I want to thank Jesse for agreeing to this interview- I thought it would be fascinating to hear about the state of music industry in the digital age from an punk insider's point of view, and I hope you'll agree that he didn't disappoint. As both a band member and an employee of one of the preeminent and storied punk labels, I think his thoughts provide an interesting contrast to the viewpoints of the manufactured bands and corporate labels that we hear about so often in the news.
Thanks again, Jesse!
Give us a little personal history - how have you been involved with the Bay Area punk scene over the years?
I came out here from Philly in 1989 for the San Francisco Anarchist Gathering, and just haven't left yet. I've volunteered @ Gilman Street since then because I'm stubborn. Did "Berkeley Sucks" zine 1989-1990, bands that played out are BLATZ, THE GR'UPS, THE CRIMINALS, and now THE FRISK. Been a dj on local college station KALX since 1992. Like I said, I'm stubborn. Kamala and I started, ran, and ended Zafio Records, and I've worked at Lookout Records and now at Alternative Tentacles Records.
What's changed since the early years? What's missing now that used to exist then, what's does today's scene have that they didn't back then?
One thing that's different is the acceptance and normality of mainstream and/or major label attention. The Nirvana/Green Day/Offspring story has been told a thousand times, so I won't repeat it. Also different are the business practices of a lot of bands. Things have gotten more by-the-book, some of it through bad experiences. For instance, I prefer contracts/letters of agreement for working with labels precisely for this reason, which is totally different than my attitude in 1989. I also see the point of using contracts and reasonable guarantees with specific clubs, having been ripped off by unscrupulous promoters/owners. Simultaneously, there's a ton of rad people and promoters who don't need a contract to do the right thing!
Also, I'm shocked at the acceptance of crappy music. A lot of the emo stuff is as mediocre as a lot of the grunge- no pep, no creativity. That's not to say that there's not a lot of overly generic punk ruts for The Kids to fall into (oi, now known as "streetpunk", comes to mind instantly). But at least the odds are better that the generic punk bands are listenable. Have you ever endured Stone Temple Dogshit? Yuck!
Finally, the wider acceptance of major label influence includes radio listening. When Clearchannel took over the local shitty alternative rock station a couple years ago, Live 105, there were tons of articles about how it spelled the doom of one of the best stations in the Bay Area. Huh? That station has been shitty and too packed with commercials and Pearl Temple Addiction of the Stone Age bands since I came out here. Now that it's "corporate", there's all the same crappy bands with the same crappy commercials. Yet now I'm told by a fellow Gilman volunteer that it's "much better" than it was 5 years ago and that they listen to it all the time.
My radio gently weeps.
Are a lot of "old timers" still around, or do you find that people tend to move on?
I'm in touch, at least slightly, with probably about 50% of the folks I was close to 10-14 years ago. A lot of them aren't as involved with the music scene as they were, although most of them still blast the Ramones at regular intervals.
Which band do you miss the most?
Do you find people in the scene today (both band members and fans) are digital saavy? Or is the "digital revolution" still trickling into the punk front?
It's us lifers who have to catch up. The younger/newer punks are mostly plugged in before they even get into punk! I got on-line in 1998 thru working at Lookout. If it wasn't for that it would've been a couple more years before I got into it, no doubt.
Describe a typical day at Alternative Tentacles.
Coffee. Print out overnight orders. Answer overnight e-mails. Coffee. Pack orders for The Kids . Coffee. Nuclear Ramen. Add/Subtract neat things to our on-line/postal mail order selection. Coffee. Shoot the shit with the UPS guy. Coffee.
Oh wait, I mean we hang out, blast tunes, drink beer all day, and record tapes from Jello's incredible record collection! Whoo!
Apple recently made moves to open their iTunes Music Store to independent labels - is this a channel you think Alternative Tentacles and other labels are interested in (not necessarily Apple's channel, but other digital sales channels)?
We're already hooked up with iTunes and Emusic through our distributor Mordam Records. Speaking as an observer of Mordam from working for different labels/being a band distributed by Mordam, they have been grappling with the digital sales thing for years.
As far as I can tell, download sales are a minor portion of our income. We offer free mp3s on our site, we think (and our sales show) that our customers not only want the full package, but that they also are more aware and want to support indie progressive labels like ours through paying for our products.
As someone who's in a punk band, how do you feel about fans trading your music? Is the punk ethos such that you're happy your music is getting out anyway possible, or when the first of the month rolls around and your rent is due, do you find yourself wishing for better support from your "fans"?
Personally, I don't mind people downloading tunes. It's great for a small band like mine. If an artist can't add anything to their tune to entice listeners to pay for their art, well, they should consider a different hobby. Finally, only a few lucky people actually make anything close to a living at music. The rest of us should be realistic with our expectations.
That said, I don't believe that surviving in our capitalist society off of one's art is bad. In fact, better an artist survive ethically off of his or her creative output than have to work at McDonalds and have to cram creating art into non-work hours. As long as one makes money ethically, go for it.
I've ended up registering my songs through BMI to ensure that if- IF- a song is used for something that actually pays money, we get our share. That's fine with me, but I'm also not aggressively pushing to get into movie or video game soundtracks. I'm also not backing the jackass RIAA in their ridiculous attack on their customers.
So yeah, buy the new FRISK record when it comes out. And the old one. And all of the other cds, records, and shirts of bands I've been in. Now. Go hungry, who needs food? You need 4 copies of the Shit Split on cd! Whoo!
Do you find a consensus attitude on this issue in your peers in other bands? How about amongst the labels?
There's not a consensus. Some view it as the beginning of a brave new world of music distribution, others see it as collectivism in action, others see it as yet another way that artists are getting screwed out of scarce income, others see it as theft. It depends on who you ask.
So, did Jello consider running in the recall election ;)?
Ha ha, no. He's backing Camejo I think. I suggest people vote no on the recall and yes on Peter Camejo (or Huffington, if Camejo backs out and endorses her). The recall is a great tool for the grassroots, but in this case it's been hijacked by the millionaire right. Camejo ran for governor last election as a Green, so he's not a celebrity-come-lately candidate.