What hardcore punk bands can teach us about creative entrepreneurship.
“I’m a piece of shit? Fine — watch what this piece of shit is gonna do.”
— Ian MacKaye
A couple of years ago, I went to see my mate Joe’s hardcore-punk band Attack! Vipers!, play in a windowless concrete basement, under a tattoo parlour on a Southampton side street. There was vicious blood-red graffiti on the walls and it looked like a deranged serial killer’s lair, but it was full of funny and welcoming, if highly pierced and elaborately inked youths.
“Do you have any earplugs?” Joe asked kindly. “The place is all concrete and it will be a bit of an echo chamber, so it might get quite loud” he understated. I was about to get quite a lesson.
I’m a fan of short-fast-loud, but this was volume, speed and urgency on a much, much higher level than I was used to. Never mind ‘liking’ the music; it was a visceral, thrilling and totally hypnotic ride that you felt in your intestines as much as in your ears. Even with ear defenders fashioned from toilet paper, it was still bone-shatteringly loud.
There was no stage so the band and audience melted into one — as lead singer, Joe spent most of the set deep in the middle of the audience, sharing his mike with the fans and physically exhorting them to get involved. I was knocked sideways — not just by the wall of noise — but by the passion. But passion doesn’t really come close to describing the physical and mental intensity they all brought to their playing. It was off the Richter Scale.
This music will never trouble mainstream radio, let alone the charts, but the musicianship was highly skilled; playing complex rhythms and melodies (yes they had those) and doing it with absolute conviction and accuracy.
Two other bands played before them, but they all shared drums, amps and PAs, and they all helped each other set up and breakdown. Sound-checks were short (“can you hear this?” Oh yes). In the side room, on a low table, friends had set up a merchandise stall with T-shirts, CDs, Vinyl and badges and everyone was sharing their BYO beers and ciders. There were a lot of smiles and a lot of laughter. There was a community — a very strong, purposeful and connected community sharing a secret love.
That night not only re-ignited my love of punk rock music, but also made me think about how powerful passion can be when it’s coupled with a community of people who believe what you believe.
Passion is probably the most badly overused word in business, but that is because passion’s inexplicable burning urge is the one thing that links everything we humans love and respect.
The roots of punk are long and tangled and the only real unifying theme is people making music they love with zero thoughts of commercial success. Because making money was never really on anyone’s horizon it became a DIY culture that needed a community of like-minded souls to flourish.
And flourish they did. One of the most fiercely intelligent and ferociously driven communities was the Washington DC hardcore scene, whose conviction and integrity spread across the globe.
That scene not only directly influenced genre-smashing bands like the Beastie Boys, Rage Against The Machine and Nirvana, but also set an ethos for any successful creative endeavour outside of the mainstream.
“Every song I ever wrote, I wrote to be heard. So, if I was given a choice that 50 years from now I could either have a dollar or knowing that some kid was listening to my song, I’d go with the kid listening to my song.”
— Ian MacKaye
At the centre of the Washington DC scene was Ian MacKaye. He was not only the lead singer of Minor Threat and the guitarist in Fugazi (two of the most influential bands), but also the founder of Dischord records, which has been putting out underground music for over thirty years.
Beneath mainstream music’s radar, they blagged and borrowed equipment, played gigs in the assembly halls and gymnasiums of their fans’ schools, toured and recorded on a shoestring, set up their own record label, pressed records in tiny runs (even having ‘sleeve-folding’ parties where friends would come and help put the records into their handmade covers) and distributed their music via clothes shops, fanzines and skate-parks.
Their gigs were frenetic, mad and joyous; the music was furious, frantic and angry, but the conviction and passion was infectious. They not only sold hundreds of thousands of records, but also influenced hundreds of subsequent bands to back their passion, trust their ability and to just do it.
“American business at this point is really about developing an idea, making it profitable, selling it while it’s profitable and then getting out or diversifying. It’s just about sucking everything up. My idea was: Enjoy baking, sell your bread, people like it, sell more. Keep the bakery going because you’re making good food and people are happy.”
— Ian MacKaye
MacKaye admits that at the peak of the scene, and particularly when Nirvana proved that there was a global appetite for alternative music, he was courted by every major record company to sell out. But he never did. He knew that as soon as you put profit before purpose you lose the two essential elements that people really buy — your own conviction, and your audience’s conviction to join your community.
The bread example is a good one. The major supermarkets have in-house bakeries, but they can’t do what small independent bakeries do. They can’t experiment with unusual ingredients or flours — the size and complexity of their supply chain can’t buy ethically sourced Spelt, or a sourdough starter that’s been in the family for generations. A Turkish flat-bread with chilli and sundried tomatoes won’t shift enough units in an out of town Tescos to warrant the experiment. It probably wouldn’t make any money, so they don’t even try.
But artisan bakeries are thriving in every town precisely because we don’t just want bland Hovis or even just fresh bread. We want rich flavours, natural ingredients, and the inexplicable but very real taste of integrity. Artisan bakers, like hardcore record labels, can make a good living, and even a profit, but their profit-motive is simply to make more great bread or more great music.
“We play loud electric guitar music, and we’d hope that that doesn’t mean you have to act like an asshole.”
— Ian MacKaye
The DC hardcore scene had a much wider and more positive affect than just influencing other bands. They were out to make music for fun, but they rejected the nihilism and cynicism of early British punk in favour of something more profound. They not only wrote music about changing the world, they actively got involved in doing so too, playing shows for thePositive Forcemovement and protesting and lobbying against local and global injustices.
One of MacKaye’s songs, ‘Straight Edge’ became a rallying cry for rejecting the mindlessness of drink and drugs, and became a powerful international movement of young people that embraced sobriety, veganism, clean-living, equality and human rights. You didn’t have to be out off your head to stage-dive and mosh — their kind of music was about positive self-expression, not selfish hedonism.
“If You Want To Rebel Against Society, Don’t Dull The Blade.”
— Ian MacKaye
Staying true to your founding convictions is essential if you want your community of fans and customers to stay loyal.
The Body Shop built its reputation, and enjoyed huge global success, because it steadfastly stayed true to its principles of fair trade and sustainability and by telling the stories of everyone involved — from producers to customers. Founder Anita Roddick was, in a very femininely English way, very punk rock.
In 2006 The Body Shop sold out to L’Oreal and Anita Roddick died a year later. Since then the brand has lost its conviction and purpose and its activist’s voice. It was swallowed by mainstream profit-motives and shareholder value, customers slowly deserted them, and now it’s for sale again, struggling and rudderless.
The Body Shop’s heirs — Lush Cosmetics — have been rewarded with commercial success, precisely because they’ve maintained their rebellious activist heart and their credibility, and continue to put purpose ahead of profit. Their customers choose to buy from them out of principle, but that’s a precious and fragile state of mind that has to be defended with every business decision the company makes.
There’s a long list of examples that show that you’re only ever one bad corporate decision away from blowing your customers’ hard-won trust.
It doesn’t matter if your passion is making weird soap, strange bread or ear-bleeding music, there’s a huge appetite for anything outside the mainstream that has the authentic taste of conviction.
Never let anyone tell you that it’s too strange, or it won’t sell. If you’re making something off-the-wall, just for the sheer love of it, it’ll be infectious and you’ll be rewarded with loyalty and success.
Rick Rubin is one of the world’s most successful music producers — and is a huge fan of DC hardcore (his first band was called The Pricks). He’s maintained both financial independence and artistic credibility simply because he makes music that he loves, before any other thought or motivation.
“Be true to yourself. Make music that you love, go out and play, turn people on to it and spread it yourself. Don’t think it happens any other way.”
— Rick Rubin