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The Self-Made Man: Ian MacKaye

Ian MacKaye is a lot of things; musician, punk rock legend, activist, parent, archivist, and entrepreneur. He’s been running his own record label, Dischord Records, since 1980, and laid down a do-it-yourself blueprint that inspired an entire generation of underground musicians and artists to make and distribute their own stuff.

Ian grew up in Washington DC and found punk rock when he was a teenager, working crappy hourly-wage service jobs (he and Henry Rollins both worked at the same H?agen-Dazs in Georgetown). Like a lot of kids who got into punk, Ian started his own band called the Teen Idles. They were only around for a year, but they saved up all their gig money and decided to make an album with it after they broke up, just to document what they’d done. Since no record labels were jumping out of their socks to release something by a teenage punk band that didn’t even play shows anymore, they decided to do it themselves.

Not only did Ian and his friends get records pressed, they assembled each one themselves, one 7?x7? sleeve at a time, cut and folded by hand. That was their system for years afterward, and it symbolizes Ian’s work ethic?as well as the pleasure and pride he takes in working on stuff he loves?in a major way.

For all that, Ian isn’t exactly what you’d call a slick businessman, and he’s fine with that. ?I was talking to a business guy once, an accountant,? Ian told Salon back in 2001, ?and he said, ‘They should invite you to come speak at Harvard Business School.’ And I said, ‘Well, I don?t give a fuck about business.’? Ian is a direct communicator, to put it mildly.

His approach is more like an artisan than an MBA. Bands who release albums on Dischord are never held to any contractual obligations, and all of Dischord’s releases are priced to break even with production and distribution costs. Hell, most of Dischord’s classics ?albums by Minor Threat, Fugazi, Government Issue, etc.?cost about $10 each. $10 won’t even get you a decent sandwich in some parts of the country.

Yet, as unrealistic and rigid (and unprofitable) as his ideals may seem, Ian’s been running Dischord for three decades with several longtime employees who make decent money. He decided what kind of business he wanted to run, and found a way to maintain it, even as the Internet threw the record industry for a series of loops.

I’ll leave you with this fun Q&A session with Ian MacKaye, hosted by Loyola New Orleans’ Center for Music and Arts Entrepreneurship.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at www.beeohdee.blogspot.com.

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