One thing leads to another: since I ran my interview with Mike Watt from late-’92 and we talked a lot about the business of music and how his band the Minutemen hooked up with SST Records, I figured I might as well run my interview with Greg Ginn – also from late-’92 – who owns the label and is also the former guitarist with the legendary Black Flag as well as a solo artist.
To what do you attribute the success of SST?
The principle of sticking to the practical, in our overall business, through all of the noise and misconceptions and all of that. We try to stay on our course and do a little bit more every year, and that plan has worked out for us. We’ve never had any gigantic hits, or anything like that. Perhaps that has helped us because nothing has come easy. We’ve had to work consistently.
What led you to form SST?
SST was formed to put out the first Black Flag record. Basically, there wasn’t anyone else to do it. There weren’t very many independent labels putting out rock music other than reissues, and other specialty stuff. I felt that what I was doing with Black Flag was very worthwhile, and I wanted to get it out there. It really just started from scratch: from looking in the phone book for a record pressing plant, pressing records, and then dealing with everything else by just doing it. Black Flag was formed in 1977. We first recorded in 1978.
Did you try to hook up with any of the major labels?
No. That was completely out of the question at the time. People from major labels were afraid to go to Black Flag gigs throughout most of the band’s existence. They treated our gigs as something threatening. I’m sure that it probably was. They probably had reasons to be scared. I think that that’s how times have changed, in a sense. There aren’t enough people who are scaring the kind of people who work in their offices at these companies.
The environment around a band now seems to be viewed with a wink as a marketing tool, like with Gwar. Was it just show biz for you?
We had a lot of riots. We came under attack from many of the police departments. From my perspective, it certainly wasn’t some publicity thing. I was afraid for many years. We couldn’t play in L.A. for many years. A lot of people got very cynical. It’s a way to write something off sometimes: to view it all as some marketing tool, but for the actual people who had to live through that stuff, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
I don’t talk a lot about the things that happened because people don’t believe that stuff from rock bands. There are so many bands who play bad-boy and are completely phony. When people do real things and come up against some of the authorities, they are often treated with the same cynical viewpoint. The wanna-be bad-boys weaken the impact of the people who do real things that the authorities are actually afraid of, rather than eager to market.
What were you trying to achieve?
Well, for two years what we tried to achieve was getting a gig. We practiced every night, diligently, and worked on our music. We played some parties locally in Hermosa Beach and around, but it took us two years to get our first real gig. That was a big dream: we wanna play a gig. We ended up booking a lot of our own gigs and putting on a lot of our own shows because people were afraid of it. We were trying to get our actual music across, trying to make a connection there. I didn’t have a lot of overtly political songs. I think it was more the actions of the group that were threatening to the authorities, and also our political philosophies apart from the music. Most of my writing has been about personal areas rather than political grandstanding. So, early-on it was just a matter of getting the music out there.
Walk us through the early releases, please.
First of all, I had business experience. I had made my living designing and building electronic equipment. Basic business was not new to me, but the music business was completely new to me. I knew nothing about distribution, or any of those things. We just pressed up a certain quantity and mailed some to reviewers, and started to take them around to stores and put them on consignment. That is when I learned that stores can be indifferent to something new.
We went out to stores. We booked our own tours. We promoted our own gigs. We got some local airplay and a few reviews, and that helped get things started. Then Jem Records became our first distributor. They called us up and they wanted some records. That was probably about 1980 because the record had been out for over a year. Hooking up with Jem increased our sales; they had a national distribution system. At that time most of their business was in imports. After ours, they started distributing other domestic independent rock labels as well. I had a lot of confidence in what the group was doing, and we were willing to ride with the slow build. We were excited when we sold our first ten records. When Jem bought 200, we thought they were crazy. I always felt that if we could get the music out there, and if people became accustomed to it, then a substantial number of them would enjoy it.
When you were setting up your own label, booking agency, etc., did you tap into a network that already existed, or did you have to create your own?
I think it’s a misconception that SST has a certain kind of fan base. So much of the music that we do has different audiences, and I didn’t see the same people at all of the gigs, even early-on. There is a certain thing that we have built-up in terms of maybe people respecting things that we’ve done, but I don’t see it as being the same audience for our different groups. I see it as maybe we have been able to find different audiences for the different things that we do. I think that the Soundgarden audience is almost completely different from the New Alliance spoken word recordings that we do.
Even early-on, the second group was the Minutemen, and when the Minutemen opened for Black Flag shows, people hated them. We had to develop a Minutemen audience from different people. That is a pretty common misconception. As a label, you have to treat every group, and every record as a unique entity. I think that that has been our success, rather than relying upon a fan base. The fans of our first record rejected our second record, and so we have had to deal with that from the beginning.
But to get to your question: when I first heard of punk rock, it was from reading about it in The Village Voice. I used to have a subscription to that, and in 1975-1976 I read about the Ramones, and Blondie, and Mink DeVille, and all of these groups before I had heard them, before they had records out. It was something that I read about and it was exciting to me, without having heard anything. It wasn’t until late-1976, on the Ramones first tour, that I actually saw one of these bands.
There were the beginnings of a network, but it was in N.Y. There were independent groups trying to do things, and trying to find alternatives to the mainstream record business in L.A. at that time, but punk rock really came out of N.Y. as a philosophy before the groups were ever recorded. I had a kind-of intellectual interest in the idea of creating a new scene that could be a grassroots thing. Rock and roll just didn’t have anything like that in L.A. at that point, and hearing about that happening in N.Y. clubs was very exciting.
When we released our record there really wasn’t any support in L.A. aside from Slash magazine. We were outside of that trendy, fashion-punk scene that they espoused. There wasn’t a network. We booked gigs by just calling clubs. A couple-of-years later we began to network with people doing the same types of things: DOA, and then later the Dead Kennedys. With those bands, early-on, we would trade a lot of information about touring, and about who was promoting shows in Fresno, or wherever. That’s where the networking started, but when we started out, there wasn’t any network. It was a matter of finding out by doing. I don’t want to take too much credit, but I suppose that we created a lot of ends of a network that then developed. Certainly, we had a lot of help from other people.
Were you able to participate in the network set up around the N.Y. scene?
N.Y. is a bit more arty-farty, and something like Black Flag was always a bit too red-blooded for the N.Y. art crowd. Even if they were supportive of us intellectually, I felt that the N.Y. art crowd was too intellectual for what we were doing, and most of them were actually scared by it. They were dealing in an intellectual world of punk rock that didn’t have a lot to do with the kinds of things that we were dealing with in L.A. with the police department, and other authorities.
We weren’t very fashion-oriented; we didn’t fit any particular mold. We had long hair at all of the wrong times; we had short hair at all of the wrong times. That was probably our biggest problem, that our clothing didn’t fit into any kind of N.Y. thing. The N.Y. network also dried-up really quickly. But, as an intellectual movement, it should be given a lot of credit. It said that rock and roll is stale, and that clubs need to be a place where anything can happen, and that bands don’t start by showcasing for major labels, they start by playing music. In 1975 that was a revolutionary thought in the music business. The cycle can repeat itself; bands seem to be showcasing for labels again.
How much did the European punk scene influence you?
We didn’t tour Europe until 1981. Our influences on Nervous Breakdown weren’t European at all. We hadn’t heard the English punk bands and didn’t know what they were doing. Our influences were the Stooges and Black Sabbath. We were already playing, and the N.Y. scene was already happening by the time we heard anything by the Sex Pistols or the Clash. The English scene got more media attention with their emphasis on fashion, with the safety pins and all. There were some really good bands over there too. The Sex Pistols were great.
There were some really great L.A. groups that had a lot more influence on me; a lot of them never really recorded. Others recorded after their peak when it was too late. I think X recorded too late; they were dusted before they recorded their first album. Fear recorded after they were already burnt out. See, in L.A. you have all of these record companies, and the bands feel that if they can hold out, they can get this big record deal. The problem for the L.A. punk bands was like, there were 50 of them holding out, and only The Dickies got a deal, and then they got dropped.
The Dickies were kind of a safe, almost cartoon version of what a punk band could be. That was the difference between L.A. and N.Y.: in N.Y. there aren’t so many record companies so the bands weren’t holding out. They just started releasing records as they went along, and as a result some of them did put out some prime stuff. That’s what we did. I didn’t want to wait around for some business entity to come around and give me money and tell me what to do. We just started releasing records as best we could. The scene, as far as live music went, was very exciting in 1976-77-78 in L.A..
What led to your decision to record the Minutemen?
I liked them. I saw their first gig, and I thought they were something to behold. They approached me about putting out a record. They said that I knew how to do it. I thought “Yeah, but it’s not easy.” At that point I had to think about whether we were ready to take responsibility for other people’s music as well as our own. That was a serious point of consideration. I decided to do it. It really threw people for a loop because the Minutemen were seen as more of an art thing than Black Flag; although I didn’t see them that way. It confused people when we put out Saccharine Trust, too. It was never a singular thing from the start.
Fans have been asking from the beginning, “Why are you putting out this record? Why don’t you give us more of the same?” That would have been easy to do in L.A.. We could have recorded other groups that Black Flag’s fans could have easily transferred to, instead of the Minutemen. But that’s not why I got into it. I got into it to support music that I really liked. That is still the case now.
Putting out the things that I like best hasn’t been the easiest way to run a label, and it still isn’t because it requires finding an audience for each record. Just because it’s on SST doesn’t mean people will buy it. The first Black Flag sold probably 10,000 copies in the first few years. When we put out the first Minutemen record we shipped 50 copies, literally. So many people asked why I was doing that: putting out stuff that they didn’t like. A lot of people got used to it later on, but the same thing happens today.
What are your top sellers so far?
Our biggest sellers are somewhere around 100,000 copies. The ones that have hit that level have taken years to do it. We’ve done over 400 albums now, and only a few have hit that level. Black Flag, Bad Brains and Soundgarden are the best selling artists. We’ve had a lot of records in the thirty-to-fifty thousand range including Firehose, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and a number of other groups.
You certainly do have an impressive catalog. It would seem to be a function of your ear.
I don’t think it’s just that. A lot of people appreciate good music. Diligence and promotion are as important as the ear. Promoting Soundgarden was different from promoting Dinosaur Jr.. A lot of Dino fans were outraged that we would do a Soundgarden album.
You have to keep the business side together as well as the creative side. Most often we have been successful by sticking with groups through three-or-four albums because a lot of the bands that we sign are raw and they need time to develop. We have had very little success with the right sound at the right time. We have constantly surprised people and stayed with bands until they have grown on people, or at least until people have gotten tired of hating them.
We always have to be patient with the artists whom we do get behind. We try to set up the business side of things so that their music can flourish. That’s something that we have been very successful at. A lot of the bands seem to do better in the more creative environment of our type of label than when they go to the larger environment where there is far more input from outside sources.
How do you feel when one of your bands goes to a major label?
We do one-record contracts with everyone we sign. We’ve never signed anyone to a long-term deal because we don’t want to work with anyone who doesn’t want to be here. That may not be the best business arrangement, but it is the best arrangement to keep our musical output at a consistently high level. The last thing that I want to do is to hold onto some 30-something rock bands that are way beyond their creative peaks. Their motivation has completely changed and they are trying to eke out a career at a point of desperation.
To me, that is a problem with American culture: people reach the age of 30 and they think that they need the house and the car and all of that. Very few people in regular lines of work can afford the things that their parents could, but they expect to. We have all of usual rock burn-out problems that the bands had in the ’60s and ’70s. You have a very creative period which generates a name for the band, followed by a long decline where the band tries to cash in on the name.
Years later, you still have the Traveling Wilburys around, and you still have the Meat Puppets around; which is no better, and is perhaps even worse. We’re not good at propping up old carcasses. We want to be on top of what’s vital at any particular time, and not just hold onto something because it has a name.
How can a band capture your attention?
If people are really excited about their music, and that’s their primary motivation, then that comes through in demo tapes. That’s the most important ingredient. We don’t have a lot of power to buy our way onto radio and into the major media. We have to do it with musical excitement. We need actual musicians who are involved with the music that they are playing, and the songs they are writing. We have a much different job than the big corporations; which is why I don’t feel competitive towards them, and why I don’t worry about the farm-team mentality. I don’t care what they do. The small companies who feel that the majors are a threat, or are predators upon them, will use that as an excuse for their eventual downfall. Don’t blame others for your own inadequacies.
Back to your question: just send me tapes. I listen to everything that comes in. I’m not real worried about demo sound quality. I can hear through that sort of thing. If a band can play, then they can play. We aren’t as concerned about the live aspect as other labels either. We do records from one-person bands who do a lot of samples, and are production oriented, and we do spoken word. We are looking to put out the best records possible. A lot of times they’ll sell after the band is gone because the music becomes more acceptable later. That has been our pattern. You’re not disqualified if you are real good live, though. The best live bands are the easiest to record.
What has been your greatest satisfaction, and what has been your greatest disappointment?
The greatest satisfaction comes from releasing the kind of music that I have been able to, and I feel very fortunate about that. The biggest disappointment has been seeing the number of people in this business with very shortsighted views. They feel that they have to do something now to get from point A to point B. Most good things happen with time; especially music that needs time to breathe and to find it’s own way. The public is usually slow to catch on to new things, and it’s important that musicians stick to their guns and not look for that instant gratification. The instant solutions usually trip up very promising careers. The REM and the Nirvana successes don’t mean much to me except as a potential distraction for bands who want to cash-in on the trend. Sound like yourself and wait for the trend to become you; don’t try to sound like someone else. REM and Nirvana and the Chili Peppers don’t sound like anyone else. They sound like themselves.