M'Lady's Records is a self-described "champion of feminist outbursts and incendiary noises" based in Portland, OR, releasing records for "discerning harlequins the world over." Formed in 2007 by Brett Lyman, the label has released music by Hysterics, Coasting, Talk Normal, Grass Widow, and Julianna Barwick, amongst many other excellent names. Earlier this year, the label instituted a radical policy: women ordering from the label now only pay 77 percent of list price for all of their mail orders. That number reflects the commonly-referenced statistic that in the U.S. workforce, women still only make about $0.77 for every dollar made by a man. Because of this program, and also because of the label's general subversive spirit, we wanted to pry open a larger conversation with Lyman about punk and labor, the digital immaterial labor that comes along with running a label in 2015, and how musicians can reconsider their relationship with economic inequality.
The Media: Tell us about the M'Lady's Records "pay gap" discount program. How and when and why the label you come up with this brilliant idea?
Brett Lyman: I grew up in Detroit, where labor rights remain the cornerstone of society, even after decades of the government and the dastardly auto company overlords managing to undo all of the hard-fought advances made by actually brave men and women. My own personal beliefs regarding feminism are deeply intersectional; I don't think that any one bias or prejudice in our society can be isolated. The struggle of women in the workplace is the same as the struggle of all working-class people, and therefore everyone's responsibility to fix it. Anyway...
Growing up, the wage gap really stuck out to me as something that could be fixed in our lifetime. JFK signed the Equal Pay Act in 1963; when I was a young person, there was amazement and embarrassment that the law seemed to be ineffectual. This is even more pronounced today, with so many people leaving school and entering a workforce that expects many people to work for free for nearly-free. I remain ashamed that I live in a country that used to at least pretend to care about working-class people. And I grew tired of personally doing nothing at all about it.
So this summer, M'Lady's announced that we'd be extending a 23% discount (23% being the optimistic end of what economists think is the current wage gap for full-time workers, men vs. women - this number obviously is much higher for people of color and people who have immigrated - if I could offer a 60% discount and keep doing what I do, I probably would, because I'm quixotic and stupid) to all American female mail order customers, extending that offer the same day to all trans mail order customers. I received over 400 hate-emails, sixteen threats of a gender class-act discrimination lawsuits, and one marriage proposal (not serious, I reckon).
I thought it was a funny way to address the problem. Not too many labels have a satirical mail order policy that simultaneously strives for righteousness. But I was astounded by the reaction. Reddit sent a bunch of orcs over via email, and the misogyny brigade that seems to control huge swaths of the digital serengeti sent out an envoy as well, so my inbox was jammed for weeks.
Ironically, most of the attention came from NPR and then the Daily Mail picking up the story, two news outlets that I despise above almost all others - NPR for their incredibly offensive mediocrity and commitment to insulting almost everyone's intelligence all the time on all subjects, and Daily Mail for being reactionary right-wing scum.
The mail order policy remains in full effect.
Clearly M'Lady's is a label that has some understanding of the ways in which underground communities must maintain a consciousness of labor politics. On a personal level how do you reconcile maintaining punk, anti-capitalist values while also wanting to have a good handle on fair labor politics and economic equality?
For me, it's pretty simple: one doesn't hire interns, and one doesn't ask anyone to work for free, or for less than a wage that they're personally comfortable with. Which means I'm currently basically the sole full-time employee here. Also, M'Lady's refuses to own masters or rights to bands' recordings, so the capitalist element can't possibly rear its ugly head down the line. We have nothing to sell, hence nothing to sell out, and no way to be compromised. I have no way to compromise or be compromised, and when it's time to stop, I'll just...stop.
One of the main things I've thought about a lot through working on this issue of The Media is the way in which the culture of non-compensated/ under-compensated immaterial digital labor that we live under (the corporatized channels of communication that make money off our clicks, inescapable targeted ads based on data mining, etc etc.) is actually tangibly bolstering economic inequality. As a record label / music person, to what extent do you feel it's your role to speak to conversations of economic inequality?
We have replaced one mafia with another in music. For decades the backbone of small record companies and so-called independents was so-called organized crime. Crime syndicates controlled the technology through which we heard music (radio stations, jukeboxes), the distribution (cut-out suppliers, most distributors, and certainly the trucking industry that everyone did and does depend upon) and the artists (via draconian contracts proffered by all record labels, which persist to this day).
I think in the past 15 years, we've seen an incredible amount of change, wherein most everyone in the Western world has their day mediated now by their phone and their computer, both of which (for the lion's share of middle-class young people) are just devices that can steal music and film and books. The companies that manufacture these machines (Apple, Samsung, Toshiba, Microsoft) and the companies that control the internet bandwidth and mobile data (whoever it is this month, there's like the big companies and then the cheap companies that seem to be obvious fronts for the NSA and CIA to monitor poor people) are the new mafia, totally legitimate and even more cunning, for all of their labor is provided by us, for free, and their administration of culture and content is predicated on a system they wholly control. There's no real way to account for how many people clicked on a button, how many "bought" an mp3 - we have take these companies' word that their figures are accurate.
It's an incredible advancement in villainy, and my hat is truly off to them. Google and Apple are the most incredibly evil companies that have ruled the landscape, because their labor practices for the machines they produce are obviously insane and illegal and supporting a vicious and insane sweatshop economy, yet their public relations is 100% dressed up in this hippie-futurist left-wing free-info horseshit that is truly a house of cards. Fuck you to Steve Jobs, and a pox on every single frat-boy that can code who is paying $3K for a 1BR in the Mission - you are a miscreant of the lowliest most-Roman sort, and I wait patiently for the day we run out of electricity.
The very act of running a label now, in effect, requires doing a lot of micro-labor that generates value (money) for social media platforms. How do you reconcile this fact with wanting to also run a label that resists supporting these corporations?
I tell myself that it's a "free" platform for advertising, but I would happily abandon all social media if it wasn't the primary way everyone I know communicated. It's a bit like hating cars. I hate cars. But I don't hate anyone for driving cars: it's just the way people get around, and it's not possible for everyone to exist without the aid of a car. If you want to be interested in what's happening with underground culture, the internet has fully supplanted the old ways, at least for now. Can't wait for the next wave of young people to learn from all these mistakes and DO IT RIGHT.
Anyway, I try and minimize my time spent on Facebook or Instagram. We have built up a very large mailing list over the years, and I'm most proud of that, since it's the least odious way to reach people (though still mediated by some company or another).
How must underground and punk communities respond to these cultural conditions we've found ourselves within? Any creative ideas about how we might push back?
By socializing each other out of being on the phone or the computer all the time. I know, your friends are overwhelming or annoying and you can only deal with them through your phone. Everyone is overwhelming or annoying once you get to know them, and you just need to get over it and be a punk in real life instead. Friends don't let friends take selfies at punk shows.