In his 1993 essay in The Baffler, “The Problem with Music,” zine writer, recording engineer, guitarist, and future World Series of Poker Champion Steve Albini describes the ups and downs of signing to a major recording label. He asks us to imagine a band, pretty ordinary but pretty good, and also a little ambitious. They want their music to reach more people, and they want to play bigger shows, and, more than anything, they want some security. So they get a manager, and their manager introduces them to an A&R guy and, astoundingly, that guy offers them a contract—not perfect, but much better money than they make right now: “Just think about it, a quarter-million, just for being in a rock band!”
So the band makes a record with a mid-level producer, and they take out advances from publishing and merchandising companies, and they tour in a bus, and that record comes out and sells a quarter-million copies, more than our band has ever imagined. What a success! What a life!
Then Albini pulls this reverie to hard a stop to numerically itemize, in his words, “just how fucked they are.” Because every step along the way, our band has had to pay off interested parties, from their manager to their booking agent to the lawyer who looked over their contract and their old label—all money taken out of the band’s end of the advance, none of which, it turns out, is covered by the major label at all. Those guys just pocket the profit. “The band is now 1/4 of the way through its contract, has made the music industry more than 3 million dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties.” And because, despite making everyone money, the band still owes their label, they will have absolutely no leverage when it comes to how their next album is recorded, released, or promoted. The band has less freedom than ever. “Some of your friends,” he concludes, “are probably already this fucked.”
Albini came out of an 80s underground music scene which prized independence above everything else: fame, stability, comfort, good taste. The point was to make the music you wanted with the people around you, and to figure everything out later. Each scene was essentially localized, and often centered around a homegrown label: Touch & Go in Chicago, SST in LA, K Records in Olympia, and Dischord Records in Washington D.C. While SST came first, Dischord was the real pioneer, helping to set off the independent explosion of the '90s, and generating a new relationship between artists and labels based on the simple principle that artistic independence also requires financial independence, and that financial independence is based on an essential fairness.
Dischord was founded in early 1981 by Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson of the Teen Idles in a residential house in Arlington Virginia. The Idles had already broken up, but they’d recorded eight songs, and the group thought it would be fun to have them out in the world. So they put them out themselves, eight songs on a seven-inch record, with art designed by Nelson and every jacket cut, folded, and glued by hand. They sent records out to zines and radio stations, and plowed the proceeds back into their new label, putting out records by their friends, and friends of friends, and their new bands, whenever they formed them.
For a long time, Dischord wasn’t anybody’s job. Even once they got a distributor and early records by groups like Minor Threat caught on nationwide, Nelson managed a 7-Eleven and MacKaye scooped ice cream, ripped movie tickets, and drove a newspaper delivery truck. It allowed them to document the high-speed hardcore punk then in vogue in their scene, and to build an audience for their sound well outside the DMV. Their fly-by-night independence was a necessity—if they didn’t put these records out, who would?— but it also let them do whatever they wanted, on their own terms, in a time when the larger mainstream was either indifferent or hostile to their form of counterculture. Because they weren’t focused on commercial trends, the label could put out whatever they wanted, and to change as the scene changed.
The label had few employees, did little promotion, and set CD prices at eight dollars across the board. (By comparison, the average retail price of a music CD was $16.98 in 1995, or almost $34 in 2023.) Rather than offering inflated advances, the label gave the band a small amount of money to record their record, and once this initial cost (about $6,000) recouped, Dischord gave 30% of the profits to its distributor and then split the rest with the band, 60-40. MacKaye’s new band Fugazi jammed econo, touring without an agent, manager, or driver, playing all-ages shows, and famously attempting to keep all their tickets at $5. The point was to keep the price of entry so low that anyone could join in. But the lack of exploitative contracts and expensive extravagances were part of a conscious effort to keep apart from the sorts of extractive structures and systems that Albini identified in his Baffler essay.
This also gave their bands an unparalleled degree of freedom. Fugazi turned down a lot, from multi-million dollar label offers to a headlining slot at Lollapalooza (the tickets were too expensive). But they gained the ability to make whatever music they want, to interpolate dub basslines and feedback drones into their whip-smart post-hardcore, and to be politically outspoken without alienating a hypothetical mainstream audience. Their 90s records are authentically odd, abrasive, noisy music owing as much to reggae and glam as punk or hardcore, and packed full of songs about abortion, mass incarceration, and gun violence. And they got to do it all because they called the shots. No major label head would have released “Smallpox Champion,” or cleared the band to headline Rock for Choice. The group’s political integrity, creative freedom, and financial independence are all closely related. “It’s really important to work against [the dominant culture] and try to make something different,” says Fugazi guitarist and singer Guy Picciotto in Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. “If only because it’s interesting, if only because it’s not boring. But also because it will be better.” Because of its refusal to play ball, Dischord is often described as an uncompromising label. But everyone makes compromises, everyday; it’s a question of which ones you choose. Even at its mid-90s peak, Dischord housed its offices in the basement of a dry-cleaners; employed only a few loyal friends; and made no one, not even MacKaye and Nelson, all that rich. Fugazi booked their own shows, slept in roadside motels, and drove their own van. It sounds exhausting, but it gave them the freedom to make and release the music they wanted, which is, after all, the supposed point of being in a band.
During the 90s, major label A&R reps trawled the underground, fishing desperately for the next big thing, without realizing that the punk crossover had already passed. The major label music industry is premised on the belief that, no matter how big you are, you can always get bigger, a delusion widely shared by high-powered idiots in publishing, film, and media as well. These fantasies of endless expansion reflect the economy at large, in which everything must constantly grow, and sustainability is code for stagnation. Everyone knows the winners in this process, and forgets the reams of small acts burned up to fuel the process, generating value for everyone but themselves. But this process burns everyone, eventually, broadening culture until it becomes smooth, flat, frictionless.
This also happens to be the guiding principle behind the tech world, which, through corporations like Spotify, has done a great amount to destroy music as a viable career, and to iron the knots out of our musical culture. “In the domain of Spotify,” writes Liz Pelly, “‘making a living’ demands that an artist—often one of personal means—acquiesce to what streams well, to what feeds the algorithms, thereby sacrificing their creativity to the tastes of the playlists.” Yet again, financial dependence erects barriers around creativity, hemming in a much wider set of musical possibilities.
This has been a disaster for the indie music community, creating a system which funnels revenue to a handful of major artists and stakeholders and paying everyone else a pittance. No one, not Merge or Dead Oceans or Sub Pop or 4AD, sells nearly as many records as they need to sustain their artists. Even Dischord has largely stopped putting out new music. As at the height of the major label boom, young bands are trapped in a fundamentally extractive relationship with a group of companies who view them as fuel, a readily expendable resource.
Yet, as Albini himself noted on Twitter in 2022, his independent past had actually left him better equipped to deal with these developments than many of his major label peers, trapped as they still are in those old exploitative contracts. Rather than splitting streaming revenue among a vast variety of parties, it simply goes into his account, income like any other. “Remember,” he writes, “that the music business that fucked mainstream bands always had in parallel the contrasting independent scene which was more fair then and remains so.” Even now, it pays to jam econo.
Photo of Ian MacKaye and Jeff Nelson in the Dischord offices, August, 1982, by GLEN E. FRIEDMAN.