home podcasting isn’t killing music

Let me preface this Take by saying that I am, in general, a huge fan of Washington Post music editor Chris Richards. He’s a great writer and a great performer. His band Q and Not U effectively jumped me into the Indie Rock Fandom of the early ’00s. But this is the internet, and sometimes even good people do Bad Takes. So, I’d like to take this opportunity to respectfully disagree with Richards’ recent editorial, “Are podcasts killing music or just wasting our time?”

Richards makes some salient points about the risks of shotgunning too much glossy, overproduced audio-narrative content. There is only so much time in the day, and obviously, if you’re a serious music fan, it would behoove you to spend as much time as possible putting tunes in yr ears. But there’s something a bit “old man yells at cloud” about Richards’ rhetorical attachment to the argument that listening to music and listening to podcasts are somehow conflicting, mutually exclusive activities. It’s true that you can’t do both simultaneously; it’s also true that it can be very hard to follow a podcast while trying to do verbally-active creative work like writing. So I can see how, from a professional music journalist’s perspective, podcasts could seem like a dangerous time-suck. In my personal experience, though, podcasts can be an amazing supplement to the music listening experience.

I’m a longtime fan and supporter of Maximum Fun, a DIY, listener-supported podcast network responsible for a truly dizzying amount of good audio content (including bonafide Podcast Hits like My Brother, My Brother and Me.) I’ve been listening to MaxFun since–well, again, high school–back when the “network” was just two shows produced in the living room of MaxFun guru and Bullseye host Jesse Thorne. Thorne is a serious music fan, a hilarious dude, a fellow migraine sufferer, and an all-around great guy who, in my opinion, actively makes the worlds of both music and podcasting a better place.

In the punk nomenclature of the Minutemen, all art can be effectively broken down into two categories: “flyers” and “gigs.” The flyer is what gets people in the door, but the gig is the real creative experience. In Jesse Thorne’s case, laid-back, freewheeling comic repartee is the flyer, but the gig is Thorne’s sincere, thoughtful and eclectic love of music and pop culture. Thorne is a terrific interviewer, and his conversations with musicians have played a crucial role in expanding my understanding of popular music.

As a kid growing up a rural, intensely white part of Michigan in the early ’00s, I had less than zero real-life exposure to knowledgeable discourse about contemporary music, particularly genres like hip hop and R&B. As dorky as it sounds, Bullseye (formerly known as The Sound of Young America) was effectively my gateway into rap fandom. Beyond that, Thorne’s conversations with musicians like Meshell Ndgeocello, Betty Davis and Shamir hepped me to some truly wonderful classic and contemporary Black music.

Now, here’s the kicker: the reason I gravitated to Jesse Thorne’s work in the first place actually comes full circle back to Chris Richards and the Dischord punk scene. As a teen punk rocker, I was a huge fan of Nation of Ulysses, elder statesmen of the D.C. post-hardcore scene whose playful, genre-agnostic approach to blending hardcore punk with elements of jazz and soul paved the way for–I’m willing to wager–subsequent Dischord acts like Q and not U. And–get this–one of my favorite Nation of Ulysses songs is called “The Sound of Young America.”

My point is, none of this stuff is mutually exclusive. Podcasts and music can meaningfully coexist as art forms. In fact, I think they have a lot to teach each other.

Cashout

“Fugazi capitalism” isn’t a thing.


In “Salad Days,” political commentator Rob Cox fills in the blanks of presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke’s policies on – well, most things – by attempting to wring substance out of one of O’Rourke’s favorite talking points: his punk rock past and professed “reverence” for the business ethics of Dischord Records founder and Fugazi frontman Ian Mackaye. Cox parlays Beto’s Fugazi fandom into a (theoretical) economic platform for the O’Rourke campaign, which he dubs “Fugazi capitalism.”

“Fugazi was effectively a startup from which valuable lessons in governance, business and sustainability might be inferred about the way an O’Rourke administration will approach the American economy,” Cox writes, “Fugazi capitalism would be inclusive, consumer-friendly and ethical. It would favor the interests of small businesses over corporations. It would reject cronyism.”

Cox is clearly familiar with the broad strokes of the Fugazi story: the $5 shows; the ethical practices including nonviolence, veganism, and a “straight edge” lifestyle. But if he is, as he implies, a Fugazi fan, it’s not clear that he’s listened very deeply to their lyrics or spent much time learning about the radical leftist politics of the ’90s D.C. punk scene as a whole. If he had, Cox might understand why “Fugazi capitalism” sounds like such hilarious contradiction in terms.

Merchandise, it 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?

“Merchandise” (Repeater, 1990)

If you were putting together “Anti-Capitalism: The Mixtape,” Fugazi’s “Merchandise” would be a solid choice for Side A, Track One. Clearly, Mackaye does not identify with the “businessman” here, nor is he a fan of what “keeps us in line.” He vehemently inveighs against the kind of consumer capitalism that attempts to atomize, isolate and strip-mine the complexities of human life. “We owe you nothing, you have no control” Mackaye sings, “You are not what you own.”

Did this kind of fiery rhetoric persist in Fugazi’s later years? Yes. Yes it did. Here’s Guy Picciotto on the final Fugazi album, 2001’s The Argument:

Number one in acquisitions
There is no foreign soil
Go global like a round thing
Go global like a hole
Every money matchmaker
Splicing green as fast as you can
Let’s break it down and start again

“Oh” (The Argument, 2001)

As Fugazi moved away from the brashly didactic lyricism the early hardcore scene, the more abstract and poetic approach they developed requires some effort to decode. But “Let’s break it down and start again” isn’t exactly subtle. Picciotto doesn’t literally say “Capitalism, as it exists now, is broken” because he doesn’t have to. It was implied by everything else Fugazi said and did. As journalist Spencer Ackerman tweeted, “Fugazi literally enforced price controls.”

Fugazi priced all their shows at $5 largely to their financial detriment (“It just became perverse to make it five,” Picciotto says in Our Band Could Be Your Life, “The idea that we could undercut it and make it work was comic and it was also kind of a statement.”) They never sold merch. Dischord Records began as a punk co-op, never held artists on contractual retainer, and never employed more than a dozen people, with the goal of keeping album prices fair and directing revenues primarily to their artists.

It’s true that a rock band is, from a capitalist perspective, a small business. Dischord Records certainly is. But a band is also an art project, an idea, and a node for collective action. Fugazi did business out of a sense of mission and necessity that had very little to do with greasing the wheels of industry. They operated within the confines of capitalism, sure, but like many of us, they did so in hope of finding a better way.