Henry Rollins on the Art and Business of DIY Media

I vividly remember the first time I heard Black Flag. It was in a kid named Mike Goodman’s bedroom, and the record was called Damaged.

That’s how it was pre-Internet in suburban Houston. If it wasn’t on the radio or MTV, it was invisible–unless some cool kid turned you on to something new (who probably got it from the older sibling of some other cool kid).

And by “cool,” I mean a misfit who couldn’t abide in a Top 40 world.

My first impression was, “Wow, this guy is pissed off!” And sarcastic, sometimes funny, sometimes sad. I loved it.

At the time, I had no idea that the guy’s name was Henry Rollins, or that he wasn’t the first lead singer of Black Flag. So we can’t really say it’s his time fronting that band that makes him a personal hero to me … but it started there.

Black Flag recorded, financed, and distributed their own records, set up and promoted their own shows, and created their own merchandise. There was no one in the mainstream music world who wanted to help, so they did it themselves.

The band broke up in August of 1986, just before I started college. Henry carried on in true DIY fashion, using his own publishing and record company to release his first book, his spoken word recordings, and albums by the first iteration of the Rollins Band.

By 1994, Rollins is all over MTV, and he’s featured in the film The Chase with Charlie Sheen. And yet, he chooses to self publish his memoir Get in the Van rather than go with a major publisher. In the post-Nevermind world, everyone knows there would be no Nirvana without bands like Black Flag, but Henry is still doing it his way.

Since then, Henry Rollins has become a self-made media personality. He has a radio show on KCRW, a column for LA Weekly, and he shows up as himself on TV shows like Californication (and as a very out-of-character white supremacist on Sons of Anarchy). Plus, his spoken word performances and essays are all over online.

And since my kids are a bit too young for the music and the spoken word, they know him as the guy on the History Channel–the host of the educational series 10 Things You Don’t Know About. Life can be strange as a parent.

The reason why Henry is on this podcast, and more importantly, why he’s doing the closing keynote at Authority Rainmaker in May, comes down to this quote from an interview he once did while on tour in New Zealand:

Everything I do, writing, touring, travelling, it all comes from the punk and hardcore attitude, from that expression – from being open to try things but relying on yourself, taking what you have into the battle and making of it what you will, hoping you can figure it out as you go.

Now, I’m not comparing what we do as DIY media creators to getting in the van and touring with a punk band. Truth is, with all the tools we have combined with the open access of the Internet, we have it pretty damn easy.

But it’s the attitude that matters, and the work ethic. And that’s exactly why everyone should be listening to what Mr. Rollins has to say.

In this 51-minute episode Henry Rollins and I discuss:

  • Why he started a podcast, and how he’s producing it
  • The “secret weapon” behind his entire media business
  • What most DIY media people (business or punk) miss
  • What it takes to succeed in business (and rock)
  • What Black Flag taught him about working insanely hard
  • How he financed his first record label
  • The development of his direct-mail marketing plan
  • How his first book was published
  • The trip from DIY scrapper to Grammy-winning performer
  • Why DIY media producers should seek massive distribution
  • The worst thing you can do and be online
  • What Henry is going to deliver at Authority Rainmaker

The Show Notes

Henry Rollins on the Art and Business of DIY Media

Voiceover: This episode of Rainmaker.FM is brought to you by Authority Rainmaker. It’s a different kind of online marketing conference; for one thing, Henry Rollins is keynoting. Get all the details at authorityrainmaker.com. And yes, it’s that Henry Rollins.

Brian Clark: This is Brian Clark, and welcome to the show. Today’s guest is musician, writer, journalist, publisher, actor, television and radio host, spoken-word artist, comedian, and activist Henry Rollins. Did I mention that he just started his own podcast and is kind of a personal hero to me? Yeah.

The reason why Henry is on this podcast, and more importantly, why he’s doing the closing keynote at our conference in May, comes down to this quote from an interview he did. I think he was on tour in New Zealand at the time. Here’s what he said: “Everything I do, writing, touring, traveling, it all comes from a punk and hardcore attitude, from that expression — from being open to try things but relying on yourself, taking what you have into the battle and making of it what you will, hoping you can figure it out as you go.”

Now, I’m not comparing what we do as DIY media creators to getting in the van and touring with a punk band. Truth is, with all the tools we have, plus the open Internet, we have it pretty damn easy. But it’s the attitude that matters, and the work ethic, and that’s exactly why everyone should be listening to what Mr. Rollins has to say.

Henry, thank you so much for joining us.

Henry Rollins: No problem at all.

Why He Started a Podcast, and How He’s Producing It

Brian Clark: So, first of all, I was delighted and maybe even surprised a little, given that you have a radio show, and you’ve got a television show, and you just started a podcast called Henry and Heidi. From listening to the first episode, it’s clear that you blame Heidi for the whole thing, but why don’t you shed a little light on that relationship and how that came to happen?

Henry Rollins: Heidi came to my publishing company as a new hire about 17-point-something years ago. On her first hour there, we were already arguing — not in a mean way — but she basically said, “Are you always like this? Because if you are, I’m outta here.” I’m like, “whoa.”

We agree on most things, but she finds it necessary to discipline and school me fairly often.

She’s come up with a lot of ideas that we utilize at this company, the publishing company. We do books; a lot of the ways we do things are her ideas, and a lot of the ways we edit books and the ways we go after work for me are Heidi’s innovations.

It’s been a really good lesson for me over the years to learn to collaborate with someone and learn to listen when I want to argue. It’s very difficult for some of us to shut our mouths; it’s very hard for me, but I’ve learned that Heidi often has the best idea. In fact, you can count on that. When she has an idea, I just learned to shut up and take notes. So it’s been very interesting.

Everywhere we go, we’re always nattering at each other, and people ask us, “How long have you two been married?” We’re not married at all or related in that way. We’re very good friends, obviously, but it’s been an interesting relationship.

And as technology furthers and makes things more accessible to plain old folks, we’ve also been discovering different platforms, more recently like the podcast, which was all Heidi’s idea.

She said we should do a podcast. I said, “I need to get a different bit of gear, because I only have one box for doing my voice-over for auditions and my radio show.” She said, “Get a different box, then.” I said, “Okay,” so I did that. My engineer buddy came in and set it up and gave me some lessons, and we made our first podcast, I’d say, a couple weeks ago, and the thing is incredibly successful, which both of us are still quite confused by; I mean, it does very well.

But that was all Heidi’s idea. We just do our thing; right in the office, we have two microphones and whatever this gadget is that gets us into a WAV file.

Brian Clark: It’s interesting to me, full circle; I remember the first time I heard Black Flag was when I was 16. It was Damaged; I didn’t even know that you weren’t the first singer of Black Flag, that you came from the audience.

Now I want to talk about that a little bit. You did everything yourselves, and then, of course, you’ve been in films, and you’re in radio and television, and now you’ve come full circle to where you sit in your office and do it yourself again with your longtime co-conspirator. How does that feel?

The “Secret Weapon” Behind His Entire Media Business

Henry Rollins: It feels great to have such autonomy and be able to keep doing it year after year and to rely on your inspiration and hard work and the fact that it pays off. When I say that word — pays — I’m very careful with anything that sounds or smells like money. For me, ‘paying off’ is the ability to do it next year, and the year after, and the year after. Something that is able to be sustained — a sustainable, innovative work environment — is sort of all I’ve ever wanted. And you’ll find that with a lot of DIY companies.

I just want to keep the lights on and keep the ideas going, because I enjoy the ideas more, and executing them, and realizing them. And then ultimately, let’s say you finish a book — the best part about finishing a book is you get it off your desk, and all of the sudden you have an empty desk that you can fill up with a new idea. It’s like building a big ship over and over again; it’s right there when you crack the champagne over the mast of the ship, because that’s what they do, and you set it out, but then you have an empty harbor, and well, let’s get busy, and you get inspired all over again.

To be able to do that year after year, that, to me, is the goal. It is the thing that gets me up early in the morning and has me obsessively working right through the weekend without really noticing, working through holidays. I’m somewhat driven, but it’s not like I’m driven because of the stockholders. I’m driven because I have a lot of ideas and only so much time. Life is finite. Ideas are seemingly limitless. All of my DIY pursuits all come from one basic idea: “I want to do this.” You have ideas? Well, I have ideas, too. You have to wrap them in steel and take them into the battleground of the role, because you’re not the only person thinking of things.

What Most DIY Media People (Business or Punk) Miss

Henry Rollins: One of the things that a lot of DIY people don’t take into account is that there’s other innovative people who wake up early just like you, and their ideas are good too; you’re all, in a way, competing for a certain bandwidth. There’s only so many people in the world who can be anywhere near what you want to do or what you want to bring them, and you only have so much time, money, and attention that they can bring to any one thing. So it’s you and five other people or more.

What It Takes to Succeed in Business (and Rock)

Henry Rollins: You get a record company; we have really great bands. You know what? There’s a lot of good labels and a lot of good bands. Why should I take your record? All of your getting up early in the morning comes from trying to answer that question. I go into that basic question with the same basic thing I’ve gone into everything, from being on a record label that was owned by the band or owned by members of the band to starting my own company, which I’ve had since 1983, and they still keep going.

It’s that single idea of wanting to do something, and you find that you must put every single thing you have into that idea; your DNA, every amount of affection, everything you’ve got goes into those ideas, to where you had no idea you could be that tired and still work. You push yourself, quite often, past any rational threshold of exhaustion or sanity, and realize, “Oh, I can do 19 hours. I can still function at 19 hours.” It’s not good for your health to sustain that, but you find out you could do some amazing amount of percent more than what you thought. I learned that by being in Black Flag.

What Black Flag Taught Him about Working Insanely Hard

Henry Rollins: I always thought I was a hard worker. Then I joined Black Flag, and then I realized what hard work was, because the people around me — Greg Ginn, Chuck Dukowski — were these work mavens who made me look like a lightweight, so I learned very quickly. It was not easy, and it was a very hard adjustment to make.

Brian Clark: That’s hard to imagine, as hard as we know you’ve worked over the years. Let’s go back a little bit to Black Flag, because you’ve done a lot on your own since then; of course, you sang lead in a band before you joined Black Flag, but it was the whole idea.

In Washington, D.C., where you came from, you’ve got Minor Threat; no one wants to sign Minor Threat. They should have, but they didn’t know. Go to L.A.; no one wants to sign Black Flag, Greg Ginn starts SST. You guys produce and distribute your own records, and you set up your own gigs and your own tours. Was that the learning experience of DIY, or did you already have the mentality before your joined the group?

How He Financed His First Record Label

Henry Rollins: I had a baby version of it from watching Ian MacKaye, who is from Minor Threat, Fugazi. I watched him build Dischord pretty much at his mom’s kitchen table. He was like, “Okay, it’s going to look like this; we’re going to do this,” and suddenly he’s got a mailing address. There’s mail order. He has to sell things, and how are you going to do that ethically, fairly? How do people get paid?

I watched him navigate all these obstacles that keep you from being a fair and decent person. He’s quite good at it, but it’s his inherent goodness that he brought to the table, and what you see with Dischord and all the bands and all the music he’s produced, which is just unfathomable, the amount of records Ian has produced — it’s kind of crazy when you see how many records have his name on the back — he comes at it from the same basic core.

I’ve gotten the hang of it; I’ve got my own little band, and the second record on Dischord was my band. I financed that record myself; Dischord didn’t have the money, and my band mates didn’t either. I’m the one who had the full-time job. I financed the recording, the pressing — all of it was me, all $800 of it. But in those days, that was a lot of money. When you’re working for $3.65 an hour, that’s a lot of money, but you just do it.

By the time I got to Black Flag, I had an idea: got to have a mailing list, got to be able to get to your people, and all of that. But SST was more formed; Ian got inspiration from SST. He used to get on the phone with Chuck Dukowski and get crib notes. I remember that he was like, “I called Chuck Dukowski of Black Flag today.” I said, “You did what?” These people were from Mars to us. We were like relative hicklets. I said, “How’d you do that?” He said, “I looked them up in the directory.” I said, “You can do that?” I wouldn’t have even thought of that.

You know Ian; he’ll meet anybody. Nothing really blows his hair back. He could meet the president and go, “Oh hey, I voted for you.” Nothing really gets at him. So he called Chuck and said, “Well, here’s what I’m doing,” and sent him a couple Dischord records; I think that’s how Black Flag first heard me. We sent him my little record.

The Development of His Direct-Mail Marketing Plan

Henry Rollins: Anyway, SST was more developed, had more catalog, had more time in that arena, and was very ambitious. We were running at it; Ian was finding his way through the forest, and SST was taking the machetes to the dense undergrowth looking to build a super highway. All of a sudden, you’re doing band practice, and they gave me assignments: “You’re going to be managing all the press; you’re going to take care of all the incoming mail.”

All of a sudden, I had this really full-time, archival, public-relations-man thing going. I’m the one relating to the fans; I’m the one keeping all the fliers. I put that job on myself. I’m the one going through all the mail, getting mail orders, fan mail, taking down everyone’s address for the mailing list, and writing up the newsletter, things like that. It was all part and parcel of doing everything yourself.

You realize very quickly how much labor is involved; you want to do it on your own? Okay, it might very well be more than you thought it was going to be. You’d better be ready, and you’d better be ready to be ready. For me, that’s what it was. It was like, wow, you jump out of the plane, and you land really hard. The first fiscal quarter — for the first three or six months of Black Flag — for me, was doing more push-ups than you’re able to and still somehow being able to do them.

Brian Clark: That’s an amazing story. In my mind, I always thought of Dischord and SST as being these comparable, running-at-the-same-time movements in different parts of the country. I had no idea that Dischord was the startup compared to SST.

Henry Rollins: We bought the first Black Flag record before there was anything else, before there was a Dischord anything. Certainly, SST isn’t the only independent label in the world; we were buying independent-label records from bands in D.C. In fact, it was Skip Groff at Yesterday and Today Records who had a label called Limp. He gave us the address to send your tape to get it made into a record; we didn’t know. Skip produced my first record because he showed me and Ian where the studio is that Ian still works at to this day — different building, same guy.

Skip had a local record store, and local record stores, as you might know, were responsible for most of the independent labels — at least a large fraction of the independent music labels — in the ’50s and onwards. A lot of your doo-wop records? That was local bands, like local to the area code or zip code; the person putting out the record was the local record store.

The same as doo-wop label Time Square Records – that’s the Times Square Record store located at Times Square in New York. That was a guy; these kids would come in, and they’d literally sing a capella for him. He’s like, “Okay, let’s get you guys in the studio. We’ll get you a rhythm section, a piano player, and we’ll do this. I’ll put out the record.”

Some of these independent labels, you’d get songs that are epic, but they started being sold out of a record store with super local distribution. The guy comes in his car, picks up a hundred of yours, with a hundred of the other guy’s, and drives it over to the next county, puts it in jukeboxes, and puts it in the record stores. All of that is super homegrown.

Where this is key, in Dischord, is that what we were doing was in no way new, but for us it was new. I remember when Ian and I first walked into the recording studio where he did his first demo, and we were looking around like pilgrims: “Wow, look, microphones.” It was all new land. It was a very interesting new world for us. We got the hang of it very quickly.

The DIY thing was imprinted upon me as the way to do it from the get-go and to have that idea of empowerment by age 18, or thereabouts, is incredible. It’s very instructive to be able to see what you can do, because a lot of people are so awed by everything from a major label to a huge production studio like Warner Brothers, that they are cowed by the immense size and proficiency of these amazing corporations. Warner Brothers, Sony, they can turn a film around, or an album. They can probably rebuild a bridge or send a man to the moon at this point.

But you? With your idea and your crazy garage band? What do you think you’re going to do? The idea of doing nothing probably kept a lot of really good music, independent film, literature, poetry, comic books, or whatever else, from coming to fruition. Because you look at everything and go, “I could never do that.” Thankfully, I was around people who went, “Oh, yeah? Watch this,” because, on my own, I would never have done that. I did not come upon it naturally; it was taught to me.

Brian Clark: Yes. Excellent. I remember Black Flag broke up in the summer of 1986. I had just graduated from high school, heading to college. I was like, “that figures.” College ended up this weird mash-up of Guns ‘N’ Roses and Jane’s Addiction, which was the odd dichotomy of Los Angeles at that time.

Here’s the story that I hear: that you wanted to write your first book, and you did. You needed a company to do that, so you named it after your birthday, 2.13.61.

How His First Book Was Published

Henry Rollins: Yeah, that was going to be one book. I was being witty. I thought I was being funny. I’ll name it after myself, because it is me, and I liked the way the numbers sounded. I felt there would be no other way to name anything that would get to my DNA more than my birthday.

I publish this first little paperback book after saving money from doing a couple runs of a phantom staple book, which, with things like that, you make 500, and I’ll sell them all. Well, you sold off eight, and the rest you just give away. I did two runs of 500 of that, which gave me enough money, along with saving my per diem money from being on tour, to make my first paperback.

I got some good advice from a local promoter; he said, “You need a DBA,” which I did not know what a ’doing business as’ thing was. He goes, “Here’s how you do it.” I still have my DBA to this day; I never even opened it. It’s in an envelope — you take out an ad in the paper — and I’m sure my people have come in behind all that, and squared it up so that everything is accountable, but that’s how I started.

My first real identity was a P.O. Box: P.O. Box 246, Redondo Beach, California. Now, people can reach me, and I can now take out small ads in fanzines, or “I’ll trade you one of these books for an ad in my fanzine,” okay. You’d barter. All of the sudden, there’s people know where to get to you. You basically have a presence. This is obviously before the Internet. While I was doing Black Flag on SST Records, I had my own company going, but with no other artist than me on it, it was relatively easy to run. I’d write and publish and store the inventory wherever I was living at the time. It’d be like me and 1500 books I’d be hauling to whatever hall I was camping out in.

Brian Clark: Yeah, so your original spoken word recordings are all published by your company. The first iteration of the Rollins Band, was the record released by that company, right?

Henry Rollins: I basically bought and paid for the first few records. Then we signed to a small independent label, and we did one record with them, and then we left; but the first two, three, four, or five — I paid for. Then we did one on Texas Hotel, and then at the same time I’m doing spoken word albums as well, and I obviously paid for all of those.

Then we signed to a label called Imago Records, which is a major label through BMG. That’s when things changed in that it’s no longer DIY; it is DIY got you to a major label. But at that time, the major label was a very good thing for us, because you have this hyper-ambitious band with what I think are good songs, but our megaphone — you know, my cannon to get me to you — is only so big. The record will go 30 feet as far as I can throw it, but with a major label getting behind you, now you have some wallop. If you have something good, now you just have a bigger engine to take it down the road.

I leapt at the chance to be on a major, and I got some pushback. “What are you selling out?” I go, “Well no, actually, I’m trying to be sustainable.” Maybe I should have stuck to my guns and said “Okay, maybe I should be like Ian, and just triple down on having a record company and staff up and try to do it that way,” but looking at what I achieved in the major label world, I truly think I did the right thing.

Brian Clark: That leads me to my next question because it’s very interesting, because think about back to the early ‘90s. Nevermind happened, In Utero happened; everyone knows that Nirvana never happens without bands like Black Flag, okay?

Henry Rollins: That never happens without a band like MC5 or The Stooges.

Brian Clark: Yeah, right, you’re absolutely right. There’s a long lineage, but did the mainstream world ever actually acknowledge that until after the fact?

Henry Rollins: That happens all the time.

Brian Clark: Of course.

Henry Rollins: People are bigger after they’re dead.

Brian Clark: Right. So in ’94, instead of being ignored by radio and MTV, you’re all over MTV, right? The Rollins Band is huge. You were at, I think, the first Lollapalooza — I was there in some city, I think Houston, and yet Get in the Van is self-published. Did you try to get the big book deal? Why wouldn’t they want Henry Rollins and his book?

The Trip from DIY Scrapper to Grammy-winning Performer

Henry Rollins: They probably did. We never sought book deals. I think management was probably too afraid to approach me, because anything to do with management, management gets a piece of the action. I think if management said, “Hey, let’s try and get you on Random House,” he was probably afraid I would have come at him with a stick, which, I wouldn’t have done, but I wouldn’t have said “yes.” I probably would have looked at him like, “Are you crazy?” because at that point, I had a three-person staff, an office, and we had distribution. We were in the mix. We were doing very well — a very sturdy independent company.

It very well could have been that, say, Get in the Van had come out on whatever major publisher, it could have been epic. I did license Get in the Van the audiobook to Time Warner. I licensed it, I retained all the rights, but I said, “Well, you’ve got it for five years.” They did that deal, and that actually won a Grammy.

Brian Clark: Yeah, I remember that, which is amazing.

Henry Rollins: It’s crazy seeing that thing in our office. It looks like this weird … “You? That?” It was one of the oddest Grammy awards ever given. A guy like me, writing a book like that, gets a Grammy? That’s just crazy. But, I’ve never been tempted to turn over my back catalog to another company.

I have done two books that were not on my imprint. One was a buddy of mine, over at, I think, Random House. He said, “You know, I work at a really big publishing house, and I’m a fan of yours.” He’s a really good guy. He said, “Look, let’s do a best-of, a portable Henry Rollins. Let me put it out here, and it will get people to your catalog.” He just liked me, and he said, “I just want more people to read your books, and you’re never going to get the same impact with your label that I have with mine, so let me use my label to help get people to yours.” This is one of the more benevolent things a guy could have done for another guy. That’s amazing; he’s a really good person.

And that book, The Portable Henry Rollins, has gotten a lot of people to the rest of my catalog. I sign copies of that book all the time at shows. For a lot of people, that’s the one book of mine they have. They go, “Yeah, I know you have other books but I’ve never … ” I’m like, “Eh, you will, or you won’t.”

A couple of years ago, I finished a photo book, and I showed it to Heidi. She said, “Good book.” I said, “So, when do you want to put it out?” She said, “Well, let’s not put it out on this company.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Photo books are murder to set up. It’s just so much of a cash outlay.” She said, “Look, let’s license it; let’s get an agent, and let’s license the title,” and I said, “Well we don’t have to endure bleeding out that much money to produce it.”

Like I told you before, Heidi and I have been working together a long time; her ideas, about 99.999 percent of the time, are the best idea. I was like, “Okay”; we got an agent, and the book got placed at a very good publishing house called Chicago Review, and the book does incredibly well.

Brian Clark: There’s this theme through your career. In my world, you have some people who use DIY media, and they really want to break into traditional media, whatever that means anymore. Some people have been incredibly successful at it, because they’re good, but they don’t want to ask permission; they want to take their own path, whether by necessity or preference.

You’ve done much the same thing, but you do have a show with KCRW, which is a fantastic station, and you do have the History Channel, a show which my kids only know Henry Rollins through, because they’re not old enough yet to listen to Damaged or anything else. You’ve been in the films; when I was thinking about this interview, I was so reminded of your cameo on Californication as yourself, and Hank Moody’s over there ragging on bloggers. I’m like, “Dude, I hope that’s not what he’s thinking about us.”

The role in Sons of Anarchy, could you play someone more opposite of Henry? I mean, is that a kick for you or what?

Henry Rollins: I got some interesting letters about that. “Henry, how could you?”

Brian Clark: But it’s acting! Like you just said, I think it shows range, if anything.

Henry Rollins: Yeah, I mean it wasn’t always pleasant. The guy was despicable, but it was an interesting world to live in for six months. The thing I think is worth mentioning is, I talked about preparing the book and licensing it to a Chicago Review, or doing Get in the Van the audiobook and licensing it to Time Warner. You might think, well, where’s the DIY in that? All the parts were produced here in this office. Everything was DIY-produced and assembled.

I think it’s not a bad idea necessarily to take your homemade whiskey and get it distribution, because the product is still the same, you just have to be careful of how it is rolled out to people. I don’t have a problem with coming up with something here, like the photobook, or Heidi said, “Look, let someone else deal with the six figure overhead for producing the photobook, and let’s just concentrate on the next photobook.” I’m like, “Wow, okay,” and that turned into an amazing idea.

Yet the book you see — it’s called Occupants, if you ever encounter that book — what you see is what I wanted you to see. There was nothing held back. There’s no image that I sent them where the book company went , “Oh, no; oh no no no no.” That would have been a deal breaker for me. That would have been the DIY going, “Oh, really? You’re censoring me? I’m out.”

I told them when I met them — I went to Chicago to meet with them — and I said, “I don’t do censorship.” They said, “Oh, we know who we’re dealing with.” I said, ”Okay.” I said, “I’m not trying to be a tough guy, but if you’re going to have problems with anything I’m going to do, either you trust me, and you let this happen, or let’s just tear anything up now and not aggravate each other. We’re adults, and we’re professionals, and we’re all hyper-busy, why waste each other’s time?” They said, “No, you do your thing, and we’ll be here to get it going,” and me and this editor worked with each other face-to-face, in each other’s grills for months, and we put that book together. His editing and his help actually made it a far better book than what I could have done. His help was immeasurable.

Brian Clark: I think that’s what I was trying to ask; in one sense, it may seem that your tolerance of traditional media companies might be thin, and yet I think that people are more scared of you than perhaps they ought to be, because you seem like a fairly agreeable person when it comes down to it.

Henry Rollins: Yeah, I just want to get the work done, and I guess to some people, I might be intense or whatever, but I’m not the one getting drunk and punching holes in walls and shaking my wife. That’s just so not ever going to be me.

Why DIY Media Producers Should Seek Massive Distribution

Henry Rollins: The point I want to hammer in is that the intent of the book, whether it came out on my imprint or in Chicago Review, which is a very fine company, the intent was still the same. I want to make this book, I want you to check it out. I want to connect with you via this book. The intent of the actual product, the meal, was cooked with love; it’s just getting the wider audience to serve it to.

You might find this fascinating. If you have an original pressing of the Damaged record, which are fairly hard to come by now, you will see a sticker on the back — a hand-placed sticker — and that sticker is covering the MCA logo. What’s SST — little ol’ SST Records — doing with a massive MCA logo on the back of the record? Greg and Chuck did a distribution deal for that album with MCA. This, to them, was the epitome. This was the zenith of the idea, to take your underground, DIY, unapologetic, unrestrained effort, and give it the biggest possible distribution. It backfired, because eventually, the president of MCA heard the record and went, “No.”

Unfortunately for us, we had already printed the cover, so we had to go down to the pressing plant and put stickers on 25,000 records ourselves.

Brian Clark: Oh, my God.

Henry Rollins: It was me; Black Flag members; Raymond Pettibon, the great artist; Spot, the producer; members of Saccharine Trust; the Minutemen; and any other band or friend. It was a huge undertaking. We’re in some warehouse with pallets of 12-inch boxes of records. It took days. “I’m hungry,” “Shut up.” You’re like, “Okay,” because we have to get it done. That’s the reason you see the stickers.

Even in those days, Black Flag was trying to get the big distribution, because, in our minds, why shouldn’t we be next to Led Zeppelin? What, we’re not in the house? “I went to a record store and couldn’t find your record; why not?” We should be as big as ABBA. Screw you; we’re comin’. When we found out that that wasn’t going to happen, we’re like, ”Okay, we just have to get better with independent distribution,” which, for an ambitious band in those days, was so frustrating, because these distributors, their hands are tied. Everything is minimized, and truncated, and small, and tied off, and nailed to the floor where the bands are rip-roaring with ambition.

You’re young, you’re angry, you’re writing four songs a minute; everything is at this incredible metabolic rate. Everything around you is like, “I’m sorry, the battery ran out … My mom said I couldn’t go.” All these kind of piddly excuses for why you can’t take your Lamborghini out into the world and floor it. You’re like, “No, there’s a thing, the guy said you have to sign this.” There’s a lot of frustration, but the autonomy negated the frustration. You realize the frustration was part of the thing that kept you burning the midnight oil. “Okay, you’re not going to let me in? I’m just going to build a bigger ladder. Hell, I’ll dig underneath the wall and come in, but I’m comin’.”

Eventually, you find a way to break through, and that’s the differences from them to now. Ambition is the same, innovation’s the same, in that, some people are going to come up with really great ideas like Twitter; things doing pretty well. But nowadays, with the Internet and the ability to reach a massive amount of people, you have hundreds of thousands of listeners to your podcast on any given time.

Imagine trying to reach them through the USPS, like we used to do with the mailout. We used to lick stamps and put them on the newsletter and send them out in hopes that someone would read it. We’d get about 20 percent of those things coming back two weeks later, return-to-sender, because that guy had moved. I’m like, “Wow, how much money did we just spend on that? That was hundreds of dollars.”

Now, we have a publishing company. We had to teach ourselves how to sort zone mail to save money. It’s a bitch to learn to do that, but we did it. You’d send out thousands of these very ambitious 11-by-17, double-sided, laid-out, beautiful mailing list newsletter things, to watch duffle bags of them come back. You’re like, “Okay, that was like, $11-1300 we are never getting back.” For a little company, you might as well just light our cars on fire. We just couldn’t afford it.

The small DIY person had a great idea: “I want you to hear my band.” Bandcamp. Let me hear your record for free, and if I like it, I’ll buy it. At least for me, I have bought so many records from bands because they let me hear their music online. I bought seven records from some crazy Russian band the other day, because I could listen to all their music for free online. I heard couple of songs and bought their entire catalog. That’s the big difference between when I was young, and the young innovative DIY person now.

Brian Clark: I alluded to that at the beginning; it’s almost like, “What’s your excuse?” You’ve got this amazing opportunity. That’s really what turned me away from being an attorney a long time ago, thank God, to give it all up and try this Internet thing, and it worked out, but only because I was willing to do it all myself for a while and then pretty much stick to my guns.

Let me ask you this, because there’s this example of Black Flag and punk in the ’80s as being this really marginalized subculture compared to the mainstream. Now we live in a world where everything is fragmented, every little world view, and everyone can choose who they want to listen to. On one hand, that’s an amazing opportunity. On the other hand, you have to realize that you have to speak to your people only, and ignore the rest of the world, and a lot of people struggle with that.

It brings to mind, when my parents walked in my room and heard Six Pack, and they did not detect the irony. Neither did a lot of my less-than-stellar friends in high school, who were like, “Yeah, let’s get drunk.” They didn’t get that it was sarcastic. How do you deal with being misunderstood? Does it bother you?

Henry Rollins: Years ago, about 20 some years ago, I met a PR person who became my PR person for many, many years. She said, “You’re not all that well-represented in the media. They have this idea that you’re some drooling stupid psychopath when you can actually articulate yourself pretty well. It’s going to take a while, but we’re going to teach these people that you can finish a sentence. You’re going to do a lot of interviews for the next few years, and it’s going to be a lot of work, and it’s going to take a lot of time, and it’s going to be to your great benefit.”

The Worst Thing You Can Do and Be Online

Henry Rollins: In those years, things changed dramatically. So, I think one must be very, very clear, in a world where we communicate all the time, but we don’t always speak. What’s funny in an email might be sarcastic to the other person, whereas I think I’m being funny, and I somehow offend you. If you know this, if you go online, movie stars, politicians, et cetera apologize all the time:”I’m sorry that thing I said went over the line.” Did it? Well, that’s a whole other discussion of what that line is. “I thought I was being funny.” No one thought you were funny. Whoops. When that whoops is a tweet that is was read by 750,000 people, that’s a big oops. And it’s a big mess to clean up.

What do you do? Do you not say anything? Do you censor yourself? Or, do you just maybe take a moment before you open your big mouth realizing the stage, the platform on which you can now launch invective, or anything else, is huge. People are reading; they are listening. They wake up in the morning and their brains are moving.

I try to choose my words carefully. Believe it or not, the Internet, and the fact that everyone’s in each other’s business if they want, has not necessarily led me to censor my thoughts, but to actually try and develop them more, and be very, very, clear when I speak.

Also, for different publications — Rolling Stone Australia, the LA Weekly, different newspapers hire me for a thing here a thing there — a bunch of people are going to read that, so you better really read it over again, and make sure that’s what you want to say. For me, the idea of clarity, and clarity of purpose, is very important in the DIY world. To me, we do a product, no matter what you’re doing, if you’re not making the world a better place, if you’re not making it cleaner, safer, happier, kinder, less painful … screw you.

That’s all well and good, but if you are going to innovate, make my world better, and if you want me to buy something, sell me good stuff. Not only will I tell a friend, but I’ll come back. But don’t be a jerk and don’t fake me out. Don’t lie to me. A guy like me? I’m very easy to fool, because I want to believe you; I want to think, he’s or she’s got a great idea. I’m in. If you want to run around, do a run around on me, you can do it, because I’m not going to please you. I’m not going to always be looking.

So if you’re going to enter into this brave world of entrepreneurship or innovation, I think the best ideas of these people come from a basic goodness. Even Oppenheimer, who had some big regrets at the end of his life — a lot a questions at the end of Oppenheimer’s life — he went at it out of science and innovation and curiosity. The DIY person these days can touch a lot of people. You should be careful with that sword you can very easily wield with the startup of a website.

You hear — I don’t know if you ever do, and I wouldn’t recommend it – there are some extreme podcast people as far as white separatist groups, and extreme political opinions as to what foreign policy should be, or the way Americans should conduct themselves — stuff that is really repellent. You know, arguably, I defend it, because I defend the First Amendment, but the Internet allows a neo-Nazi group to get to every single person who is so inclined, who has as little as a cell phone.

If you want to do good, you might be able to do a lot of good, but if you want to do bad, you can wreak havoc. To me, the worst thing is to wreak mediocrity. If you can be ‘eh,’ then you can reach a lot of people with your ‘eh.’ I can’t stand eh, I can’t stand it. Life is too short, so either blow my mind or leave me alone.

Brian Clark: Well put. This has been excellent, Henry, and I want to be respectful of your time, but if you can give us just a quick preview of what you’re thinking about your presentation in May.

What Henry Is Going to Deliver at Authority Rainmaker

Henry Rollins: What I want to do is I want to come completely from the truth, which would be my experience — my very long experience — in the DIY world. The good parts, the bad parts, what has succeeded for me, what I learned. I’d love to save any interested person in that audience some time, some time and some heartache: “I got a broken nose over this one; I think it’d be great if you didn’t get one.” I’m going to tell you when the things fell down and went boom, so maybe you can write that one down, and never do anything like that, and not waste great amounts of your time and money.

I’m no expert; I’m no business analyst. But I’ve been in the business world with profit and loss and all of that for many years, yet I come at it with a very punk-rock, DIY, analog attitude. I want your time and attention. I want to make really good stuff for you. Good radio, good book, good whatever: I want you to dig it. However you like that thing that I do, I want you to like it, be able to use it, and have it be a vitamin for your life. Getting that good intent into a thing that gets across to someone else, that’s an interesting journey.

I’m going to talk about my personal journeys on all of that: the why, the how, and the fact that for almost thirty years now, I have been sustaining companies that are benevolent engines. They do good things and have allowed me to do incredible things that I never thought would come my way. Heck, I raise money for causes because people who know me for my company, they now want me to do this charity thing. The doors to all of this DIY stuff is opened, where, by thinking for yourself, by being brave, you can have some interesting times, and I dare to say some fun. So many people don’t aspire to much; you can really unleash the great energy of your brains.

The fact that you are really good at something — people should be able to capitalize on that, as should you. That’s what I think should be the paradigm of the DIY spirit; let’s do good stuff. Especially in this age of things being so rapidly uploaded and accessible; let’s give ’em really good stuff. Maybe the people in that room can make this the best century we’ve ever had. Maybe this will be the most war–free century we’ve had — we’re not off to a great start — but maybe it’s these people with their great inventions who turn the thing around.

I’m certainly not looking to people of my dad’s age for innovation; he must be 80-something by now. He’s not a dumb guy — he’s a PhD — but at 80-something years of age, you know, I’m not expecting him to get up, launch out of his chair in the morning like I’m looking at some 23-year-old. I presume I’m talking to potential leaders and people who are going to influence others, like me; I’m always looking for someone to tell me something good. That’s what I think I’m speaking to, and that’s basically what I’m going to be putting across.

Brian Clark: Excellent. I love it. Henry, thank you so much for your time and your wisdom, and again, as I promised before we went on the air, I will not be a big freak of a fanboy when I get to meet you in May, but I am looking forward to it, you can tell.

Henry Rollins: I can, and I really appreciate that. I must apologize again for being 18 minutes late calling you; that’s so not me. I like to say I put the punk in punctual. These auditions get you really nervous.

Brian Clark: Just so everyone knows, Henry is reading for a new role, and he was so absorbed in the script, he was a tad late. I couldn’t care less, frankly.

Henry Rollins: Well, I appreciate that, but I get so nerved up about this stuff that I forget everything around me. I looked up at the clock, I’m like, “No.” I don’t like to be that guy, but I was, so thank you for having some room.

Brian Clark: The punk in punctual — I’m going to remember that.

Henry Rollins: Yeah, I love that. I hope I came up with that. It was either me or Mark Twain.

Brian Clark: (laugh) All right everyone, that wraps it up for this week. Hopefully we will be seeing you in May in Denver at the conference. Henry’s going to shut down two days of incredible education with the kick in the ass you need to get it done. If not, I will at least talk to you next week. Take care.