“You know what I call an unplayed record?” Ian MacKaye asks. “A piece of shitty garbage. It is paper and plastic. So if I do something, I want to make sure it adds value. “
Fortunately, as a co-founder and co-owner of Dischord Records, MacKaye has done the complete opposite of indie landfill. The Washington DC label will turn 40 next month, having created one of the best punk discographies in the world while remaining fiercely egalitarian. They do not sell merchandise, only music, and also at low prices: a socialist and ascetic stance in a corporate America. MacKaye once told disgruntled slamdancers about the lack of security at a concert for his band Fugazi: “It’s more fun to take care of each other than to pay people to take care of us,” summing up all their socio-economic spirit. “We started and continue to exist on the sidelines,” he says now.
Dischord was founded in 1980 by a teenage MacKaye plus Nathan Strejcek, Geordie Grindle, and Jeff Nelson to launch their punk band, Teen Idles. “No one else was going to turn it off,” says MacKaye, now a funny 58-year-old. His parents’ address was on his sleeve; 1,000 copies were pressed, with the covers cut and glued by hand. “That’s the real record industry,” says MacKaye. “We sat together and made records.”
Guy Picciotto, who played in Fugazi With MacKaye, remember his impact. “It was electric,” he recalls. “Children throwing music demystified the process, but because it was such a statement, the object was intensified. It felt different to have that record. He had this strange pride, although he had nothing to do with it. “Yet there was some resistance in the ideologically pure punk scene.” When releasing an album and monetizing the music, some people looked on suspiciously, “says MacKaye. that we declare that any money earned would be used to document other bands. “
Drawing inspiration from local hardcore punk heroes Bad Brains, MacKaye and Nelson’s next band, Minor Threat, arrived in a whirlwind of screaming, sweating and dancing. MacKaye detested the cliché of the libertine rock star, and her refusal to engage in alcoholism, drug addiction, and promiscuous sex also inadvertently, he suggests, spawned an abstinence-based cultural movement known as straight edge. “Music is sacred,” he said. “It’s a sham that you have to be drunk, shit, or do drugs. I do not buy it “.
“He didn’t drink or do drugs and it was hard to find people like that,” says Amy Pickering, who worked at Dischord for 22 years. “At 16, I found a subculture that felt like family.”
Dischord began releasing records of a burgeoning local scene filled with dizzying guitar beats, throaty howls, and fast drums. He had a unique position in Washington. “The whole city operates in the shadow of government money and in that coverage it doesn’t get a lot of sunlight,” says MacKaye. “So the things that grow here are really stubborn.”
The label was run by volunteers for years, operating out of a share house known as the Dischord House. Pickering ended the era of teens on his first day by quickly removing the “no skirts” sign. The bands rehearsed sitting in a low-ceilinged basement while meeting every day to make records. “At night, we would take cardboard from people’s garbage to make sleeves,” Pickering recalls. They even won a county recycling award. MacKaye had three jobs to keep things afloat. “It took three years before we took money off the label,” he says. “We didn’t start paying ourselves until after eight.”
By 1983, the city’s punk shows had turned violent and infested with skinheads. “We were tired of super aggressive people,” recalls Nelson. Many key bands, including Minor Threat, parted ways, but a new breed soon emerged, ditching hardcore punk and embracing the melody. Picciotto’s band, Rites of Spring, was pivotal, as was Beefeater Y Hug. They were given the term emotional hardcore, or emo, which eventually created an entire teenage subculture, although the bands rejected it.
This period of musical evolution, which ended show violence and increased political commitment, was totally thought out. Pickering sent anonymous notes in the post that read, “Brace yourself, it’s Revolution Summer.” Some saw the scene as too serious or preachy; the noise-rock outfit Pussy galore he had a song called Fuck You, Ian MacKaye. “People accused us of being a clique,” says Nelson. “I guess that’s true, but we wanted to work with people who were making great music and were nice.”
Dischord’s workload grew as Fugazi endlessly toured and his fierce live shows pulverizing the tension of spring and liberation, where Picciotto can be seen in the middle of the set on a basketball hoop, won a huge number of followers. Hundreds of thousands of albums were sold and the label flourished. Chris Richards, the Washington Post pop music critic who played in the dance-punk band Dischord Q and not UHe remembers the scene from the 90s as “magnetic, a gravitational force.” Fugazi’s all-ages concert policy ushered in a new generation. “At 15, the entry bar was zero,” says Richards. “That blew me away. You just show up and you are part of it. It cemented in my young mind that music and community are inextricably linked. “
At this point, a lot of money was being spent on clandestine scenes in the wake of the worldwide success of Nirvana. Fugazi was offered $ 10 million from Atlantic, but he passed and stayed at Dischord, charging $ 5 for concerts. “If we had signed, there would have been no band,” Picciotto says. “We worked because we were in the driver’s seat and if someone else was in the driver’s seat, we crashed into a wall.”
Contracts and lawyers have never been used and MacKaye says he “has never had a gang go away on bad terms.” Over 40 years, there are only two left for the major labels: Trembling of thinking and Jawbox. MacKaye is still friends with them, but Pickering remembers some friction. “It was unsettling, because the word ‘sold’ was on the tip of everyone’s tongue the entire time,” he says. “It felt like they were abandoning ship.”
Craig Wedren of the pop-leaning Shudder to Think argues that his ambitions were always there. “We wanted to bring our music to the mainstream,” he says. “There was a lot of backlash, but if you’re cutting ties because we signed with Sony, that means you’re not listening to the music. Those people were more interested in philosophy. “
Despite the dedication to low prices – in 2020, digital $ 7, CD $ 10, vinyl $ 15 – and high principles, it hasn’t always been a united front on Dischord. “Ian and I are like an old couple,” says Nelson. “There is no shortage of love and respect, but we couldn’t be more different. I’m a graphic designer, which is why I love advertising and TV commercials, but Ian hates all these things. We have butted heads in a ridiculous amount. “
MacKaye nearly finished in 2007, and was frequently suggested another job: “People say I should run for office,” he laughs. “But I’m just not a big enough idiot.” Anyway, he soon had a rethink. “I found that it strengthens the trust of hundreds of people,” he says of the label’s bands. “Dischord was entrusted with the care of this music and I have a custodial responsibility.”
He even hired a private investigator to track down the Void gang members, who had split up in 1984 but weren’t cashing their royalty checks. When the investigator found one of them, it turned out that he had stuck to the original deal: that all the money would go towards releasing Dischord’s next album, even though the band wasn’t making one. “For 30 years, he lived by that premise,” says MacKaye. “It was really moving.” He convinced him to start cashing the checks.
Dischord still releases new albums: MacKaye’s band Coriky being a 2020 release, but it is primarily focused on the archive, including Fugazi’s extensive live series of over 750 recordings. The label tends to peel and stick. “His legacy is priceless,” says Richards. “I am 41 years old and I am still learning how much Dischord and Fugazi have taught me. It’s a beautiful model of what music and community can be. “
Wedren feels the same: “There is magic, genius and beauty there, along with a viral decency. I bring it to my job in Hollywood as a songwriter, and what better place to apply Dischord’s principles? “
So is Dischord a template for contemporary labels or the product of a bygone era? “People must determine themselves and figure out what is right for them,” says MacKaye. “Everything is less now, in terms of sales, but music will never die. It will take new forms. Children are developing secret languages through music and they are going to find ways to spread them. Either on plastic or on your devices; Either way, there are ways to do it that feel ethical, meaningful, and fair. “
Dischord won’t commemorate 40 years of the label, but, reflecting on his legacy, MacKaye looks back a box thrown after 20. “When we started, they told us that we were too idealistic and that we were not a real business,” he says. “People scoffed and scoffed. After 20 years, I wanted to ask: are we already fucking real? So I would just double that. If you ring a bell and 40 years later, people can still hear the bell, then that’s something. “
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.