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Devin Ocampo can’t afford to tour like he used to: self-booked, scraped-together, hit-or-miss—and all the time. That’s how he did it in Smart Went Crazy, the iconoclastic Dischord band he played in in the 1990s, and in Faraquet, his next group. And it’s how Ocampo and former Faraquet-mate Chad Molter’s current project Medications more or less approached touring in the mid-aughts, when it released an EP and an album of smart and mathy post-hardcore.
Medications toured Brazil in 2007 and gigged to and back from South by Southwest last year. But for the most part in recent years, the band’s kept its head down, quietly working on an album following the departure of drummer Andrew Becker, Molter’s move to Colorado, Ocampo’s marriage, and the addition of multi-instrumentalist Mark Cisneros (who, like Molter, used to work at Washington City Paper). Completely Removed, the group’s first record since 2005, dropped late last month to positive—if scarce—notices.
But when the band tried to book a May tour of small- and medium-sized indie clubs, it didn’t matter that they had serious post-hardcore bona fides. Or even that they’d recorded what could be the best Dischord Records album in years—a surprising, frequently mellow effort in which three-minute songs often contain eight minutes’ worth of ideas, and where for every acrobatic riff there are several bursts of pop catharsis. “We’ve been having trouble getting clubs to call us back,” Ocampo told me in early April.
Undoubtedly, Ocampo said then, the band could’ve booked a tour of underground spaces and hoped for the best. “Can you afford to go play in a café just because you can? Ten kids will show up, and that’s fine,” he said. “But I just can’t afford to do that.”
Instead the band put out a call of sorts, on Twitter: “We are so not hooked up. If you have influence over anything, e-mail us.” The band’s friend Chad Clark, the former Smart Went Crazy frontman whose band Beauty Pill Molter and Ocampo play in, offered clarification in his own Twitter feed: “The band Medications, ex-Faraquet, is looking for a booking agent. They have a new record coming out in a week.”
In some ways, independent rock appears to have changed little over the last decade, only become larger: Almost all of the young independent acts that have emerged in recent years—including many of the ones who’ve parlayed blog love into record deals of every stripe—spend most of their time on the road, in clubs and in nontraditional spaces, just as bands have done since God invented punk rock.
But for the generation that in the ’80s and ’90s created a punk-rock community in the District that rewarded fearlessness and creativity (and a certain austerity), the new infrastructure of independent rock music can be somewhat daunting, and a little disappointing. In the new economy of rock—where the Internet has eased access, where records no longer pay, but tours sometimes still do—at a certain level, there are more bands competing for space in clubs. And they almost always have booking agents, once less common among independent bands. In D.C., for example, the Black Cat sometimes schedules out-of-town bands that self-book as headliners. At other similarly sized spaces it’s rare: I asked Steve Lambert if any of the out-of-town bands he books at DC9 (capacity 200) and the Rock & Roll Hotel (capacity 400) contact him directly. “I don’t think there’s a single one,” he said.
Almost every musician interviewed for this article laid out a similar scenario: that the business surrounding independent rock music—PR firms, booking agents, licensing, even for bands who couldn’t fill the Black Cat, much less the 9:30 Club—feels a lot like the corporate model they once rejected. “I tend to think that when I got into punk rock, part of what was so attractive was that it rejected the machinery of the major labels, which did not support new ideas,” says Dischord Records co-founder Ian MacKaye. “It did not support anything that was off their radar… what strikes me is that of all the stuff the indie music scene would want to inherit, it wouldn’t be that structure itself—those sort of territorial business practices.”
For clubs, MacKaye says, “the calendar is so extended now, people are booking stuff five or six months down the road. Booking agents have aggregate power if they get a few bands. They leverage pretty well-known bands for their smaller bands—I know this exists. So it’s difficult to get into a club right now.”
If MacKaye sounds like a curmudgeon (although he stresses that he doesn’t care for nostalgia, and that young bands will always make music outside established structures), he’s not alone: Dante Ferrando, who drummed in Grey Matter in the 1980s and opened the Black Cat in 1993, says he’s less than happy with the changes he’s seen in recent years. “Ten to 15 years ago, bookers signed bands that they had serious interest in,” he says. “They were a little more like an indie record label—an indie booking agent might have six to 10 bands they would be working with. They had connections to those bands. In the last few years, all the booking agents have switched to a model where they sign everybody they can. They’re going for volume, major-label-style.” Sometimes, Ferrando says, a booking agent will try to nail down a date up to eight months in advance.
“It’s very frustrating because they’re not doing a very good job. They confirm dates incredibly fast. They’re not as concerned as developing bands as getting the dates,” says Ferrando—without naming names, he adds that some of the more successful indie bands of recent years barely played shows before gaining wide notice. “There used to be a little more of an art to it.”
Mike Mori—who books shows for bands like the Antlers, Cloud Cult, and Jedi Mind Tricks for the large, Chicago-based Windish Agency—says independent booking agencies have been around for years, but have grown significantly in the last decade. The business has accelerated, he says: It’s easier to find information about new music, and easier for young bands with a modicum of buzz to find booking agents to work with them. “There could be a band with one song out and 10 agencies will want to work with them,” says Mori.
For Ocampo, who for the last several years has been self-employed as a producer and recording engineer, the goal is to find a way to tour without coming back empty-handed—that can mean securing guarantees from clubs, which is difficult without a booking agent. “It’s less accepted by society for a guy in his 30s to travel around and be a bum and sleep on people’s couches or whatever,” says Ocampo, who is 36. “And it also feels a little less acceptable to yourself to live a life that way, so you start making other decisions to incorporate some sense of normalcy into your life. But that doesn’t lend itself to touring on the cheap.” He’s been having some success with the home-remodeling business he recently started, and he hopes it’ll allow him more flexibility to tour in the future. And no matter where Medications plays and how many people come, the band has no plans to stop making music.
J. Robbins, who’s played in numerous bands, including the final lineup of the ’70s and ’80s band Government Issue and the aggressive but impressionistic Jawbox, says he’s mostly removed from the world of professional touring these days. “I’m sort of dug in here in my bunker,” Robbins says, referring to his studio Magpie Cage in Baltimore, where he is a prolific producer. Like Ocampo, making music for Robbins is now closer to a hobby than a full-time pursuit—most of his time goes into producing and engineering for other bands at Magpie Cage. After Jawbox, which released records on Dischord and then Atlantic Records, disbanded in 1997, Robbins formed Burning Airlines, whose tours were arranged by Flower Booking. But by the time he formed Channels in the early 2000s with his wife Janet Morgan and drummer Darren Zentek, Robbins was no longer willing to tour for two-thirds of the year. “Flower really didn’t have the time to work with us,” he says. “We weren’t prepared to be on the road eight months a year.”
Nor is D.C.’s Imperial China, a trio whose take on post-hardcore is aggressive and abstract, and whose members work comfortable, full-time jobs. Imperial China recently dropped its debut full-length Phosphenes on the local labels Sockets and Ruffian, and self-booked a weeklong Midwestern tour of mostly clubs.“The ideal venue was a Velvet Lounge in every city,” says member Brian Porter. The band more or less broke even, he says, and it plans to self-book another short tour this fall. But it wasn’t easy, Porter says: “It was like a second full-time job, to be honest.” The band is recording another album this winter, and is considering looking for a booking agent once it’s ready to tour behind it—someone outside D.C., with connections to venues across the country.
Robbins’ newest band, Office of Future Plans, won’t be hitting the road for an extended tour anytime soon, he says—he’s married, he has a business, and his young son suffers from life-threatening spinal muscular atrophy. He just can’t take the time. But on a very limited level, he says he’s made gigging work. Office of Future Plans opened for the influential Boston post-punk band Mission of Burma in February at the Black Cat—it happened because Office’s cellist Gordon Withers e-mailed Mission of Burma’s frontman Roger Miller. Robbins would like to set up some dates later in the year: “We’re trying to figure out where we want to play, and it’s kind of coming down to who we’re going to play with,” he says. “If that ultimately means that’s at a coffee house, then that’s fine.”
F rom the start, MacKaye’s group the Evens knew clubs weren’t for them.
“It has more to do with the idea that the rock economy does not actually work for us,” he says. And so MacKaye and his partner, drummer Amy Farina, opted out of it. “We figured out our own sound system,” he says—the duo has mostly self-booked shows at “venues that will not be destroyed…we’ve played galleries, museums, libraries, barns, theater lobbies, record stores. We played in church halls, obviously.” They’ve kept the shows cheap and—needless to say—all-ages.
The Evens has a minimalistic, drums-and-baritone-guitar sound that’s often as ascetic as the vocally DIY practices that have occasionally overshadowed the music MacKaye made with Minor Threat, Fugazi, and other groups. The duo formed in 2001 and hasn’t played since 2007— MacKaye and Farina had a child in 2008, but MacKaye says the duo may start gigging again soon.
MacKaye has always booked his own tours, but during the Fugazi years he was willing to play clubs as long as the price stayed low and the crowd was all-ages. That’s a harder deal to guarantee now. “I think that music has been hijacked by the alcohol industry,” MacKaye says. “Basically, people only see music in bars.”
MacKaye later adds: “While booking Fugazi, the irony was not lost on me that—since I think of music as my form of expression—because of the band’s station, by and large I was presenting my art in venues in which the economy was based on self-destruction.” It’s not that he sees alcohol as inherently evil—although he doesn’t drink. As ever, MacKaye, 48, wants his shows to be accessible to everyone.
Of course, rock clubs have always relied on food and alcohol to turn a profit. Lambert, who’s booked shows in D.C. and Michigan for about a decade, says he can’t remember when that wasn’t true. But among veteran punk rockers, MacKaye is different. He’s led at least three of hardcore’s most revered bands. For more than a generation, he’s been the public face of Dischord Records and D.C. hardcore and punk rock. Along with a handful of other well-known underground figures, like Calvin Johnson and Ian Svenonius, MacKaye can exist largely outside clubs. He’s an outlier.
The old DIY ethic can seem quaint, given the new indie rock realities. But in some ways, Ferrando says, the traditionalism still matters.
“We definitely get a lot of bands who are into being indie bands—who definitely have a suspicion of commercialism,” he says. On the other hand, he adds, more and more in recent years, “you definitely see a lot of bands where it’s not part of the equation—where it’s not like, ‘We don’t want to rip anybody off.’” Fewer bands, he says, “are concerned with charging a fair price.”
MacKaye, Ferrando, and Robbins are all products of D.C. punk—and they maintain at least some fidelity to the concept of DIY.
“It comes down to the artist’s personal comfort level with what it is they’re trying to achieve and within what framework—you’re deciding for yourself what it means to be an independent artist,” says Robbins. “It’s just a weird time right now because all of those things that used to consume our attention in the ‘90s—it’s like the culture’s moved along. People don’t think about those definitions.”
Alex Kemp, who played in the Rhode Island indie-pop band Small Factory in the early ‘90s—which released a single on the Arlington label Simple Machines—says he’s attained success making music for a living by adhering to his version of DIY: not giving a fuck.
Kemp is the creative director of Hum Music, which composes music for television commercials. “I think that the world is full of people that will give you opinions about your creative work, and a lot of those opinions are terrible opinions. If you wind up trying to go the major-label route with your band, you’re really inviting those assholes right into the studio with you,” he says. He should know—his band Assassins briefly signed to Arista in 2002 before the label temporarily went under. “The inherent virtue of the DIY spirit is to keep the assholes out.”
Kemp, who hasn’t made records and toured full-time in about a decade, sees possibility in the new indie-rock landscape, both for young bands and veterans. But he’s also observed the difficulty in making a lifelong career out of indie rock—of expanding indie rock’s middle class: “Why aren’t there more Yo La Tengos in this world—they can tour, they do relatively well, they can find placements, and just through their hard work and determination and creativity they’ve carved out this space—why aren’t there more of those?”
He gives two reasons. To start, “You just have to not stop doing it, and most people give up. The less practical and more psychological one is, we need our musicians to be heroes. And not all heroes can also be the people who change the oil in their cars like [Minutemen’s] Mike Watt—sometimes we just want our rock stars to be rock stars.”
Take Justin Bieber, he says. “A 14-year-old girl isn’t saying, ‘He’s just like me.’ No, she’s saying, ‘He’s fucking special.’ ”
Ocampo, in many ways, is a DIY agnostic. His bands have almost always booked their own tours, not out of ideology but because it’s how they learned to do it. So he’s open to finding a booking agent, maybe even licensing a song, as long as he can stomach the brand in question. But, he stresses, he considers himself an artist first, and a professional musician second.
I’m sitting with Ocampo outside a coffee shop on 14th Street NW, a block or so south of the Black Cat, where Medications is playing on May 20. I ask him how the band’s spring tour preparations worked out.
“It went pretty good, in that we didn’t have to book it ourselves anymore,” he says. “We hooked up with another band who’s better at booking themselves and self-promotion.” The band is D.C.’s Deleted Scenes, whose members are in their mid-20s. Most of the venues on the four-date mini-tour are art and DIY spaces. “I think Chad contacted them and said ‘Let’s do one show,’” Ocampo says. “And they said, ‘Why do just one show? We can set up something.’”