Being in my senior year of Undergrad at Wayne State’s Music Technology program, I am taking an advanced Music Business class for which we have to write a Bio-Research Paper on a person with a career that we can relate to. A career we would want to pursue ourselves. So after not much thought I decided to do it on Ian MacKaye Founder/Co-Founder of Dischord Records, a musician who redefined the musical genre of the U.S. hardcore punk scene. He has played a prominent role in the development of hardcore punk and punk ethics such as the ‘straight edge’ philosophy which advocates abstinence from drug use and alcohol and also the ‘do-it-yourself’ mentality. In order to maintain the high standard of his music and to ensure his creative freedom, he has over the years refused to sign with any major label. He is one of the co-founders of the iconic band Minor Threat, which though short-lived, is credited to have revolutionized hardcore music. He and Jeff Nelson founded the independent record label Dischord Records in 1980, the label employs ‘DIY’ ethic and produces all its albums by itself and sells them at discounted prices so that everyone can buy them. He also formed the post-hardcore band ‘Fugazi’ in 1987, Fugazi was famous for employing ‘DIY’ ethics and unconventional business practices and also known to tour extensively. They have played over 1000 concerts in all 50 U.S. states and other countries between 1987 and 2003. So on November 1st, I sat down in my room with an old computer mic and my old computer speakers and dialed the Dischord office phone number Ian MacKaye gave me earlier in the week while we we’re planning the time for our interview. After breathing deeply and trying to relax he answers the phone and I started recording our conversation. We talked mainly about Dischord Records it’s structure and tactics, his personal views on different aspects of co-owning and running a label, the music and record industry, prices, new technology, Fugazi recording with iconic producer Steve Albini and his focus as of late and for the future handling and archiving Dischord’s legendary catalog.
Nick: During what period in your life did Dischord House shape itself into a record label?
Ian: Well the label existed before we moved into the house. In 1980 I was playing bass in a band called the Teen Idles, we played for a year and in the end of that year we were going to break up, the guitar player was quitting and I wanted to sing so that was coming to an end. We had played probably you know, 60 shows or something in that year and we had kept all the money we didn’t split it up after the gigs. So in the end of the year when we decided to break up we said, well, we can either just split the money up or we can use that money to document the band which was pretty important to us now so we decided to use the money to document the band and put out a record sort of like a year book almost. Mostly for us and our friends in D.C., the people that came out to see the band all the time. There was no sense that anybody out of Washington would necessarily ever have anything to do with it because it just seemed absurd at the time because we we’re an obscure band in an obscure scene let’s put it that way. So we decided to do this, and we talked to a friend who had put out a record, he gave us a phone number saying that we call these people up where you send the money and your tape and they’ll press the records and we totally had no idea how to make a record, so we just learned as we went. That took about 3 months and in the process of doing this, other bands started to form. You know, Jeff and I started Minor Threat, Henry had started S.O.A. and people were on top of their playing and other bands started to show up. So we said, alright if we can sell all these records which we didn’t know if we would all the money from these records will just go into documenting another friend’s band. That was the idea.
Ian: So, in the very beginning it wasn’t really a formal record label it was just an idea of, If we can actually sell these records then we’ll put out some other records too and just keep it locally. Do it for our friends and as time went by, you know, we just kept doing that and for the first 5 or 6 years I don’t think I actually received any real money from Dischord but let’s put it this way, I had jobs up until 1988. So for the first 8 years I was working on top of that, so it wasn’t like we were really starting a label. We moved into Dischord house in October 1st 1981 so that’s 35 years ago. But the label had started in December 1980 so by the time we moved here, we had put out Teen Idles, S.O.A., Minor Threat and Government Issue had all come out by the time we had moved into the house.
Nick: So it was mostly a way to be able to document music that you and your friends made.
Ian: Really it was to document our scene here in Washington, and really our specific corner of the scene. Obviously the scene got huge in Washington and we never really pretended like we’ve been able to document everybody’s music here. But just sort of our weird, like our set, not exactly a clique cause it wasn’t that tiny, but sort of like our neck of the woods.
Nick: So Dischord was Co-Founded, it wasn’t just one person it was multiple people.
Ian: No, It was the four members of the Teen Idles, then Geordie the guitar player was not hugely involved with it, but Nathan the singer was a little bit and then Jeff and I basically just sort of, were the ones that moved into the Dischord house and we were the ones that ended up kind of running it. But for sure it was never just one person no.
Ian: And also just to be clear I mean over the years, there’s been quite a few people that worked on the label and were a huge part of it. So even though it was my name that was most associated with it, I’ve had 3 employees who worked for 20 years and they’re really a huge part of that and they still are, they may not work there anymore but they’re still a big part of the label.
Nick: Yeah, that’s why I asked because a co-founding is interesting in the way that it’s not individualistic. How would you describe this co-existing in the company and what advice would you give someone that wants to do the same?
Ian: Do the same what?
Nick: To go into a co-venture with someone rather than being by themselves and being the only boss and wanted to own a business with others. Are there any things they could avoid or?
Ian: Well I mean I think that for me the thing that mostly debilitates all projects whether they’re labels or anything else is the profit. You know people who want to make money, and the problem with that is if that’s your aim then music is not. You know, so you just start making decisions on how to make money and with Dischord at least or on my end of things it just never was the point. I just wanted to make records. I actually hate the record industry to be honest with you, that’s why I do things my way because I don’t want to be; I just hate the record industry, I’m not comfortable with it. I don’t hate it like I don’t think it should exist, I just….
Nick: It doesn’t interest you…
Ian: No, it doesn’t really. It’s the collision between art and commerce and it’s a scenario that doesn’t feel good to me. But also, even though I work all the time on label related things, it’s a way of being able to put out music how, when, where, why I want to and not having anything to do with their machinery cause their machinery is just not to my taste.
Nick: Another great aspect of Dichord is the affordable and really friendly prices. How is that possible in such an aggressive market that cares only about revenue?
Ian: Because we’re not really part of it and don’t care about that market. So it doesn’t really matter what the rest of the market it doing. We just look at the basic numbers, we look at how much things cost to make in real time and how efficient our operation is in real numbers and then we find figures that make sense to us and reflect the kind of prices we would like to pay. So it’s pretty straight forward and really pragmatic but it doesn’t really matter to me what the rest of the market is doing, like when CD’s came out they were all like, I don’t know $15 or $20 for a CD at the time where records sold for $7 and that’s a point to show that they were enormously expensive. But when we started doing it we actually looked at the cost and we realized that the industry was making a killing. I mean CD’s cost like, they’re being sold for $15-$16 each but cost the record label something like in terms of the plastic itself you know, 85 cents or something, so the mark up on these things is pretty astronomical which was exactly why they loved them so much. So I think that we’re just not part of that, we just don’t think about that. We just decide alright we’re going to examine how much it costs to make things, what we spend on it and then how many we need to break even and then how much can we put on the risk to keep people going. It’s just a different way of approaching things.
Ian: But again I have to say, in terms of staring a label, right, or wanting to have a label like you’re taking about wanting to do something like this. I mean, the first thing you got to have is a band, there has to be music, you can’t just start a label. If you want to have something that’s going to have an impact you actually have to start with the music because that’s the point. You can have music without a label but you can’t have a label without music. It doesn’t make any sense. So you have to start with that, and then in terms of how do you find yourself in a sort of collaborative thing you find people you want to collaborate with, it’s not a formula. In my mind it’s not a formula thing it’s just sort of, it’s like if you wanted to start a restaurant for instance and you want to make it a collaborative effort. Well first of you got to find out how to make food, then you got to make the food that people want to eat and then you got to find some people that you want to make it with. That’s just how my brain works I think of things super pragmatically, again there’s not sort of secret to it. It’s actually ironically just so straight forward that I think most people can’t believe that’s a way it can be done. That’s how I approach things.
Nick: I really like that approach, and what you said about the scene and being able to document it as also maybe even a historic part of a city.
Ian: Well that’s exactly my point. The point was that I felt like it was important and also not to anyone but more so important to me! That’s all that matters and why I was doing the work and putting the money up so that’s what was important to me and if other people agree, great! Like there’s many records that Dischord put out that did not sell that many. But I don’t feel less about them, I don’t think those records are not good or that they were a failure because the job was to put the record out, that was the mission and we accomplished that, it was an important part of the puzzle.
Nick: Would you say you had to overcome any obstacles with distribution, manufacturing or artist relations with Dischord? Was it hard to build a network ?
Ian: Well, I’m sure I did overcome obstacles but I don’t think of them as obstacles cause it’s a parley I wouldn’t engage with. I mean it’s always problem solving in life. Like creative response, in life you are challenged in various junctures and then you decide, alright hey which way am I going to go? How am I going to proceed? And that just seems like, that’s life. The word obstacles resonates with me a little bit as new-speak in a way or a kind of linguistic thing or a semantic thing, where I just think; yeah I guess there are obstacles but I don’t think about it like that. It’s like if you want to build something, let’s say you decided you wanted to build a Go-Kart or something. First you got to figure out how to do it and you have to get the tools, wood and materials but are those obstacles or is that actually what you’re doing? See what I’m saying? Obstacles suggest that there’s things that have been placed there to impeach your progress, so to me the progress is actually the doing. That is the work. Like, that’s exactly the point. So I don’t think of that as obstacles, that’s what we do. It’s called a record industry for a reason. Industry means doing something, industriousness right? That’s why I often say we make records, that’s what industry is, it’s making something. It’s not just sitting behind a laptop and ordering other people to make it.
Nick: Right, that’s a really great way to put it. Another thing I wanted to ask you about is that Dischord recently released much of it material on Bandcamp. And as a user, I personally thought that was great news. What is your experience with Bandcamp?
Ian: Um, almost none. I don’t really listen to music online that often, like occasionally someone will send me a link to their Bandcamp page, but I know a lot of people that do and it seems like; every song I ever wrote, I wrote to be heard and every record we put out we put out to be heard and not to make money, so it seemed like if this is an opportunity for everyone to hear these songs and it seems like a really great idea to me. I’ll be curious to see, I mean we’re just now working out royalties for the first time since we did the Bandcamp, and I’m curious to see what if any money comes in from that, and it could be the kind of thing that the generosity of people could be great or not at all but it doesn’t really matter in a way. Our mission is like let’s put the music out for people to hear it and that’s the main thing, I hope that people hear these bands. A band like Antelope, you know, that’s a band who I love and those records, sold a couple thousand ten years ago and you know, that’s it you don’t really hear about them otherwise. But boy I hope that this particular format will encourage people to kind of poke around because I think that if they dig in, I think they’ll find that there’s some really amazing music to be heard.
Nick: Yeah, it really helps you out and it’s a nice affordable format, where you don’t have to pay to have a page and you can find smaller and local bands, and I think that it was a really good move for Dischord.
Ian: A lot of people have said like, wow that’s crazy you’re giving the music away but the thing is it’s already on YouTube so it doesn’t really matter, it sounds shitty and you have to look at ads the whole time and there’s actually no way if you want to kick there’s no way to do it. Where on Bandcamp, I think the quality is higher, there’s no ads and if you want to buy it you can get some high quality stuff you can kick some money in and that’s great. You know the thing about the internet is that largely with the internet there’s so many things that are both disturbing in terms of our society, civilization or in terms of the effects that people had dealing with this new technology, having it overlay our humanity at the moment. Like at some point humans will figure out how to deal with it better. But I will say that this sort of thing like Bandcamp and the access to information or music at this level and as a research tool that is incredible, I think it’s a miracle.
Ian: The other day I was reading, a forty year old or almost fifty year old copy of a music review where he’s just basically going on and on about how this guy is completely rips off Jimi Hendrix but in the interview he says, “Just to be clear I like this record, it’s a really good record it’s just funny cause it sounds so much like Hendrix”, and I used to work at a record store so I’m pretty well versed in music and I had never heard of this record, so I went on the computer and I found it in like 3 minutes and listened to it and it was incredible and I thought like wow that is amazing and conversely, I mean there’s a problem because it creates a situations where instead of sitting down with a record and really living with it and letting it really sink in you just go on and listen to somebody else immediately, so I think that has affected my relationship with; like when I make records I always have this idea that people will just sit down and really study it, but I don’t think that is happening so much anymore. I still study records but I don’t know how many other people do. And that’s a little bit of a bummer for me. Like, the last Evens record, I worked really really hard on, and put all kinds of stuff in it that I thought that people would be interested in talking about or discussing and I got very little response to that. I think because there’s too much to take in right now.
Nick: I agree, and that’s why I like vinyl as well because on Youtube, CD or even Bandcamp you can skip songs and that can take away from the experience. Now, I also had a question regarding Fugazi. While looking up Fugazi recording sessions, I read that you recorded with Steve Albini sometime in 1992. Is that true? And if it is what was it like? I always thought that Steve Albini and Fugazi would’ve been a great combo.
Ian: Steve is a good friend, he was actually here last week, Shellac played and he’s somebody we all really love and really have an affection for. That session, that he invited us out to, he said that anytime you guys want to record I’ll do a free session and Fugazi had been working on our way on trying to write songs and just writing and talking about, you know our kind of next move. So at some point I suggested, I said “Hey let’s go out to Chicago and just record two songs at Steve’s for the fuck of it, let’s just go to his house and record.”, so we did, we got Brendan’s car, my car we rented a minivan and we just drove out and we just got out there, we got to this huge house, he was still recording in the basement of his house at the time and we set up and when we started recording it was so enjoyable. Ian: We had such a nice time and we just kept recording and kept working and we ended up with an albums worth of music and then we mixed it all, so when we left we had 13 or 14 songs, I can’t really remember how many it was and then we listened to it on the way home we said like “oh it’s terrible”, like we didn’t play well and it didn’t sound that good and he had the same sort of sense like “huh, that didn’t really work out” which is too bad cause it was nice and I’ve often said that many times that in many ways it was one of the greatest sessions we ever did, it was so enjoyable but it just didn’t work out. If you dig around online there’s a guy named Vish Khanna and he did a long form interview with me and Steve about that session, it’s pretty interesting, it’s an audio thing, you can listen to it.
Nick: I’ll look into that! It seems like it ended up being more for you and the experience rather than it being released as an album, but it was either way something really enjoyable and that’s awesome.
Ian: Yeah, I mean we didn’t have any goal. And that’s one thing about me, I don’t have goals in a sense, like “my goals is to have a finished product by…” I just don’t think like that. I just do the work that’s in front of me.
Nick: Since we’re close to the 30 min mark, a kind of a close-up question. What have you been focusing on with Dischord lately in your present life?
Ian: I would say that in the last few years I have been really thinking a lot about my custodial responsibility to the label. And what I mean by that is, I feel like that the label is now 36 years old, or will be 36 in December and in that time there’s all these people who trusted me with their music, musicians and bands that I’ve put their records out, I mean I’ve never used a single contract with any of them, the agreement is completely based on our word to each other and you know that arrangement has allowed me to live a life that’s really unusual right? Because I’m my own boss, always, and I really work hard but I’m still my own boss and everybody else, well not everybody but most everybody else, they’ve gone on to get jobs and they have a different kind relationship with their time. Punk and the whole punk scene early on, and why we we’re really interested in that is because it meant to have ownership of our own time. So there was a scene, and we were all poor but we owned our time which was really a miracle…
Nick: and valuable…
Ian: Yeah, so I’ve continued basically though I always have way too much going on at all times, it’s my time and that’s really clear, so not only do I feel indebted to these bands and people but also I feel a sense of responsibility because you know, now that things are starting to get slower and the label has been up for 35 years and fans are also you know, people in their 40’s or 50’s, I mean, there’s still younger people that are interested in it but not as many obviously because why would they be ? You know we’ve become a sort of a historical label at this point, so I respect that and I feel like my job now, as things have kind of have gotten smaller for us, I realize that there’s one sense where people are like, the labels done you should get out and find something else to do. But you know what? Now, actually I have to ride this thing and I have responsibility to all these bands because they’ve made my life, they’ve given me this sort of ability to live the way I live, now that it’s beginning to get tough I doesn’t mean that I just bail and abandon their stuff or whatever.
Ian: As long as there’s people out there who are interested in this music, I feel like I am obliged to make it available, and more specifically for the few bands in the label, like, there’s two main bands that are really the main drivers of the label and one is Minor threat and the other is Fugazi. I understand that I’m in both these bands but I’m speaking as a label person now so, there’s no question that both those bands have sold, you know 50 times the records of the next. For example, Minor Threat depending on how you added it up, we probably sold a million records now and Fugazi accumulatively probably sold a couple million records. But the next biggest sum a band sold was 40 thousand, so you can see where it’s much head and shoulders more popular, well not more popular but sold more records, and both of those bands I feel a particular allegiance to and they could’ve been on a different label in theory. Now, in the case of Minor Threat, we broke up in 1983 and at that time the bestselling record had sold about 5 thousand records. So the million copies that followed has to do with time and our sort of legacy. It wasn’t as if we were such a huge band before we broke up. But before we broke up and we stopped playing it wasn’t like Dischord was some sacrifice. Fugazi on the other hand actually, was selling hundreds of thousands of records while we were touring and on top of that you know Fugazi was offered numerous times record deals that were significant and we turned them down. So I feel like Fugazi actually in many ways is the band that as a label have the largest obligation to. Because Fugazi stayed with us, stayed with the label, and again, I understand that I’m in the band but we were a democracy in the band and all four of us had to vote to stay, it wasn’t my call. So I feel like the gist of all this is, at in the end of the day the last dollar that is spent by Dischord Records I feel like it should be spent making a Fugazi record. That’s what I think. So my job now has been really just sort of to think about ways to continue the label and for the four people that work for me I want to make sure that they can be taken care of, they’re full time employees and they have healthcare, I want to make sure they have a decent life. I have this role to think about how am I going to keep the lights on for as long as I can and while people want the records and the point is that I don’t speculate on new releases like “Oh this might be the one..” because that’s actually how you lose money so there’s not a lot of new bands, I don’t put out a lot of new stuff. Not because I don’t like them, I do, it’s just that I feel like my job now is to really look after this catalog.
Nick: That’s good, it’s a beautiful catalog and I think it’s amazing that you kept that archive and that you are working towards showing all the work.
Ian: Yeah, that’s my other thing I’ve been doing. Actually my archivist is here today, the one that we’ve been working on the correspondence stuff and you know, that’s been really interesting work and I’m not sure what we’re going to use it on but I feel like it’s going somewhere good. But as I said earlier, I’m not a goal oriented person, I just do the work that’s in front of me.