Fugazi: How to put on a rock show outside corporate culture

By Mark Guarino

The shows sold out with zero advertising. About six thousand fans filled the venue, sponsor-free, over two nights. Tickets were kept at $6 each and sold without service charges. Volunteers worked the hall to keep down costs.

To the sports fan, this would be like the Cubs winning the World Series. Or to the politico, finding out which presidential candidate won the Florida ballot count once and for all.

For the music consumer in the year 2001, it’s a phenomenon just as unrealistic. But at the Congress Theater this weekend, that’s exactly what took place, more in spite of the music industry than because of it. That’s because the headliner was Fugazi, the Washington D.C. punk band that has made it its policy to bypass the conventional trappings of corporate rock culture at whatever cost.

Because of its position — which was shared Saturday and Sunday by the Chicago band Shellac and the Amsterdam band The Ex — Fugazi has relegated itself to the fringe where it stands with less and less company. Now more than ever, doing business outside of the mainstream means being the black sheep — or white, depending which way you look at it.

Consider these facts. Five companies (Time Warner, BMG, Sony, Seagrams, EMI) control all the major labels in the world. The artists on those labels are broadcast over the 1,200 major market radio stations owned by one company (Clear Channel Communications) that also owns the one company (SFX Entertainment) that operates the majority of the nation’s concert venues, whose tickets are largely brokered by another single company (Ticketmaster).

That means the fees you pay, the music you hear and the venues you attend are all chosen for you and controlled by just eight corporations. While a band’s popularity can be due to its own merits, it is now becoming also true that a band becomes a household name thanks to the millions of dollars spent to make it that way.

In other words, your kid’s a fan of Limp Bizkit because they can’t avoid not being a fan of Limp Bizkit.

Fighting the system has not been popular. Pearl Jam famously testified before a government committee in 1994, arguing that Ticketmaster was a monopoly. The Justice Department ruled not so. The current lawsuit railed by Hole’s Courtney Love against Seagrams/Universal is being closely watched because her case maintains that so much corporate merging makes artists contracts invalid after seven years. She is even calling for artists to unionize to protect their rights from what she considers fraudulent accounting practices that have become the norm.

Don’t expect that to happen any time soon. Most marquee artists have responded in silence to the recent corporate grip on the music industry, mostly because their careers are so closely twined inside the system.

The majority of activism has been found in the indie rock community, where convictions are more sacred — and plentiful — than big paydays.

“This is the probably the largest (show) we can do in the country,” said Fugazi frontman Ian MacKaye before his two-hour set Saturday. “People have said it would never have been possible. It’s always possible. It takes courage.”

For organizers Heather Whinna and Steve Albini, the rock engineer and producer as well as frontman of Shellac, it also took a healthy dose of ingenuity. For starters, the Congress — a grand, early century concert palace located outside the Logan Square neighborhood — is independently-owned, untouched by SFX and Jam Productions, the two main concert operators in Chicago.

Promotion costs were zero since the bill was popular enough to sell itself. The tickets were offered by mail or at the two Reckless Records locations in the city. Even security was handled free of charge — Albini called upon his friends in Jesus People U.S.A., a Christian commune in the Uptown neighborhood (he recorded one of their bands once). They sent about 15 volunteers to provide what was called “non-violent security.”

“I think it’s just friendship,” explained Christopher Wiitala, 21, who stood at the door taking tickets. “We’re all people. We’ll help people if they need it.”

Inside the building foyer was space reserved for 25 independent labels, stores and non-profit groups to set up shop, just for the price of a ticket. “We’re here more to help the cause,” said Lisa Turallo, publicist for Drag City, a Chicago indie label. “For all the kids coming in from all over the region, it’s an event.”

Like the event itself, the four-and-a-half hour’s worth of music colored outside of lines.

Shellac featured the dirge-like guitar riffing of Albini — who has worked as a recording engineer with major label bands like Bush, Nirvana and the Jimmy Page and Robert Plant reunion, as well as countless independents. He and bassist Bob Weston lunged backwards and forwards, upping the emotional ante while drummer Todd Trainer whipped his drums before ejecting from his seat to smash a cymbal hung high over his head.

Entering its third decade, the Dutch political punk band The Ex was just as ferocious, although fueled by a touch of mad, free-form poetry. With the vocals of G.W. Sok fading away, guitarists and bassist Terrie, Andy and Luc (the band frowns on surnames) collectively spun, riffed and peaked on cue with the crazy team energy of a European soccer team.

Fugazi’s theatrical bent was left up to guitarist Guy Picciotto, who often broke down into a one-man tornado onstage. The band’s stop/start breaks, choppy guitar noise, reggae grooves and chanting choruses were physical and powerful. They were also the only band I know of whose song subjects included gentrification and WTO protestors.

But to fan Andrew Schroeer, 22, of Chicago, he wouldn’t expect any less. “They represent the complete opposite to the music industry in general. I would like them even if they turned into hypocrites and sold tickets for $40. But they adhere to their principles. It makes me like them even more,” he said.

His friend, Julie Yeagle, 23, chimes in as if he forgot one thing: “They also put on a great show.”

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