(Above: The Dischord house.)
By Joel Francis
In a town littered with monuments and markings, the historic two-story red home in Arlington, Vir., has nary a plaque or sign. The house is close enough to the Pentagon that armed guards patrol a nearby parking facility, but what’s gone on inside its four walls for the past 30 years has been just as combative.
The residence on South Washington Blvd. is known worldwide to punk fans as the Dischord House, ground zero for the straight-edge and Washington, D.C., hardcore movement in the 1980s and the residence of Ian McKaye.
Today McKaye is best known as the force behind legendary hardcore punk outfits Minor Threat and Fugazi, but in 1980 he was a disenfranchised teenager trying to get his band recorded.
“The history of Dischord Records is pretty simple. Ian and Jeff (Nelson) were in Teen Idles, but the band broke up before they could release anything,” said longtime Dischord employee and spokesperson Alec Bourgeois. “At the time, there was no commercial structure. If you wanted it out, you had to do it yourself. The idea was to have something to sell at shows and to friends.”
McKaye and Nelson were responsible for all aspects of the initial run of 1,000 copies, from getting the LPs pressed, designing the artwork and assembling the sleeves. The final product, “Minor Disturbance” was the first entry in the Dischord catalog.
“The first records were so primitive,” Bourgeois said. “Ian literally pulled a 7-inch off the self, took it apart to see how it was made and took it to Kinkos, or whatever the equivalent was at the time and came back with a template to cut and paste around. They were literally handmade. Later he realized he could send the stuff off to someone familiar with the format.”
As Minor Threat started taking off, so – gradually – did Dischord. Other bands started coming to McKaye for help getting their music out.
The pair had two strikes against them – not only were they teenagers, but their band was kaput. By the time the Teen Idles 7-inch finally came out, McKaye was prospering in Minor Threat, and other bands were coming to for help getting records out.
“By the late ‘80s, early ‘90s there was a vibrant independent music scene (in D.C.),” Bourgeois said. “We felt connected with all the different labels, even though we all represented different communities. It’s one of the reason we carry all the local labels – because we feel connected to them. We don’t purport to represent DC by ourselves.”
Today, Dischord has a worldwide relationship with distributors, pressing plants and the indie record industry, but the original DIY spirit is still intact. When the album from Fugazi drummer Brendon Canty’s first high school band was released in 2007, Dischord had the cardboard sleeve printed at a letter press, but assembled the rest of the packaging and inserted the CDs by hand.
“We just did an Edie Sedgwick record and got the bag, record and sleeves separately. We spent days putting them together because no one would do it how we wanted them to look (with orange LP placed on top of the sleeve),” Bourgeois said. “To do some of it, it feels good. Anytime you get your hands involved and feel directly involved with the manufacturing feels exciting”
Dischord’s approach hasn’t changed over the years but the rest of the music industry has. Major labels are in crisis and illegal downloading has killed many revenue streams.
“This is the first time the music listener has been put in charge,” Bourgeois said. “Many labels feel threatened. We don’t, because we have a decent relationship with our customers. They get to decide what format they want to listen in, we don’t – but that’s a good thing.”
According to Bourgeois, CD sales have fallen, but digital downloads and vinyl sales have increased. Most Dischord LPs come with a download code with access to a digital copy of the album, but Bourgeois said he doesn’t think physical product will ever completely disappear.
“We make records – we like having something to do,” Bourgeois said. “Digital sales feel impersonal. We find ways to keep involved. With digital you just push buttons. No one has to touch or move anything. It’s kind of a bummer. What we’ve done for 25-plus years is interact with people.”
Bourgeois keeps an eye out for interesting orders or orders containing a lot of one artist. When those pops up he generates a promo code for free songs that artist may have done with another band and sends a message to the customer.
“We want to keep the back-and-forth going,” Bourgeois said.” We’ve always had a nice exchange with our customers.”
Those conversations have kept Dischord steady while the rest of the industry struggles.
“We’re fairly immune to certain market trends,” Bourgeois said. “We were never involved directly with the market anyway.”
Although McKaye maintains an office at the Dischord House, Bourgeois and the other four full-time staff members do the lion’s share of the label’s work from a cluttered-but-cozy basement office stuffed below a dry cleaner across the street.
“This label has always represented a specific community within the D.C. scene,” Bourgeois said.” We don’t deal with contracts (on our artists). It’s a very personal group of friends.”
(Below: Bourgeois at his workspace in the Dischord office.)