of jobs. It’s tragic. I don’t know what’s going to happen to college, to universities.

BP: Well, they’ll become increasingly privatized, for one, and as things like the University of Phoenix become more and more legitimized by various industries and employers, the harder it will be for those of us in academia to have job security. Academics have had for a long time a system of tenure that is traditionally meant to secure your job and provide you with the space and protection to push your thinking in more creative, less foreseeable ways, and so that you can say the kinds of things that students may not want to hear, but need to hear, without fear of being fired. That’s one version of things, anyway. But, now, university administrators seem increasingly open to the more skeptical and conservative view that tenure actually prevents people from working, since there are no incentives to remain productive. And so, many universities are implementing post-tenure review practices and hiring more adjunct labor—teachers who regularly get paid as little as two thousand dollars per class. People regularly subsist on salaries that are less than $20,000 just to be able to do this job.

IM: Right, but then you’re crafting pieces that are going to make people billions of dollars. Part of my sustainability, in terms of Dischord, is that I see…it’s like there’s an interstate and everyone is building on that interstate and everyone is tooling their various affairs for the interstate world, and I’m trying to cut a path, and that’s my world. I’m not going to get to the rest stop, but that’s ok. In some ways, the presence of the permanent, ever present business corporate structure in some ways makes it that much easier for the underground to exist. What I used to think of as being obvious, everyday thinking is kind of radical now. I have a neighbor, and I have a kid, and my neighbor says: “Well, you better start saving for college.” And I just made a joke: “Oh, you know, no son of mine will ever go to college.” And I thought the guy was going to call child protection services on me. He was really bugged out by the comment. I mean, I don’t care. I hope that there’s a real college by the time my boy’s that age, but it doesn’t really make a difference. If he wants to learn, he’ll learn. I think the other thing about sustainability, I was going to say, is that you have to constantly be able to redefine. Early on in my life I decided that I had inherited any manner of things—some stuff, some ideas, some behaviors. But when one wakes up in life… I woke up in Washington D.C., with my mom and dad and my older sisters, and by that time, it was already on. I was eating certain foods, and all of these things are inheritances. But just because someone gives you something, it doesn’t mean that you have to keep it. I did inventory in my life about the things that I got, the things that I thought were useful and good versus the things that I thought: “Well, that doesn’t make any sense. I’m not going to do that.” This could be my diet, this could be the things that I care about, that I read about. These are my decisions. So, I think that a regular inventory is somewhat necessary. You live and you start to accumulate, and it’s good to just start to go through it and go: “Ok, where am I at with all of these things?” In terms of Dischord, the original Dischord scene was very small, then there were more people, there were younger brothers, so that was the community. Then there were other people in the town and they got into it and so they were the community. At some point, some people started to move into town because they liked the bands and then they became a part of the community. Then there were other factions that got connected and then they were the community. In other words, it was an ever-changing set of circumstances. When the original crew left, I had it in my mind that it would be like a tree with a hollow center and more easy to fell. But I’m not sure if that really held up. There were aspects of it that certainly did. There are definitely people now—people over the last ten or twelve years—that come at it from a totally different point of view. You have to remember that people from all of the original bands were all basically natives. No one moved here to be in a band. We were here and we were just documenting that. But at some point people started to move into town because they liked the scene and they were in bands, and so obviously their motivations are different. It’s not that their motivations were bad; they were just different. And then there was a period of time when people moved in and even more people moved in and a lot of people came to Washington who I never even met. They just came and went. I thought I might recognize a person, but I didn’t really know them. And then there were people in bands who basically grew up listening to Dischord. That counts as community. That seems pretty obvious. To a band like Black Eyes, or Q and Not U they’d been listening to Dischord since they were like eight. That was pretty interesting for me, to hit that point. So my point is to be sustainable you have to be able to redefine. I think the other thing about sustainability, which is counter to the American business model, is that I don’t believe that if you’re not growing you’re dying. I don’t subscribe to that. I think that it’s tidal, that things go up and down. I know that we started as nothing and that we will end as nothing. And that will be fine with me. I think that if you are at peace with death then you will live a lot longer. It’s not necessarily that you will live more years, but that while you are here you will be more alive instead of spending your time practicing dying. I apply the same thing to the record label. I never wanted to have a record label, to be honest with you; I didn’t want to be in the music business. I just wanted to play music. And this was the choice: make a label and put the record out, or have no records. But having done it, and as we enter into our 31st year, it occurred to me that a lot of people have been trusted—us, me—with their music and we have responsibility to that music, to making it available to anyone who wants to hear it. A couple of those bands—specifically Minor Threat and Fugazi, and, yes, I’m in both of those bands—those two bands have entered into a national, cultural discourse. And I think that those records should be available on Dischord. Minor Threat broke up long before any of us had any sense of how that record would enter into that discourse. The biggest shows we every played were maybe a few hundred, a thousand people. They were small bands, for the most part. The record sales didn’t happen, for the most part, until after we broke up. Fugazi was a band, as you mentioned earlier, who turned down—we turned down—vast sums of money to stay with the label. So I think in many ways, the biggest responsibility that we have is to look after the Fugazi catalogue, because Fugazi entrusted us with that, and not only that, but turned down their monetary reward for that purpose. And so I feel that as the label shrinks, and it is shrinking, who knows, maybe the same thing will happen again; maybe not. But I do feel that the last dollar that gets spent will be on a Fugazi record. We’ll see what happens. I’m not morbid at all. Sustainability is just a matter of thinking about it.


Ian MacKaye is the co-founder of Dischord Records and a member of some of the most legendary and influential punk bands, Minor Threat, Fugazi, and now, The Evens.

Brian Price is a founding co-editor of World Picture and Associate Professor in the Department of Visual Studies and the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto.