I didn’t want to be one of those guys driving around in a car with a bumper sticker that said “Real Musicians Have Day Jobs.” – Billie Joe Armstrong
Money and music have always been uneasy bedfellows, but bedfellows nonetheless.
Nowhere has this been more true than on the punk/indie scene, where people will twist themselves into yoga-like contortions to avoid even the appearance of being motivated by anything other than pure, unfettered love for their art.
Not everyone takes that approach. There’s Chuck Berry, the man who more or less invented rock and roll, and who legendarily insisted on being paid— in cash—before he would so much as set foot on a stage. Or Ray Charles, who demanded that the cash be in the form of one-dollar bills so no one could put one over on the blind man.
But most musicians we know nowadays accept cash—if they accept it all— behind closed doors, or via Paypal, or in a semi-annual royalty statement. It’s not the side of themselves they’re eager to show to the public, and understandably so.
Because most of us want to—need to, even—believe the artists we admire are doing what they do purely for love, love of the listening public, of course, and even greater love for art itself.
It’s a polite fiction, of course. Unless you have wealthy and indulgent parents, are receiving some sort of grant, or live in Canada, no one is offering to buy your guitar strings for you, or put gas in your tour van, or pay the rent on your practice pad.
So for the vast majority of musicians, money becomes a part of the artistic equation whether they like it or not. How big a part depends largely on individual goals and aspirations: those who’ve chosen to pursue music primarily as a hobby, or who deliberately choose some genre—atonal trance-polka, for example, or klezmer death metal—that’s not likely to attract a shedload of fans usually know in advance that they’re going to have to find some other way of footing the bills.
Then there are those—Ian MacKaye and Fugazi quickly come to mind— who adopt a militantly anti-commercial stance, only to have it turn, however inadvertently, into a brilliant and lucrative marketing strategy. But most of us, whether musicians, fans, or both, frequently find ourselves having to make an uneasy accommodation with the business end of the much-maligned—and often justly so—music business.
As much of a challenge as that can be for the individual band or artist, imagine how much more complicated things can get if you’re trying to run a record label, especially one with a roster of bands who range from potential chart-toppers to voluntarily obscure musicians who will happily play for however many friends and family members can cram into their living room and feel no overriding need ever to move beyond that point.
It’s an issue that Zach Gajewski and Joe Steinhardt have had to wrestle with a little more than they might have anticipated when they co-founded Don Giovanni Records in 2004. “I doubt Joe or I had any expectations other than putting out our own band and playing some shows,” says Zach. “We weren’t even sure if we’d sell the 500 copies we pressed. I was so proud when we did.”
Starting a record label, especially one that specialized in physical releases, might not have looked like the best career move at a time when digital downloading was laying waste to traditional methods of distributing music and the landscape was becoming littered with the corpses of much larger and long- established labels.
But neither Zach nor Joe was thinking in terms of “careers.” Although Joe readily admits that Don Giovanni was never meant to be the kind of “money- sink” that many small indie labels turn out to be, a labor of love that requires their owner to take out a second job or second mortgage to underwrite, he’s equally quick to point out that they “never saw it as a way to make money for ourselves.”
Their primary purpose from the start was, in Zach’s words, “To release records by bands we liked, that we were friends with, and that we shared common values with.” Sounds like a noble ideal, not dissimilar to the thinking behind a million tiny start-up labels run out of someone’s bedroom, basement or garage.
The difference is that Don Giovanni seems to have found a formula that’s been eluding most labels, large or small: how to not just survive, but to positively thrive and prosper in an environment that even many seasoned music industry professionals will try to tell you is all but hopeless.
It’s hardly turned into a megabuck-churning corporation, but with nearly 80 releases under its belt or in the pipeline, doesn’t quite qualify as “tiny” anymore, either. The Don Giovanni artist roster and fan base has grown to where the label’s annual showcase routinely packs out venues like the Bowery Ballroom or the Music Hall of Williamsburg. This year, in fact, it’s had to add a second night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg to the festivities.
Despite the label’s increased visibility and, in the case of some of its artists like Screaming Females or Laura Stevenson, impressive record sales, Don Giovanni has never really strayed from its initial vision. “We still do lots of very small run releases (300-500 copies),” Joe says. “It’s incredibly important to us that we are able to support and document those types of bands with the same care and attention we give to bands that are selling into the thousands.” “I really don’t think of money or sales as ‘success,’” Joe continues, while acknowledging that as the label has grown, it’s had to broaden its focus, especially in the case of certain bands who now spend so much time recording, practicing and touring that music has effectively become their fulltime job. “Originally it was just about getting bands’ records to exist. Now it’s sometimes also about helping our bands get money through playing their music, but in ways that fit with their ideals and our own. Not just ‘whatever it takes to make a living,’ like you hear some bands say about why they have to get a sponsor or license their music for commercials, but figuring out ways to get them the money they need through selling their records in more places, promoting them better, helping them find like-minded people to work with on booking their tours, stuff like that.”
But while some Don Giovanni bands may be on the verge of making music their livelihood, don’t expect to see Zach or Joe following suit any time soon. Both of them are hanging on to their day jobs.
“I don’t think anyone expects that by starting a DIY punk label they’ll hit a big payday,” says Zach. “From the first 7” we put out, we made a conscious decision to continue to put any money we made directly back into the label. We wanted the label to succeed for the simple fact that we loved the music and the scene we were a part of, and thought it deserved to be documented and heard.”
“The label is not a success in the way of being a “financial success,” Joe concurs. “It's a success because we've been able to put music out by bands we love while helping them get noticed, get distributed, and garner fans .” “In one way or another,” Zach concludes, “Joe and I have been involved in punk and hardcore music for most of our lives, and this has always been a natural extension of that interest and passion. It also doesn’t hurt that Joe’s one of my closest friends. Working on the label together has been one of the most gratifying and important experiences in my life.”
Don Giovanni Records celebrates its tenth year as a label with its annual showcase at Death By Audio on February 7 and the Music Hall of Williamsburg on February 8 and 9. Featured bands included Screaming Females, Laura Stevenson and the Cans, Waxahatchee, Hilly Eye, California X, Black Wine, Shellshag, Stormshadow, and all the other active bands who release albums on Don Giovanni.