Henry Rollins: Lessons From the DIY Trenches
Photo by Heidi May
Two Saturdays ago I was in Denver, Colorado, speaking at the 2015 Authority Rainmaker convention on the topic of DIY. I was the last speaker at the multiday event. Those who had gone on before me addressed topics on all levels of online entrepreneurship, such as how to accelerate traffic coming to your site, how to lock in a customer base and otherwise compete and prosper in a highly competitive and ever-evolving environment.
This is a world I am at once familiar with yet not much a part of. I have a site, online store and podcast, but I’m not competing against anyone, so I’m spared the constant vying for position. Still, the idea of doing it yourself as far as putting out records and other media has been a huge part of my life for more than 35 years, so I was excited to talk to people who were looking to use their smarts and determination to change things.
As I was preparing for the talk and ensuing Q&A, I went over some of my more memorable DIY moments of trying to keep everything afloat in sometimes less than optimal situations.
Perhaps the biggest lessons I learned about the DIY ethos I got from watching Ian MacKaye figure out how he was going to get his band, The Teen Idles, into a studio and onto a record.
We owned many independently released records, including ones made locally. But at first it all seemed a somewhat daunting task. So Ian methodically deconstructed the idea down to its component parts: recording studio, pressing plant, layout, etc. With the help of Skip Groff, who owned Yesterday and Today Records, a store where we spent a great deal of time, Dischord 001, the Teen Idles’ Minor Disturbance EP, was soon under way.
The band made a demo tape, which was as much the sound of them getting used to the studio environment as anything else, but the experience paid off. When they went in to do the recording for the EP, they tore it up.
Several weeks later, the band had a finished record. It was a defining moment for me. I realized that a lot more was possible than I had thought, and that the only limitations were those you convince yourself of.
Dischord 002 was my band’s record.
The actualization of a vision and an idea, right down to the color of vinyl and label, was huge. I was well aware that we were not recording and releasing Physical Graffiti, but for someone who was convinced that he was not capable of much, it was a big deal.
Within months of my record coming out, I was in Black Flag and we were hard at work on what would become an album called Damaged. Greg Ginn and Chuck Dukowski, Black Flag founders and owners of SST Records, were already well-versed in the DIY world, with several releases in their catalog. They were fiercely independent and obliterated what few ideas of conformity I had left.
On my way up to Denver, I remembered something about the making of Damaged that I had not thought about for a long time. At one point, we still had a lot of work to do and were unsurprisingly low on funds. We lived in an office space above the studio, where there is now a Trader Joe’s at 8611 Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood. Different building, same spot.
For a few nights of overdubs, we left the door that separated the upstairs and downstairs unlocked. When the studio staff had gone home, we went back in and worked. Not exactly aboveboard, but definitely the right idea at the time. The studio made plenty of money from us and we got our record done.
From those days till now, the idea of making almost anything, from a record to a multicamera, broadcast-ready show, doesn’t intimidate me in the least. I know what’s possible, and if I can’t do it, I know where to find the people who can.
I think the emergence of sturdy, innovative DIY companies has changed the landscape and given every long-standing, gargantuan corporation a necessary check into the boards. To see the turgid dreck that some of these behemoth blah merchants aggressively vomit forth only reinforces everything I learned over the years.
That is not to say that some major labels and studios don’t work with more independent entities. But only for love of their bottom line do they read the writing on the wall. To watch major record labels start taking meetings with what they no doubt once considered the dregs of the business was an affirmation. The chops those bands earned from hundreds of nights on the rough touring circuits had paid off.
The further I go and the more I learn, the more I’m convinced that the future, at least in art and culture, does not belong to massive corporations and mediocre, tame displays of expression. With more opportunities for truly great ideas to come to fruition and reach so many so easily, this is the century to be in.
During my all-too-brief time onstage at Authority Rainmaker, I realized that it wasn’t the DIY successes I had that taught me the most. It was the setbacks, the failures, the heartbreaking feeling of futility that sometimes come with these high-minded ventures.
I was all but yelling at the audience to get the business end of their endeavors together, to protect the integrity of their products, and that anything they dared to put a price on had better be amazing. The quality and good intent of what they brought to bear had to override any notion of monetary success. I think they heard me.
Punk rock and the DIY ethic changed the way I thought about everything.
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