Sunday Music: “Merchandise” And Fugazi

Ethics, Community, And Better Business Practices

Sunday Music: “Merchandise” And Fugazi

When hardcore got too copycat-ridden, they quit. 

Specifically, they quit the formulaic stuff. 

The play it faster, play it louder, make it moshier and tough-guyyier with breakdowns in just the right places so we can fight parts of hardcore - they quit those. 

But they kept the ethic. And the community. 

Because community and ethics matter more than anything else. 

This is not a lesson you’ll find in a business management book. 

Being in a successful band is an expensive business. Everybody gets a cut. Managers, venues, distribution partners - it adds up. 

When Steve Albini said “Some of your friends are probably already this f***ed” in 1993, part of that comment was directed at underground bands who hadn’t figured it out yet. 

Fortunately for Ian MacKaye and Guy Picciotto, they’d figured out the math earlier. 

Their ethics included making sure shows were accessible to everyone who wanted to come. Shows were all ages only or they wouldn’t play there. When they could, they’d rent the venue to control who got in or kicked out. The goal was to keep ticket prices down. The goal was to keep the show about the bands and about the music. 

All those people who wanted a cut? They weren’t interested in the bands or the music as much as they were interested in the dollars that might come with them. It takes a lot of gall just to say that. 

Because that’s how you build community. You get the ethics right. You get the right people in and the wrong people out.

And when it came to figuring out the math of it all, Fugazi put $5 tickets to all ages shows, and reasonably priced records first. Yes, with a small profit margin built in. But deliberately not a big profit margin. 

They were arguably huge from the get go. Underground huge. But big nonetheless. 

In order to tour and keep all the math working, they considered merch. They thought about who else would need to get involved. The overheard of storing, transporting, and selling it at shows and guess what?

It didn’t meet their ethical standards. 

So Fugazi had no merch. 

No shirts, no pins, no hats - just music and performances. 

As the band stated, in the position-explaining song titled “Merchandise,” 

Merchandise keeps us in line

Common sense says it's by design

What could a businessman ever want more

Than to have us sucking in his store

We owe you nothing, you have no control

You are not what you own

To this day, you can’t buy an official Fugazi shirt. 

They’ve been on an indefinite hiatus since 2003, so you can’t count on seeing them live either. 

But the scene and the ethics - as evidenced by their label, Dischord, are still as strong and respectable as ever. 

Ps. funny story - as a 90s kid who went through his own hardcore and then post-hardcore phase, I have the distinct memory of wanting a Fugazi shirt, then finding out anybody who had one was a poseur because “Fugazi wouldn’t sell shirts that’d be like selling out for MacKaye, man,” and then hearing the legend of the one unofficial shirt that MacKaye actually approved of. 

Ian MacKaye would later tell the story, 

I managed to trace one design back to a fairly well-known t-shirt company in the Boston area, and I called to tell them to cut it out. I spoke to the main guy there, and, of course, he wanted to do a deal. And, of course, the answer was still no. Still, we had a nice chat. He was curious why we didn’t want to sell shirts, and after I explained our position, he seemed to respect it. About one month later, a friend at a record store alerted me to the “this is not a Fugazi t-shirt” shirt. I traced it back to the same Boston dude. What a smart m*********** he was! I called him up and said, ‘Okay, you’re funny and you’re creative, so let’s see how creative you are with accounting.’ I asked him to choose an organization doing good work in his community and give them what would amount to the band’s royalty for the shirts. I think he chose a women’s shelter up there, and as far as I know he sent them money right up until he quit the business.’

Absolutely legendary. And, by the way, Rosie’s was the shelter in Boston those proceeds went to for years. Ethics, man. h/t defunkd

The rest of this post h/t Joe Gross’ incredible 33 ⅓ book, IN ON THE KILL TAKER. I feel evil using an Amazon link for all the reasons. But, just buy it. Work as hard as you need to. We are not communists.

Live (listen to Ian’s comments at the top of this clip, legendary stuff) and then studio below: