Who Let the Song Out?

The Village People. Baha Men. Fugazi?

For music-minded Redskins fans, the game-day song list at FedEx Field now contains an entry as unexpected and shocking as the team’s recent turnaround. Along with the usual array of stadium staples piped in at a volume guaranteed to keep the crowd on edge—think “YMCA” and “Who Let the Dogs Out”—the house DJs have been mixing in Fugazi’s “Waiting Room.”

Even Ian MacKaye, Fugazi’s guitarist and vocalist and D.C.’s most significant contribution to the punk-rock oeuvre, finds quite odd the pairing of his decidedly outsider art and a product as corporate and humdrum as NFL games, a realm where everything, including kickoffs and timeouts, has a sponsor’s name attached.

“We started getting calls from people who heard our song at the stadium or on television while watching the Redskins game,” says MacKaye, an alum of Woodrow Wilson High School. “It’s definitely weird, being part of the mainstream fabric like that.”

“Fugazi” and “mainstream” don’t show up in the same paragraph too often. For the uncool masses, Fugazi has sold millions of records since its founding in 1987, with essentially no airplay—even MacKaye says he’s never heard a song of his on local radio.

But despite the impressive sales figures, Fugazi might well be the only rock group in history whose ethos is more famous than its music. Plenty of folks who can’t name a single Fugazi tune know, for example, that early into its existence the band decided it wouldn’t play clubs that prohibit minors from attending, wouldn’t charge more than $5 for a ticket to a gig (the ceiling was recently raised to $6), and would avoid having to play the music-industry game by putting out its own records and charging cut-out prices even for brand-new product. MacKaye was constantly having quotes such as “It sucks to get big” attributed to him.

The band was mocked as the epitome of punk piousness early on but wore down its critics by sticking to its guns even when all its peers broke up or—heaven forbid —”sold out.”

While trying to deny that Nirvana had lost its punk bona fides, Kurt Cobain once joked, “[W]e’ll play with Fugazi for vegetable scraps.”

And Joe Strummer of the Clash, famously marketed as “the only band that matters” in the early ’80s, hailed the D.C. band during an interview for Spin’s “25 Years of Punk” compilation:

Q: “Which punk rockers have best kept the spirit of the music going?”

A: “Fugazi. They’re totally, utterly Fugazi, from the beginning of the world until the end.”

Fugazi’s politics also make its music seem an implausible choice for NFL soundtracks. At a Fort Reno show last summer, guitarist Guy Picciotto recruited bodies for the then-impending D.C. protests of the IMF meeting and railed against police tactics at previous gatherings.

That anti-corporate reputation shouldn’t take any hit from the FedEx exposure: Nobody in the band is going to get rich off the unsolicited stadium gig. In fact, MacKaye says that he recently tried to find out who gets paid what for such uses but gave up his investigation after ascertaining that “we aren’t going to get a dime from it.”

According to the Redskins, “Waiting Room” made its way to the team’s playlist at the suggestion of a game-day producer. He fell for the song, which he was heretofore unfamiliar with—he’s never heard of Fugazi, either—while burning a CD copy for his brother. He put it in the rotation as a “defensive bump,” producer lingo for the background music used when the Skins defense is on the field. The Redskins didn’t ask for permission, and didn’t have to.

The royalty system in music publishing may well be the most mysterious and confusing aspect of an industry loaded with mysterious and confusing (read: screw-the-rock-band) payment schemes.

A layperson’s explanation of how things are supposed to work: Music composers register their tunes with a music-licensing organization, the two main ones being ASCAP and BMI. For the right to play any live or recorded version of those songs in front of a paying audience, venues such as FedEx pay an annual fee to these registries. Every radio station, as well as every bar, restaurant, or retail establishment that pipes music or hosts cover bands, is also legally liable for the same sort of fee. (Even dance studios and gyms that host aerobics classes are obligated to obtain a license. Record stores, meanwhile, get one of the few exemptions.) ASCAP and BMI are notoriously heavy-handed in dealing with delinquents and nonpayers. Both organizations are famous for sending out heavies to shut down, for example, straggling nightclubs on the night of big shows just to get their point across.

The money collected by the ASCAPs and BMIs of the world is ostensibly delivered back to the artists at a rate commensurate with a particular song’s use by the outside world. But critics of the organizations carp that very few musicians benefit from this alleged pay-per-play system. The amount of so-called mechanical royalties an artist gets for use of his or her tunes is determined almost exclusively by a random sampling of radio play conducted by ASCAP and BMI. Play at stadiums such as FedEx Field is all but overlooked by the licensing overseers when determining who gets what. Given that a game-day audience at the former Raljon could hold in excess of 80,000 listeners, that hardly seems fair.

“As far as I could tell, all the money goes to Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney,” MacKaye says.

But windfall or no, MacKaye appears genuinely flattered by the “Waiting Room” experience, to learn that somebody with the Redskins, a team he grew up watching—”I was a big Sonny Jurgensen fan when I was a kid,” he says—would not only embrace his music but also promote it.

“I have a tendency to feel as if the soundtrack of life is by design, that it’s force-fed,” MacKaye says. “But, clearly, this was not force-fed on people. We didn’t have anything to do with this. So this whole experience has made me realize that sometimes, somehow, things do float up to the surface. I’m not saying that as a judgment of my music. I’m just saying that my music has floated up to the surface. And that’s pretty nice.”

While on the subject of unsolicited promotions: Fugazi has just released two new CDs—Argument and Furniture + 2. MacKaye didn’t mention either during our interview. —Dave McKenna