What began as fun, became a hallmark and inspiration to many of today’s current bands. Dischord Records is a model to new Indie labels starting up.
The reluctance from the major labels to take chances on smaller, radio-hostile bands during the arena rock era eventually led to the do-it-yourself ethics of the early eighties punk bands. Most importantly this helped lead to one of the most enduring and prime examples of an “Independent” and DIY, label, called Dischord Records, co-founded by Ian McKay and Jeff Nelson of the seminal punk rock band Minor Threat, based out of Washington D.C. The first record put out by Dischord was a seven-inch by Jeff and Ian’s first band, The Teen Idles and the second came from Idles roadie and S.O.A. front man, Henry Rollins.
Recently Jeff spoke to themusicedge.com about the early days of Dischord and some of the things that have since changed from that era. According to Jeff, “Ian (McKay) and I met in eleventh grade in public school in German class. We were both interested in skateboarding and rock, and once punk came along we both really got interested in that. We decided that we had to be in a band together so we started a band with some other friends called The Slinkies. Then when the singer went to college we replaced him and then became The Teen Idles, Ian was on bass at the time and not singing at that point. We learned a lot about being in a band and we got much better as musicians and Ian got a lot better as a lyricist and by the time that band broke up we had six hundred dollars saved up and we were gonna’ split it up and get 150 bucks each or we thought much more fun would be to put out a seven-inch record ourselves. We know that no one else was going to be interested in putting it out. Ian came up with the name Dischord as a name for a label, even though we didn’t think we were starting a record label per se, we just needed something to stick on the record. We pressed 1000 seven-inches, this is fall 1980 and by the time that record came out Ian and I were already in our third band, with Ian singing at this point. That band was Minor Threat which was only together two or three years but we got much bigger and we did start putting out other records, our friends records and just grew from there. We grew from putting out seven-inch records, jammed packed with songs, to putting out full-length vinyl records and it wasn’t until years later that CD’s came along. Minor Threat sales were the bread and butter of the label for years and still bring in good money to this day. My partner Ian’s band Fugazi is now the main bread and butter of the label. They’ve pretty much subsidized the cheap prices of the rest of the Dischord catalogue, some of the bands that have been popular over the years, but rarely do we sell enough records to make tons of money.”
Some of the most inspiring aspects of Dischord is the fact that it is run by musicians, and there are also many things put in place in order to keep all aspects of the label fair to the fans and to the bands. It was started out of a house Ian and Jeff were living in on the other side of the Potomac in Virginia they called the “Dischord House”, bands were recording, rehearsing and putting together vinyl packages and shipping materials to various record stores while maintaining full time jobs and finishing high school or starting college. Certain aspects like keeping costs of the records down, by stating an upfront price on all Dischord releases and a warning to anyone being fleeced by a big corporate chain for marking up a CD. Most CD’s are 12 dollars post paid and Jeff says that, “some kids will write and complain that some record store is charging thirteen but the problem isn’t the record store because they have to make some kind of overhead to run their store.”
He adds, “its funny because you’d get completely different answers if you are asking me or Ian (about pricing ethics). When we started out we were very much into the do it yourself ethics. I do not hate major labels because a lot of the music I grew up on came out on major labels. They were certainly not remotely interested in the kind of music we were doing or the bands we liked. We liked it that way. We liked it being underground, keeping things cheap, small record stores, doing it yourself, whether it was cutting and pasting flyers to advertise for your shows or cutting and pasting the art work for the cover art on the records. It was born of necessity, because we didn’t have any money. Selling the records for cheap was an important part of things and there were many records that came out with a “pay no more than” sticker on the sleeve, whether than in England or the States. We quickly came to realize that was hard to do and it really puts store owners in a bind and makes them look bad when you say, “pay no more than five dollars”, but by the time they get it from the distributors they are paying 4.50 and they aren’t getting anything. The world isn’t perfect so from my perspective we have softened that over the years. Ian would like to sell things cheaper than I want, and I would like to sell them for a bit more in order to give a bit more to the bands, because that ultimately is what pays the bills for the Dischord bands.”
Who knew what an amazing business model a bunch of eighteen year old kids in our nations capitol could start from scratch without any prior knowledge? Not only has Dischord been a role model for many independently owned record labels but the amazing bands that have grown with Dischord have inspired new musicians all over the world. So many bands have cited Minor Threat as an influence and so many bands in the Indie Rock scene cite Dischord as an influence and inspiration for the way they record, tour, rehearse, self-promote and play all ages shows in order to keep the music where it should be, right in front of the fan.
Since the break-up of MINOR THREAT, Jeff Nelson has played in Egg Hunt, 3, Senator Flux and High Back Chairs. Ian MacKaye has played in Egg Hunt, Embrace, Pailhead and still plays in Fugazi, while also producing Dischord bands like Q and Not U. Both Ian and Jeff still run the Dischord label. Jeff currently resides in Arlington Virginia where he not only manages to run Dischord from his home but another label he started on his own to showcase the music he is currently interested in called, Adult Swim Records.