“Can you call me in five minutes though? Because I really have to poop right now.”
The record industry is getting flushed into the shitter and this week we catch up with one of the guys holding the plunger. Continuing our investigation into the failing and flailing business of music, we find Fat Mike on both the toilet and a precarious point in his career. Having made a living off punk rock for over 25 years, he fronts the infamous party outfit NOFX and runs fiercely independent punk imprint Fat Wreck Chords. Times are tough for both those who make music and those who sell music and doubly so for those who without a big corporate bankroll.
In part one of our three part feature, we rap with Fat Mike about his high brow bathroom, the new record and his dramatic new initiative to save the punk rock record.
Dream Not Of Today: This is Rob from (d)N0t and I’m connecting overseas with Fat Mike, frontman of the infamous punkers NOFX over the Atlantic and on tour in support of their new release Coaster which dropped Tuesday. Last night was Leeds UK – how was it?
Fat Mike: Oh, it was really fun.
(d)N0t: Good time at the Academy?
FM: Yeah, Leeds was actually one of the best shows so far.
(d)N0t: Righteous. Now you’re coming up on two nights in London right?
(d)N0t: Have they both sold out?
FM: The first one is. The second one is a few hundred away. There are actually two shows on this tour that didn’t sell out.
(d)N0t: Well, it’s Europe. What are you going to do?
FM: I’m still pooping, by the way.
(d)N0t: Hey, that’s good to know.
FM: I just made the phone reach, that’s why it might sound a little echo-y.
(d)N0t: Right on.
FM: But, you know, I do my best thinking on the toilet.
(d)N0t: I’m glad we’re getting you at your best time during the day.
FM: Yeah, yeah. [laughs]
(d)N0t: We’re actually chatting with you today about your day gig as a punk rock record mogul. The San Francisco-based label Fat Wreck Chords recently announced something pretty dramatic with your pricing. What happened?
FM: Well, we’ve been talking about it for a while. All our back catalog is now under eight dollars in retail stores and all new releases are gonna be under ten dollars. It’s a pretty drastic price change for us, where everything used to be fourteen dollars.
(d)N0t: Now dropping for $8 for most CDs, $8 for a lot of vinyl I can see in your catalog…
FM: Yeah, most everything is under $10. And it’s not just in the US, it’s worldwide. Some countries it’s a little more, but it’s generally about the same price worldwide. So it’s really cheap pricing all around the world.
(d)N0t: Holy jeez. What drove the cut?
FM: Well, you know people say, “Oh, because the economy is so bad right now.” But, it’s really not that, because in the record industry the recession started four years ago. Our industry got hit a long time ago. Record sales have been going down and down and down and down. I was thinking, “Hey this is punk rock. This is a community.” People have to recognize the difference between majors and indies and major bands and independent bands. And when you buy a record from an indie, you are supporting the label and the band. It’s not going to some faceless company that doesn’t care about music, they just care about making a profit. So, I just figured if we make our prices cheap, I don’t think people are going to feel bad about paying $8 for a CD in a store. I think they are going to feel good about supporting their band knowing that half that money is going to support the band and the label.
(d)N0t: Right on.
FM: And you should. You know, when I was a kid, sure, I taped records from my friends. But I also felt when I was buying a CD from the band, they’re actually getting it and you’re supporting your community. Punk rock is a community.
(d)N0t: This new reality in the music business is reflected pretty heavily in the new record Coaster, isn’t it? The cover art speaks pretty loudly.
FM: [laughs] Yeah. After doing a little research, we found that using a CD as a coaster doesn’t really work that well because the condensation goes right through it. So kids, you know, it may not be the best idea to actually use the CD as a coaster.
(d)N0t: I think it all depends on the drink. If you take your whiskey neat, it’s not all that bad.
FM: Yeah, but then you don’t really need a coaster then, do you?
(d)N0t: Fair enough.
FM: We are making a coaster set though of actual real coasters with the album cover.
(d)N0t: [laughs] Now a couple weeks on an interview on MySpace, you mentioned that people aren’t buying coasters like they used to.
FM: [laughs] Yeah.
(d)N0t: How big has the coaster business declined for Fat specifically. Are we talking like 50% or 60% or 80%?
FM: Actually, I don’t know. I’m not a spreadsheet guy…
(d)N0t: Cause you look like a spreadsheet guy.
FM: [laughs] Yeah. No, seriously, the three to four hours a week I go into Fat Wreck Chords, I really spend that time usually eating. [laughs] And hanging out by the water cooler. So, I can tell you like NOFX for instance, we had four records in a row that sold about 450 to 500 thousand copies. And then Wolves in Wolves Clothing was the first real drop we saw. That one did like 270k. And we don’t know what the new one is going to do, but our last live one did just over 100k. So we’re thinking Coaster’s probably gonna do somewhere around 200,000. So, there’s significant drops.
(d)N0t: I mean, that’s almost falling off a cliff.
FM: And the thing about NOFX is our live shows haven’t dropped at all. In fact, they’ve probably gotten bigger. So it’s like we’re getting bigger crowds, but we’re selling half the records.
FM: Which isn’t actually that bad. Selling half of what we used to isn’t that bad. But Punk in Drublic sold over a million, so we’re at a quarter of that. But we reached a plateau of selling about 450,000. And then the record industry fell apart.
(d)N0t: It seems a very similar experience to the guys in Less Than Jake with their recent self-release. They mentioned pretty loudly and pretty publicly that GNV/FLA dropped off a cliff compared to their previous releases on Warner Bros.
FM: That’s the thing, self-releasing is not a smart move for a lot of bands. Everyone is talking about doing it and it makes sense if you’re Nine Inch Nails or Radiohead, because you can get the press and exposure and make it work. But when you’re a smaller band, I think you really need some kind of label to work for you to get your records in stores and get the kind of exposure and press it deserves. I mean, I think independent labels still play a really important role in the music industry. And it’s also, if you’re an unsigned band, people don’t take you that seriously.
(d)N0t: That’s true.
FM: If you get signed, people think “Oh, this band is signed to Epitaph or to Fat, they must be pretty good. I’ll check them out.” And if you’re not signed, “Oh we’re choosing to put out our own records.” You’re just saying that because you couldn’t get signed, bitch. That’s the people’s feelings. I’m gonna try to make this label thing work for as long as I can, just cause I like to do it anyway. It’s a nice little hobby of mine. [laughs]
(d)N0t: It beats crocheting I guess.
FM: Well, it’s funny, because there was about six years where I was making a killing off the record business, but now my bread and butter is NOFX. That’s where it belongs anyway.
(d)N0t: I see.
FM: I’m a better performer and a drunk than I am a record executive.
(d)N0t: That comes as a big shock to everybody I think.
(d)N0t: I wanted to talk specifically about the…
FM: I’m wiping my ass right now, by the way.
(d)N0t: Good to know.
FM: The pooping portion of this conversation is coming to an end.
(d)N0t: I guess everyone in our audience is wondering if you’re a rightie or a leftie.
FM: [laughs] I’m a rightie. But what is more important than that is I’m not a toilet paper guy. I’m babywipe all the way. I never go anywhere without a package of babywipes.
(d)N0t: Is that on your rider when you play shows?
FM: No, you know, they’re in my pocket, they’re in my suit, they’re in my coat pocket, they’re in my backpack, they’re in my suitcase. These things are fucking everywhere, man.
(d)N0t: Just a headsup, I’m never going to shake your hand. Ever.
FM: [laughs] That’s the thing with babywipes, man! They’re clean!
FM: You get everything, they’re no hangers-on with the babywipes. And at home, I mean shit. Not only at home, but at Fat Wreck Chords we have bidets. No shit. No lie.
(d)N0t: At one of the biggest punk rock indie labels in the world, you have bidets installed.
FM: Oh yeah yeah. Well, not plural, we have one. Dude, you have to have it! I mean, come on.
(d)N0t: But what’s the ettiquitte on that for the guys and the girls?
FM: They’re unisex bathrooms. I don’t think the girls like using it, and a lot of people feel funny about them - I don’t personally. Because, you know, you get a nice water stream and it cleans the butt real nice. You don’t even need to wipe afterwards, you know? You just kinda like pat off to dry.
FM: You know, it’s civilized. Come on, we may be a punk label but we’re fucking civilized. We’re not barbarians here.
(d)N0t: Are you also a green label? Does that mean you have an air dryer right next to the bidet, so you don’t use any paper products.
FM: There’s an air part of it, yeah.
FM: There is, there is! What are you laughing it? It comes from Japan. It’s called a Toto – a Toto Washlet, it’s called.
(d)N0t: I think they have those at Google.
FM: Oh yeah, in fact, have you heard of Dillinger Four?
(d)N0t: Yeah, yeah, of course.
FM: You can fact check this. When they signed to Fat Wreck Chords, my signing bonus to them was four bidets. No shit.
(d)N0t: Are you serious?
FM: I am fucking serious. You can call them and ask them. Because they were so impressed with the ones at Fat Wreck Chords, they wanted them. So I sent them all four and they all installed them. And no shit, that’s why they don’t tour very much because they don’t want to leave their bidet seats.
FM: Because you know, really you can’t go back.
(d)N0t: So every time they go out for a movie they’re like, “Well, is it two and a half hours? Do I really need to see that?”
FM: Yeah, you got to plan your day around when you go, because it’s just so right.
Tune in Wednesday for part two where we talk about the death of the album, the consumer revolt against the music industry and all the things that just got cheaper than punk rock records.