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Ian MacKaye walks the walk

The man behind Fugazi and Dischord Records practices what he preaches. Need proof? Check out his prices for concerts and CDs.

May 07, 2003|Greg Kot | Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — Ian MacKaye did not invent punk rock. But it's quite possible that he has done more than any other artist in America to advance its cause, shape its ethics and define its aesthetic over the last 23 years.

As a founding member of Minor Threat, he embodied hard-core punk: fast, pithy, finger-pointing, us-against-them screeds from the bellies of alienated teens.

Later, with his current quartet Fugazi, he showed how punk could advance by embracing broader musical textures and more open-ended but still topical lyricism. With Minor Threat bandmate Jeff Nelson, he founded Dischord Records, which they still run as a creative outlet for Washington-area underground bands.

The label recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with the release of a potent three-CD box set, "20 Years of Dischord," that documents each of the 50 bands that have recorded for it.

Like everything else about the label, the box is budget-priced at $25, and most individual releases sell for $10, several dollars less than most major-label albums.

Fugazi typically charges its fans no more than $6 for concerts that draw thousands whenever MacKaye, Guy Picciotto, Joe Lally and Brendan Canty choose to tour.

MacKaye met for an interview on his home turf, the campus of Georgetown University. It was here 25 years ago that he skateboarded down the cement walkways with his teenage friends, including a young Henry Rollins, while blasting Ted Nugent on a portable tape recorder. And it was here in 1979 that he saw his first punk rock concert, by the shockabilly quartet the Cramps.

"I had seen only arena shows to that point, and seeing the Cramps up close was both terrifying and life-changing," he said. "I was 17, and it was the first time I saw this countercultural world. We called it punk -- an area where all conventional ideas foisted on us by schools, parents and society were challenged. It was a free area, and I became a part of it that day."

MacKaye is an affable and articulate man, but he rarely does interviews. He prefers to let Fugazi's music speak for itself, unembellished. But after addressing the recent Future of Music Coalition conference, in which he detailed how he's been able to thrive outside the confines of the major labels for more than two decades, he agreed to sit down for a chat over afternoon tea.

Question: Rollins may have hit on the key to Dischord's longevity in the liner notes to the box set when he wrote, "They are not trying to outdo, there is no competition." In other words, it's not about who can sell the most records.

Answer: Some of my favorite records sold 1,000 copies. I don't equate success with numbers. The work we do at the label, we're trying to document the folk music of this town. Music that is indigenous, organic and comes from an honest place. I am not an expansionist. I think expansionism is one of the great poisons of the American marketplace.

Q: Capitalists say that if you're not growing, you're dying.

A: I don't believe in the what-the-market-will-bear theory of selling anything. I think people should be compensated for their work. At the same time, I know how much it cost to make this box set, and I know how much I need to charge people to make money on it. I want people to hear this music. The $5 or $6 door price we charge for our concerts rules out the idea that we have to deliver a certain kind of entertainment.

Paul McCartney, he had better be good when he charges $250 for a concert ticket. But if we charge $5, it frees us up to really lay into the evening, whatever it's going to be. We can try things that McCartney can't. In the same way with the records, they're all experiments.

If you charge people $18 a CD, people ought to be entertained and they better like it. If you charge less than $10, it gives you freedom to explore different ideas. And we've done OK as a business.

The label has sold more than 2 million albums, including more than 1 million by Fugazi and more than 500,000 by Minor Threat.

Q: Unlike other labels that started off as regional punk labels, you've stayed true to your original course by exclusively documenting bands from Washington, D.C. Why?

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