Back in 2014, our friend, Brendan Leonard crafted a series of insightful pieces titled, “Finding Your Voice”. We decided to resurrect Brendan’s work in the form of three Throwback Thursday posts. See more of Brendan at his website semi-rad.com and on Instagram (@semi_rad).
You Don’t Need Permission To Create
As a boy growing up in Washington D.C. in the 1960s and ’70s, Ian MacKaye realized that in school, he wasn’t allowed to do the creative things he wanted to. In a 2012 interview with Mother Jones, MacKaye said, “If you ask for permission, the answer is always no. So I developed a practice of just doing things.”
In 1979, MacKaye started playing with a punk band called The Teen Idles, and eventually realized he wanted to make music in this case, actually make it, as a way of documenting the band¹s existence. After a year of touring, the band put together their earnings, recorded a song and sent it to a press to have it made into a record. They found another record single that they liked, peeled apart the cardboard cover to see how it was put together, and traced the outline onto an 11-by-17-inch piece of paper. They sketched their album art on the paper, and had a print shop print 10,000 copies. And then they got to work putting them together. MacKaye told the Chicago Tribune:
We got a stack of these things, took scissors and glue, cut out the shapes, folded and glued them individually: 10,000 singles by hand. We threw parties and had lots of friends come over to make record sleeves. We were kids figuring out how to literally make records.
That single was the birth of a record company, Dischord Records, which went on to produce dozens of independent punk albums by dozens of bands since 1980, and pioneered the DIY ethic in punk music. MacKaye’s later bands, Minor Threat and Fugazi, established him as a punk icon, and he stuck to his belief of making his music accessible‹never charging more than $10 for an album, or $5 for admission to a show, and playing all-ages venues whenever possible.
Thirty-plus years after MacKaye and bandmate Jeff Nelson founded Dischord Records and hand-built their first singles, things are much easier for those who want to express themselves and share their ideas with others.
Musicians can upload music and sell mp3 singles and albums on Bandcamp, artists and jewelry makers can sell their designs on Etsy and Zazzle, authors can self-publish books through CreateSpace and Lightning Source, photographers can sell prints through SmugMug. Anyone can start a blog, and anyone can publicize their work through social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Where MacKaye and Nelson had to physically carry, ship, and sell their albums, we just have to click a button that says upload after all the hard work of getting whatever moves us out into words, notes, images, or other materials, of course.
I’ve watched friends grow photography businesses simply by sharing their favorite images on Instagram, and other friends turn podcasts from hobbies to part-time or full-time jobs, and seen my own blog go from a few hundred visitors in its first year to half a million this year. In December 2013, I self-published a book, hoping a few people besides my mother would buy it, and after 10 months of working hard to market it, it’s sold more than 4,000 copies.
Unlike Ian MacKaye, people who make things have the internet to connect them to people who want to read, listen, see, and buy their art‹thanks to social media, it’s become ten times easier to share things you like with others, whether it’s a short film on Vimeo, a book someone self-published, or a blog entry that made you laugh or think. Instead of having to go through a publishing company or a record label or a retail store, we’re able to show our work directly to the people, who can decide whether or not it’s good. Just like Ian MacKaye said, no one has to ask anyone’s permission anymore to make something.