'If you work for SST records, you have to be prepared to sleep on the floor," says Jordan Schwartz, 21. That's just what Jordan and Black Flag manager Chuck Dukowski do. They sleep on the floor of the messy office in Redondo Beach, which, along with a cramped, low-ceilinged downstairs rehearsal room, serves as Black Flag's base of operations.
SST is the most important underground record label in America. As the Los Angeles Times noted not long ago, "The company [SST] has matured into a showcase for some of the best alternative rock bands in the country." In addition to Black Flag, other acts that record for SST include the Meat Puppets, the Minutemen and Hüsker Dü. In its five-year existence SST has released over forty recordings, eighteen of which are LPs. Last year alone SST released four albums by Black Flag as well as double albums by the Minutemen and by Hüsker Dü and albums by the Meat Puppets, Saccharine Trust and St. Vitus.
SST is just one of a group of underfinanced, low-budget underground labels – San Francisco's Subterranean and Minneapolis' Twin/Tone are two others – which have been recording bands that the major labels have either overlooked or dismissed as uncommercial. "Me and my friends wanted to record the punk-rock scene," says Steve Tupper, 38, explaining why he formed Subterranean Records in 1979. The label's best-known act is Flipper. "We have this viewpoint of looking at this musical underground, rather than the established or commercial acts – this feeling that there is a real musical underground, and that's where the most interesting stuff is coming from. A lot of the stuff we put out is abrasive. We like to annoy."
Like a handful of English indies – Factory, Mute and Rough Trade, for example – the American underground labels are not as interested in making money as they are in affecting culture. Which explains why a guy like Steve Tupper worked in a machine shop for several years, pouring all his extra money into Subterranean, recording bands that have absolutely no chance of ever being popular. "Our music is a real alternative to mainstream music," says Tupper. "Why that's important is that society as a whole is totally fucked. What we're looking at is using music to challenge a lot of the assumptions of what constitutes music and what constitutes an acceptable form of entertainment and expression."
SST also began in 1979, when the members of Black Flag realized that if they were going to make records, they would have to do it themselves. The first release, a Black Flag EP called Nervous Breakdown, cost $600 to record. Flipper made its now-classic first LP, Album Generic Flipper, for less than $3000. The Replacements' critically acclaimed album Let It Be cost $6000. The four full-length LPs released by Black Flag last year cost a total of $6000. Hüsker Dü's two-record set cost $3200, while the Minutemen wrapped up their two-disc masterpiece, Double Nickels on the Dime, for $1500.
To date, nearly 250,000 of Black Flag's albums, EPs and singles have been sold. The other labels – and bands – have not fared as well. Twin/T one has sold 42,000 copies of the Replacements' Let It Be and another 30,000 of the band's previous releases. Subterranean has sold about 28,000 copies of Flipper's two albums. Nearly every SST release has more than made back its cost, and the recent Hüsker Dü and Minutemen albums have won both bands voluminous amounts of critical praise.
One problem these labels share concerns independent distribution. "A record store takes one Black Flag album," says Ginn. "If they sell it, they wait until the distributor comes in a week later, then order one more Black Flag album, which they don't get for another week. Meanwhile, people come in looking for the albums, and they're not there. Or they file them in the import section. Or under New Wave. If we were distributed by a major label, we'd be filed in the rock section, which is where a lot of our fans expect to find our records. We're not New Wave."
Even if a record sells well, collecting revenues from the independent distributors is not always easy. "We've grossed almost $300,000 this year," says Chris Osgood, head of distribution at Twin/Tone. "But we've got $133,000 outstanding that I haven't been able to collect from distributors because nobody really wants to pay you until you have the next release. I'm sure that all indie labels have that problem."
One band that is tired of dealing with alternative labels is the Replacements. After considering offers from both CBS and Sire Records – the label Madonna records for – the Replacements recently made a deal with Sire. "If they leave us alone and give us a little push, they're going to have much better results than trying to steer us in directions," says Paul Westerberg. "We're all bullheaded. You know, if anyone tells us what to do, we're real immature about it, and we'll go in the exact opposite direction."
Black Flag tried working with larger labels three and a half years ago in hopes of alleviating its distribution problems. The group signed a distribution deal with Unicorn Records, an L.A. label that, in turn, had a distribution deal with MCA. But when an MCA executive heard the Black Flag album Damaged he refused to distribute it. He called it "an anti-parent record." Then Black Flag and SST got involved in a protracted legal hassle with Unicorn that kept SST from releasing any Black Flag albums until the end of 1983. So much for major labels.
Of course, neither Warner Bros, nor CBS is exactly jumping to sign Black Flag or any of the bands that record for SST or Subterranean. It's hard to imagine any major label releasing an album like Family Man and its violent cover. Or Black Flag's My War, the cover of which depicts a smiling hand puppet holding a butcher's knife. And the song "Slip It In" would definitely be considered obscene by the PTA.
Yet even without the push major labels could give them, the neopunk bands will continue, struggling along, keeping the rebel spirit alive. All of the key bands have been together for more than five years – and they plan to stick around. "I think being outside the mainstream music business is good," says Bob Mould. "When you tie yourself down to a major label, you give up all your individual control over things. You become part of a machine. It wouldn't seem right for Hüsker Dü to come out on Polymer Records."
Or, as Bill Stevenson says in Vegas before beginning the all-night drive back to Redondo Beach, "I won't sell my art for money. I've got too much of my soul in this. I'd rather kill myself."
This story is from the July 18th, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.
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