Interview by Louis Rastelli
From Vol. 3 No. 1
The Dischord label out of Washington DC is perhaps the classic example of a record label that’s succeeded without compromising their values or partnering with the majors or their affiliated distributors. They’ve always treated their bands as fairly as possible, and works hard to keep their record prices low (just as their best-known band, Fugazi, keeps their concert ticket prices low.)
The label started in 1980 after founder Ian Mackaye’s first band, the Teen Idles, broke up, and they wondered what to do with the leftover band funds. As Ian puts it in the Dischord story posted on their website, “no label would be interested in putting out a Teen Idles record, particularly since we were no longer a band, so we decided to do it ourselves.”
That line–“so we decided to do it ourselves”– sums up much of the spirit of punk rock, as well as the idea behind thousands of small labels since the early days of the record industry.
Dischord did a lot themselves, releasing ten records while its operators worked numerous day jobs to make ends meet. By 1983, sales were good, but chronically late payments from distributors made it difficult to keep up with demand (i.e. not enough cash on hand to keep their most popular records in print, and pressing plants that refused to work on credit.) This all changed when a UK distributor, Southern, known for having released all the Crass albums, asked Dischord if they could release one of their Minor Threat records in Europe. Southern quickly became one of their primary distributors, and remain so to this day.
The label put out dozens of records by Washington-area bands throughout the 80s. In the early 90s, following Nirvana and the new major-label category of “alternative” bands, Fugazi, which features Dischord’s founders, were aggressively courted by the majors, who even offered huge sums to buy the whole label. They refused to even consider selling the label, though a couple of bands (Jawbox and Shudder to Think) did jump to major labels (where their albums sold less than they had on Dischord—and where the bands presumably saw less of the profits from them.)
Dischord’s sales surged during the early-90s boom in new-school punk & grunge bands, but the label played smart and didn’t bank on visions of endless growth. As other labels and distributors went bust after the initial fad of “alternative” faded, Dischord remained as productive as always. They’ve since been releasing less records, but have increased their own distribution of other DC labels, in keeping with their primary mission of helping document and expose the DC punk scene.
The label’s half-dozen employees nearly all have their own bands and, in some cases, their own labels, too. While everyone at the label worked on a volunteer basis in the first years, by the early 90s employees were not only getting paid but receiving health and other benefits. Considering that the label has achieved this while also providing fair record royalties to countless bands proves that you can put community values ahead of profit without compromising financial stability. In short, Dischord’s story proves that not only can you put a record out yourself, but that you can create a livelihood for yourself, too.
Fish Piss emailed Alec Bourgeois from Dischord for the following interview.
FP: Do you get flooded with demos?
Dischord: Dischord has always been closely associated with a specific community within the DC music scene, in an opposite stance from the norm– it’s not business, it’s personal. Most of the bands we deal with are friends or have come to our attention through the impact they have made within our community. It makes sense that when that community no longer exists or when we don’t feel connected to it the label will stop releasing records from new bands. We do get a lot of demos and we try to listen to all of them and offer what simple advice we can. But we don’t sign bands from demos and we only work with bands from the Washington, DC area.
FP: Have you ever been stuck with tons of CDs by a band that broke up and/or never managed to tour? Do you set aside a percentage of sales to cushion any possible losses of this kind?
Dischord: That is the DC curse! MOST of the early DC bands and plenty of the later ones did exactly that. But, no, we don’t put a lien on their royalties to insure our well being. The label assumes the risk and that is that. Most bands on the label have at least broken even– whether or not they toured or broke up early– and all the work you do for a band that immediately breaks up is balanced by the fact that we hardly have to lift a finger to sell thousands of Minor Threat CDs every year and they broke up more than 20 years ago.
FP: Is it important for you to sign bands that are able and willing to tour and/or promote themselves?
Dischord: It is very important to have a relationship with bands that know from the beginning that they are expected to work as hard or harder than the label. The label can’t write songs or get in the van and tour and the idea that a label can manufacture popularity is absurd— never mind the promo hounds that make that seem possible. If a band does not write great songs and go out and touch people, then their audience will always be limited. In fact I’d say that if a band is not willing to work hard NO MATTER THE RETURN they will never build an audience.
FP: Does it help the label and the bands on it when one band becomes a big seller?
Dischord: Having a solid seller is great for a label and its roster if (and only if) the label is careful to maintain a balance that recognizes what made that band successful in the first place. There is a danger of becoming known only for the success of that one band but even when others feel they work in the shadow of that band there is no denying that the leverage with distributors, booking agents, press, etc. benefits all.
FP: Have you ever benefited from an artist jumping to a major label and/or otherwise having a hit album elsewhere, raising the profile of your label’s back catalogue?
Dischord: We’ve had two bands go on to release records on major labels. While they did find the mainstream press they were looking for, neither of them was able to translate that attention into anything resembling the sales they enjoyed on Dischord. So I’d have to say, no.
FP: Have any of your bands tried to bring their back catalogue to another label?
FP: How would you describe the importance of distribution to the success of a label?
Dischord: Distribution is very important but if you don’t have a positive relationship with your distributor where both of you feel you are good for each other’s business and reputation then you can easily get lost in the shuffle and completely forgotten.
FP: Have any of your distributors tried to make you stop dealing with other distributors?
Dischord: Like I said earlier it is important to have a balanced approach to everything you do and deal within the same ethical standard with everybody. If anyone pressures you to do something you are not comfortable doing then you should drop them immediately. There is something called “exclusive” distribution where one distributor agrees to be your only supplier and they in turn sell to other distributors.
With some notable exceptions I think this is not a great idea. I think regional distributors have a more personal relationship with their stores and know best who is going to do the best for your bands so I like to have several regional distributors to make sure everything is covered. We are moving away from accountability these days and people who are making money off of your records turn around and act like they are doing you a favour. Don’t fall for it.
FP: Are most distributors good at letting you know what stores or markets they sell your releases in?
Dischord: Not really, that’s not their job. If you have a close relationship then that is always best because you can always ask– but most distributors carry thousands of records and couldn’t be bothered.
FP: How important is college radio in playing/promoting your artists? What about small press and fanzines?
Dischord: College radio and small press/ fanzines are the heart and soul of Dischord promotion. They are the people who connect the dots between the regional communities and make the ground fertile for our bands. They book shows, know the best record stores, know the best bands, know who and what is full of shit and they don’t do it for money. Punk is a creative lifestyle and anyone who takes this concept seriously should be supported. In turn when we seed these communities there will always be a place for us to reside.
FP: Did you ever sell pre-recorded cassettes?
FP: When did you first put out a 45? Do you still put them out?
Dischord: 1980– yes.
FP: Is it possible to make a profit selling vinyl?
Dischord: Vinyl is almost impossible to make a profit on. We make it because it sounds great and the bands and a lot of the people who really love music love it.
FP: Do you have any intent of selling songs or albums on a “legit” file-sharing network?
Dischord: Ideally, we’d like to be able to offer this technology on our own site before we send people to other commercial sites that they may find distastefully corporate. We are not against itunes per se but we’d like people to have more than one option. But the technology is expensive and the world is ever changing so we are not yet set on if and how we’ll release digital music.
FP: Has file-sharing hurt sales of your bands?
Dischord: In my opinion I’d say it is definitely affecting sales– mostly because we rely on independent record stores to sell most of our CDs and many of them are going out of business. It may benefit bands in other ways– shows and merchandise, but really no one know for sure.
FP: Do you have any issues with your bands posting free music on the internet?
FP: Do you think putting out DVDs, video extras on CDs and such things can help keep people buying instead of downloading music?
Dischord: We always try to make our CDs nice– and always have.