SUNDAY EDITORIAL: The Music Industry and The Idea of Success


I find the notion of the “Music Industry” to be an incredibly laughable thing. So much importance is placed on displaying the correct behaviour in order to succeed within it and regardless of your genre the rules largely remain the same across the board. The high level model of “make the money now” is not an exclusive mission statement and is the same ethos adopted by many of the upper market independent labels popping up everywhere. The next money machine attached to the “industry” is the promotional companies who although are not record labels as such carry the same spirit of a label in terms of shaping your band so that it can successfully make someone else money. A lot of these promotion companies are the new business model for what used to be referred to as A&R and although there is still a focus on A&R from a major label level, a lot of the big money makers attach themselves to these smaller independent promotion companies in order to help weed out who will make the money and essentially who can successfully be pushed and marketed on the more mainstream level. It’s the perfect synergy of the small label Indies mixing with the major label fat cats and at every step of the process the focus is on marketing, brand awareness, image, empty calorie pop songs, censorship and a strict inside the box business model.

All in all it is a risk free agenda and through this process the bands and musicians are taken on a journey that essentially corrupts and fills them full of doubt as to why they wanted to play music in the first place. Some people are more geared and comfortable with playing within this risk free money making environment. It does allow for certain comforts to be given to you and it also opens up a pressure all of its own for the bands and artists that exist within it. Are you a bad person if you exist within and believe in this business model? No. Are you wrong for assuming that this is the only way to market and distribute music? Yes.

The music industry has so many different layers to it, and depending on your moral compass is not limited to the above business model. The evil aspects of making a profit are no longer exclusive to the major labels; it is a functioning machine across all levels of the industry. The shelter of remaining independent is not as simple as it used to be. There is the same level of “Motley Crue” hunger for money and success now functioning within the independent scenes. The business of art is now a very serious enterprise for the Indies and as a result a lot of mediocre and empty calories have ended up being the face of independent music.

The spirit of being adventurous in the music has been replaced by a new thirst and knowledge of business and making money. This has almost caused an “underground” in the “underground” to the point where the underground independent music scenes now also have many different layers and levels of structure. Ultimately it has been split into the groups of independent musicians who have a business strategy and the independent musicians who make forward thinking music and whose business strategy is to create, work hard, play shows, live rough and to avoid control being taken away from their experimental nature.

The other development within these music scenes is a new kind of younger musician who has taken the time to not only write songs but also do a music business degree. This may be a smart move at such a young age but when you have a whole scene of young musicians with this philosophy only so many of them will break through and the rest will spend their twenties in a state of bitterness or desperation. I have no personal dilemma with anyone having an interest in the business of art and taking the time to get educated in successful methods of conducting good business in general but there is the textbook blueprint and then there is the trial by error approach.

I have a lot of time, respect and love for all of the amazing people who work behind the scenes in the music industry and I don’t want anyone to assume that I’m in anyway bitter about the industry, I just believe that there are certain pages of the textbook not being taught to young musicians and at the end of the day the issue that needs to be addressed is the idea of what being “successful” really means.

To give a bit of context to the way I feel about the music industry circa 2012, I’m going to quote my hero, in both business and music, Mr Ian McKaye who responded in the following way when he was asked if there were other ways that he knew or had thought of to fight the whole status quo of the music industry, with the following being his answer:

“I’m not interested in fighting them. I’m interested in doing my work despite them.”

This is 100 per cent how I personally feel and I think it’s the kind of positive flip side I’d like to inspire in a lot of musicians who have been soured by their experience with the music industry because success is a multi-layered and beautiful concept that is not limited to how much money you earn and all the other fickle qualities of the current more popular business model adopted in the music industry.

To paint you a picture of this I’m going to lean on Ian’s band Fugazi as the classic example of how you can live outside the current ideals of the music industry.

Fugazi are an American band who came out of the DC hardcore music scene of the 1980’s and formed in 1987. They are noted for their DIY ethical stance, manner of business practices and have toured the world, produced six studio albums, a film and a comprehensive live series which has gained the band critical acclaim and success across the world.

After releasing some EP’s and the classic “13 Songs” compilation (a collection of the early EPs) and touring from 87 through to 89 the band released their debut album “Repeater” on April 19th 1990 through Ian’s label Dischord Records (I’ll touch on Dischord Records later in this topic) and although it did not impact any kind of chart or become a commercial success it did launch the band into the public eye quite significantly.

Through 1990 and 1991 they toured heavily behind “Repeater” playing a total of 250 concerts between March 1990 and June 1991 and routinely selling out 1000 plus capacity venues all over the world. By the summer of 1991 “Repeater” had sold more than 300, 000 copies which was an extreme achievement for a band whose own in-house label relied on minimal promotion. Major labels of course attempted to court the band but they made the decision to stay with their own Dischord label and refused all offers because the band was distributing their albums well enough. “Repeater” has sold over 1 million copies in the US alone and around 2 million worldwide.

Before I continue to discuss the amazing success the band had let me take a detour into describing some the business practices of Fugazi so that you can understand how the above mentioned figures were achieved. A lot of what I’m about to type is from information I’ve researched and in the spirt of accuracy a lot of it has been quoted word for word so that I can illustrate to you the point I’m discussing.

Fugazi worked out their DIY aesthetic by trial and error. The group’s decisions were partly motivated by pragmatic considerations that were essentially a punk rock version of simple living: for example, selling merchandise on tour would require a full-time merchandise salesperson that would require lodging, food, and other costs, so Fugazi decided to simplify their touring by not selling merchandise.

The band was also motivated by moral and ethical considerations: for example, Fugazi’s members regarded pricey admission for rock concerts as tantamount to price gouging a performer’s most loyal fans. Fugazi’s inexpensive target goal of $5 admission was spawned during a conversation on an early tour when the band’s members were debating the lowest profitable admission price.

In later years and at many venues, particularly on the east and west coasts of the U.S., Fugazi was unable to get ticket prices below about $10–$15 total. However, it never saw the $5 rule as inviolable, instead aiming to charge a price that was both affordable and profitable. Unlike some similar, independent rock contemporaries, Fugazi’s performances and tours were always profitable, due to the group’s popularity, low business overhead costs, and MacKaye’s keen sense of audience response in given regions.

Fugazi’s early tours earned it a strong word-of-mouth reputation, both for its powerful performances, and also for the band’s eagerness to play in unusual venues. The group sought out alternatives to traditional rock clubs partly to relieve the boredom of touring, but also hoping to show fans that there are other options to traditional ways of doing things.

In terms of their label Dischord Records, here is a bit of a history lesson. The label was founded in 1980 by Ian McKaye and Jeff Nelson and is based in Washington D.C. and specialises in the independent punk music of the D.C. area. The label is most notable for employing the do-it-yourself ethic, producing all of its albums by itself and selling them at discount prices without finance from major distributors.

Dischord Records believed in selling the physical products (CDs, Vinyl and Cassettes) at a lower price which essentially was what these physical mediums were worth minus the music industry mark up. So for instance all of the CDs were sold for ten dollars and came with a disclaimer on the back of each CD for you not to pay over the $10.00 price. The reason this disclaimer was there, and if you attempt to buy any of the Fugazi CD’s from JB’s and even your trusty local independent store Rocking Horse, was so that you were aware of the mark up. If you brought it direct from the band or a record store who applied a minimal mark up, that money went directly to the band but if you brought it for its marked up price in a record store, usually between $20.00 to $30.00, there was a total of $10.00 (at a price of $20.00), $15.00 (at a price of $25.00) or $20.00 (at a price of $30.00) that is not going to the band. ‘

Where does this money go? The retailer whose job is too simply stock it, who shouldn’t be denied a profit but also shouldn’t be allowed to blatantly access such a high profit and have such a significant mark up. So in essence if you consider the million copies of “Repeater” sold in America alone and if for arguments sake all of these copies were sold through a chain store who had a mark up from $10.00 to $30.00 on the cd then the band would essentially make ten million dollars and then the chain store would make twenty million dollars for essentially stocking an album on the shelves. If the album was attached to a major or even an indie label then the mark up and other costs would all be distributed between the various pieces of the pie that can include managers, publicists, producers and a list of other people who essentially aren’t the musician or band who made the music. The band would essentially get the $10.00 left over from every sale, if that, distributed between them. Although my accuracy in this situation may not include some information about how album distribution works, in terms of mark ups and fees and who gets what, it’s quite clear that Fugazi ran quite a successful business to make the kind of money they did and by keeping their product at a reasonable almost wholesale price and making a profit that goes back into feeding their own record label and touring pursuits.

That is why through all the chaos of financial crisis and the download era, Dischord Records is still a functioning and thriving enterprise. It’s a disappointment that their success and business model was not adopted by the major labels and music industry as a whole. It is an exercise in erasing ego and greed and although Dischord may have influenced countless of other independent labels throughout the world, the greed and ego of major label business structures have unfortunately polluted these other independent labels and the way they do business, but enough about that lets get back to Fugazi and their amazing career.

For Fugazi’s second album “Steady Diet of Nothing,” which was released in July 1991, the band had pre-orders, six months prior to its release, in excess of 160,000. For their third album “In on the Kill Taker” which was released in June 1993, the rise of alternative rock allowed for this album to breakthrough to a lot more people. It was the band’s first album to reach the Billboard charts and it sold 180,000 copies in its first week of release. This was again with no major label support or budget and an incredibly minimal amount of promotion. This was independent rock triumphing the way it was meant to.

The touring cycle for “In on the Kill Taker” saw the group selling out large auditoriums and arenas as well as seeing the band being offered more lucrative major label offers. During the bands sold-out 3-night stint at New York City’s Roseland Ballroom in September 1993, music mogul and Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegün met with the band backstage in an attempt to sign them. Ertegün offered the band a “anything you want” contract including their own subsidiary label and more than $10 million just to sign with Atlantic. Fugazi declined the offer. This is the kind of major label dream that so many bands would dream of, but in the spirit of having complete control over everything, the band stuck with their successful way of doing business. Lollapalooza also asked the band to headline their festival in 1993 but the band declined as well.

The band went on to release three more incredible albums called “Red Medicine,” “End Hits” and “The Argument” and went on hiatus as of 2003. I wasn’t able to get the sales figures for all their albums but here is a breakdown of some of the figures for a few of their albums:

  • 13 Songs – Total current worldwide sales of over 3 million
  • Repeater – 1 million US and 2 Million worldwide
  • In On The Kill Taker – 180,000 first week sales and currently over 1 million copies sold worldwide
  • Red Medicine – 160,000 copies first week sales
  • The Argument – 174,000 copies first week sales

For an independent band to reach those kind of first week sales to me is just incredibly amazing. Some of the empty calorie indie bands marketed and flogged by JJJ would fail to reach those kinds of sales and they have promotion companies working for them.

Since their hiatus in 2003 each band member has gone on to tackle new projects and here is a brief history of each member both during Fugazi and post Fugazi:

Ian McKaye

Currently plays in a band called “The Evens” with drummer and vocalist Amy Farina The band pride themselves on playing in non-standard locations, such as community centres, bookshops, or other atypical spaces. The Evens released their self-titled album in early 2005, breaking a three-year silence by MacKaye. Their second album, “Get Evens“, was released in November 2006. “The Evens are currently mixing a new record, due out at the end of this year (or early 2013 at the latest). In February 2004, MacKaye produced the recording sessions for John Frusciante‘s solo album titled DC EP. After working with MacKaye, Frusciante states “Ian is one of the only living people who I really respect and look up to, so it was an honour and a pleasure as well as a great learning experience to hear his perspective.”

Throughout his music career MacKaye has engineered and produced releases by a number of bands primarily on his Dischord label including 7 Seconds, Antelope, Bikini Kill, Black Eyes, Lungfish, Nation of Ulysses, One Last Wish, Q and Not U, Rites of Spring, Rollins Band, and others. He also does a lot speaking dates at universities across America. Ian still co-owns and runs Dischord Records and today more than 150 titles have been released by Dischord. The label has become notorious for its success despite its tendency to stray away from major label tactics for attracting monetary gains.

Guy Picciotto

Picciotto has collaborated and performed with Mats Gustafsson, Vic Chesnutt, and members of the Ex among others. He has also produced numerous albums including, The Gossip‘s breakthrough record Standing in the Way of Control as well as Blonde Redhead‘s Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons (2000), Misery Is a Butterfly (2004) and The Blood Brothers final album, Young Machetes. Picciotto played on the Vic Chesnutt albums North Star Deserter (2007) and At the Cut (2009), and accompanied him on a 2009 Fall/Winter North American Tour. He co-produced the film Chain with Jem Cohen (who made the Fugazi film Instrument).

Joe Lally

Lally founded Tolotta Records (distributed through Dischord Records), which was active from 1994 until 2001, putting out notable releases by such artists as Dead Meadow, Spirit Caravan, Stinking Lizaveta & Orthrelm. In early 2002, Lally joined ex-Frodus members Shelby Cinca and Jason Hamacher on a project originally called The Black Sea, which would change its name to Decahedron and release an EP and an album before Lally left the band. He has also worked with John Frusciante and Josh Klinghoffer as the group Ataxia, releasing two albums: Automatic Writing (2004) and AW II (2007). In 2006, Lally was playing solo shows on bass with slight laptop accompaniment in various college towns, which would lead up to Lally’s first solo album, There to Here, which was released in the fall of 2006. It features Jerry Busher, Ian MacKaye, Amy Farina, Guy Picciotto, Scott Weinrich and many other musicians from the DC music scene. In 2007, he toured the U.S. with the Philadelphia band Capillary Action and The Melvins and Europe and Japan with the Italian band Zu. His second solo album, Nothing Is Underrated, was released in November 2007. Lally released his 3rd album entitled Why Should I Get Used To It in April 2011.

Brendan Canty

Canty frequently composes soundtrack music, primarily for Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel documentaries. He also contributes to or helps produce other Washington D.C.-area recordings. During Fugazi’s post-2002 hiatus, Canty took part in a side project, Garland Of Hours, with vocalist/cellist/keyboardist Amy Domingues and drummer/percussionist Jerry Busher, both of whom have contributed to Fugazi recordings and performances. Their first self-titled album was released on the Arrest Records label founded by Busher and Canty’s younger brother James, formerly of Nation of Ulysses. Canty’s score for the Sundance Channel documentary series The Hill premiered on August 23, 2006. He continues to Score the National Geographic Channel’s “Hard Time”. In 2004, Canty and director Christoph Green co-founded the DVD label Trixie to release an ongoing series of music-related films entitled Burn to Shine. The series involves independent alternative music bands from a particular region showing up to perform one song live, without overdubs or corrections, in a house that is about to be demolished. The first volume was filmed in Canty’s home region of Washington, D.C., and features performances from Bob Mould, Weird War, Q and Not U, Ted Leo, French Toast, The Medications, fellow Fugazi member Ian MacKaye’s side project The Evens, and Garland Of Hours. A second volume, filmed in the Chicago area, was released in 2005, and a third filmed in Portland, Oregon came out August 20 of 2006. Three more volumes are currently in production featuring other cities. Using the same crew and filming style as on the Burn to Shine series, Canty and Green made a concert film of a Bob Mould show, entitled “Circle of Friends.” Canty not only produced this film but also plays drums during the show, which took place at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club. Canty and Green also made Sunken Treasure: Live in the Pacific Northwest, a 2006 Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) tour film, and the Wilco tour film Ashes of American Flags, which was released in 2009 and toured festivals extensively, eventually being broadcast on the Sundance Channel in the US, and being released on DVD and iTunes. In late 2004 and early 2005, Canty contributed drum tracks to Bob Mould’s 2005 solo album, Body Of Song. Canty was also the drummer for many dates on the winter 2005/2006 tour in support of the album. Canty returns as the drummer for Bob Mould’s District Line, to be released February 2008. He produced Ted Leo and the Pharmacists‘s Living With the Living and The Tyranny of Distance albums. He also produced Benjy Ferree, The Thermals‘s The Body, The Blood, The Machine, and French Toast records, as well as mixing the self-titled debut album for The Aquarium. He recently directed long-time friend Eddie Vedder‘s new solo performance DVD release, Water on the Road.

So as you can now see, the music industry is not an exclusive business model and success can be defined in many different ways. The fact that Fugazi are also anti-drugs, drink, cigarettes and are also against the idea of self-destructive sex as a conquest (an idea started by Ian during Minor Threat and terribly taken out of context by those damn straight edge kids) also probably says a lot for the success of the band. That kind of “sex, drugs and rock n roll” lifestyle was not for Fugazi and the way they broke down that kind of lifestyle and rebelled against it is also a powerful lesson for any young musician because the only way to get good and remain good is to have a good musical discipline and to focus on your art. The sex, drugs and booze does not help evolve that and is not part of the package of being a musician.

The Fugazi legacy is one of many stories of how bands and artists have taken the power back and managed to forge a successful career outside of the redundant major and now independent record labels business structure. What makes Fugazi so special to me though is how they have managed to do this without the support of your typical mainstream and now independent forms of promotion and hype. To have sold the amount of albums that they have and to do this by avoiding the path of mainstream and modern rock radio is truly an achievement.

I’m not 100 per cent plugged in to the curriculum of a music business degree but I’m fairly certain that like most mainstream education, some truths, like the Fugazi story, are left out of the manual. I’m not sure how many BigSound music type conferences share the story of Fugazi but I’ve never seen Ian McKaye on the line-up and he’s more of a successful businessman than most players in the music scene. I suspect that Ian has no interest in having a conference to discuss the business of art and instead focuses on getting the job done.

Big Love xo

By: Dan Newton


2 Replies to “SUNDAY EDITORIAL: The Music Industry and The Idea of Success”

    1. I’ve never thought about writing a book but maybe one day it would be cool to do. I don’t know much about that world in terms of publishers and all that but you know if people think I’ve got something interesting to say then yeah, would be cool to publish my thoughts.

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