Don Giovanni's Joe Steinhardt on Discovering DIY, Bandcamp, and Surviving the Music Industry

Don Giovanni's Joe Steinhardt on Discovering DIY, Bandcamp, and Surviving the Music Industry

Since it was founded by Joe Steinhardt and Zach Gajewski in 2003, Don Giovanni has maintained true independence as a label while releasing myriad records by bands like Waxahatchee, Priests, Laura Stevenson, Shellshag, Screaming Females, and Downtown Boys. It’s all the more impressive that Steinhardt has since accomplished this while keeping true to his own independent ethos, which date back to and are heavily informed by his growing up participating in DIY communities.

Steinhardt has always seemed like a fascinating person to talk to regarding the music industry’s ills and how he’s attempted to navigate them over the years. He has a lot of ideas about the way things could be, as well as the issues surrounding power and consolidation that continue to stifle independent voices and communities to this day. When we hopped on the phone earlier this week, we ended up talking for over two hours, and I personally could’ve gone at least two more. Here’s a good chunk of our conversation.

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Tell me about your early musical interests.

I lived outside Philly until I was 13, when we moved to central New Jersey. My mom didn't listen to music at all, and my dad listens to maybe two or three artists at most. I got into music through the radio while growing up in the late '80s and early '90s. I desperately wanted to fit in when I was younger, which meant listening to what everyone was listening to, which was mainstream music.

But I didn't have too much access to it because of money. When I was younger, I was allowed to get three or four CDs or cassettes a year. A lot of what shaped my taste in music ultimately had a lot to do with price, and it taught me a lot about the underground. I gravitated toward cheaper music, which ended up coming from independent labels as a matter of principle and was the gateway for me to discover underground music as well as mail order, fanzine culture, and alternative radio stations.

I discovered punk and alternative music through the local record store in middle school. I went in to buy a Metallica album, but they didn't have it, so they suggested the Misfits. If I'd got that Metallica album, I might've avoided punk altogether. By 9th grade, I was going to DIY shows almost exclusively, and lots of people there were also kids. The college kids at the shows felt like the older kids to me—which is interesting, because now DIY is ruled by college kids and you hardly see high school and middle school kids at shows.

Did you have any other interests when you were younger?

Film was my main passion. In third grade, I started wanting to be a film director. I still do. Music was a detour. I originally went to college for film. Music wasn't my original passion, but as I got older and saw that all media and culture was one fluid thing, I realized the medium matters less than what narratives the creators are trying to get across.

What inspired you to start Don Giovanni?

I had a thrash band in college, and a lot of the bands I listened to growing up had self-released records, so I figured that would be cool. Also, I sent our album around to some thrash labels at the time, and they weren't interested because we weren't very good. So we were like, "Let's just do this ourselves."

The initial goal wasn't to start a record label, but my friends were like, "Oh, you have a record label? Can you put mine out?" This was in the early days of the internet, when having a physical manifestation of your music was still really important. So me and [co-founder Zach Gajewski] decided that when we'd sell an album, we'd put money into putting out another album.

At a certain point, I realized I was really good at running a record label, and that it was a way of documenting a culture. I wanted to create a home for alternative culture and eventually level a playing field that, when I started out, I didn't even know existed. It turns out the music industry is a story about power, not music—and everything I thought I understood about music, I actually understood about power. Once I started to see this, my goal was to fight for a space for alternative voices and document a counterculture.

Tell me about how Don Giovanni changed as your ethos strengthened.

When I was getting into music, I was reading and listening to things other people were writing and saying—everyone from Steve Albini and Jello Biafra to guys I knew in local bands. Originally, I treated those rules as didactic and thought, "This is how you run a punk label." As I got older, I started thinking, "Why are these the rules?"

I realized I didn't have to do things the way a major label did them, but I also didn't have to do things the way Dischord or Lookout did. I could do things how I want, and it didn't have to make sense to anyone besides me and the artists I was working with.

As the label grew, I started to encounter all these people from the industry that I'd only heard about—managers, lawyers, various types of promoters and middlemen. It was like putting on the glasses in They Live. "Whoa—this is what the music industry actually is?" Half of me wanted to quit, and half of me wanted to fight—and I guess I picked "fight."

Honestly, every year, something happens where I consider quitting. I can't say I won't quit one day, but for now it makes sense to exist in the way I can.

What's something you've accomplished with Don Giovanni that you consider a success?

Keeping lawyers out of what we do—not just lawyers, but management and the rest of the industry. I don't have written contracts with any of our artists. We have agreements that are extremely transparent, and our artists should be able to explain the agreement in a very short period of time. I'm not saying contracts shouldn't exist, but this label operates in a community. If I was operating outside a community, I would certainly need to use contracts. But what's the point of a label that exists outside of a community?

I've been told as the label grew that I would have to change how I do things, and was often told this change would happen the first time I got burned. I’ve been badly burned twice—about as badly as it’s possible to be burnt in this industry—and those were hard moments. I had to get advice from people much smarter than myself, and I was convinced how much better I would feel keeping my values.

The person that really helped me was [Ian McKaye], who compared it to walking through the park and getting mugged. Do you stop walking through the park? Or do you like the park and realize that sometimes you're just gonna get mugged? You can live your whole life around anticipating these extremely rare events happening, or you can live your life in a freer, happier way in line with your values about art and culture, even though these rare negative events will still happen.

As a genre tag, "indie" has more or less lost all meaning over the last few decades. When do you think that took place culturally?

Talking about the meaning of "independent" is more important than the word “indie” to me. Genre is basically a marketing concept. The only reason it exists is to sort things out to make them easier to sell. It's completely irrelevant. I don’t care what “indie” means.

On the other hand, ”independent” is losing meaning, and it’s more troubling because the meaning is important. People who want to support independent business don’t have the ability to when the word is stretched to encompass as much as it does—and this stretching is intentional. For example, A2IM lobbied Billboard last year to change their rules to make sure labels like Concord and Disney were included as independent.

Words like "independent" get stretched so that consumers buy into something that's not. There's nothing inherently wrong with these large power structures—what's wrong is how they wield their power to crowd other voices out. They don’t grow by quality. They grow by taking up as much space as they can.

What else have you seen change over the years?

There's been a massive influx of companies, corporate mentalities, and middlemen into spaces that previously didn't have any of them. The biggest underground bands of the '80s, '90s, and early 2000s didn't have booking agents, managers, lawyers, or publicists. Now, even the smallest underground bands feel like they need this stuff. That is devastating to underground communities, which is why they've been devastated.

There's been a legitimate and intentional land grab by the majors, and here's why this happened: the majors blew up their own spaces, because they're fucking idiots. They controlled retail, hated independent record stores, and would make deals with Best Buy to price them out of existence. They controlled MTV and radio, and used this control to keep everyone else out and offer as few alternatives to consumers as possible.

But then the internet happened, democratized music discovery, and their space blew up while the independent market thrived. All that was left when the dust settled was independent venues, independent bands, independent record stores. What were the majors going to do?

In comes things like Record Store Day. Warner Bros partners with them and takes it over. Now, you go into your local record store and it looks just like the vinyl selection in an Urban Outfitters. They might carry deeper stock, but their featured titles are the same as Urban. That was a space I used to be able to compete fairly in with other independent labels that I now cannot. Now, my records are next to Harry Styles, the Weeknd, Ed Sheeran, and Drake—if there’s even room for them at all.

There needs to be spaces that ensure fair competition. We have laws about this. We know fair competition is important. Everyone seems to agree on it, even if it's never enforced. But when it comes to music, you get this sentiment of "All music is just the same, man"—which is not true. We know that power in other industries matters, and we know what happens to the local hardware store when Home Depot opens next door. But when it comes to music? "It's all just music.”

Majors have bullied their way into having Pitchfork write about things that they wouldn't have in a million fucking years. They bullied their way into independent record stores carrying records they never would have in a million years. They didn’t do this because they care about those spaces—they did it because they destroyed their own, and they’ll destroy these ones just as swiftly.

When there's no more space for the independent stuff at Pitchfork and independent record stores, that leads to people not reading Pitchfork or going to independent record stores. Why would you go to one of those stores to buy Harry Styles’ album when it's cheaper on Amazon? Why would I go to Pitchfork to read about Bob Dylan's new album? They used to be a space where you could go and read about who the next Bob Dylan is. But they aren't anymore, and there's no room for independent spaces or voices anymore as a result. Where are labels like mine supposed to market our music?

Bandcamp Fridays have become a cause for celebration when it comes to supporting artists directly. What’s your outlook on that?

There’s nothing inherently wrong with them as a company, but there’s something inherently wrong with all platforms in the same way that the consolidation of any industry is bad. They have the same problem as Spotify: they want to be the one place for all music. That's consolidation, and that's never good. Labels like mine might thrive more in a Bandcamp-consolidated universe than in a Spotify-consolidated universe, but culture as a whole dies in either universe.

The only solution is Bandcamp dissolving what they have right now, selling the code, and letting everyone start their own Bandcamp. I'm not sure how that would even work, but there can't just be one place for music. It's great that they are supporting artists at a time when no one else is, but there's inherent flaws with any platform.

Just like Record Store Day, as Bandcamp grows, I'm already seeing more major label artists on Bandcamp. Next year I feel like I'm going to see Harry Styles' new album on there. And why wouldn't that happen?

I talked to a record store employee at the beginning of the pandemic that told me they'd lost money because special variants of new albums got delayed due to processing plants shutting down. Seems like the collector's-edition approach is hurting the industry too.

We haven't even talked about the environment. When you go to the gas pump, you might as well just pour a few gallons on the ground while you fill up if you're telling people to buy five copies of the same album. I've been against that with the label since day one. What collecting in that sense actually is, is wasting.

But if you're ordering or intentionally selling someone five copies of the same album, that's five times as much petroleum sitting on the shelf. That's insane, especially when we know what's happening to the planet as a result of burning fossil fuel. Yet the same people protesting climate issues are buying these variants. They're not thinking about these issues—are we just waiting for a meme about it to change their behavior?

You mentioned earlier that DIY spaces were more all-ages-oriented when you were younger. The Burger Records allegations stood collectively as an example of younger people being taken advantage of and preyed upon by people in a scene who were often considerably older than them. What does it take to build a safe space in DIY for everyone?

That was devastating. That scene, as far as I could tell, was very insular. There are these scenes with lots of young children getting involved, which is incredible—but this scene was being used to groom these kids, which was so upsetting. As far as keeping spaces safe, the trick is not having them male-dominated and power-consolidated. I work really hard to build a safe scene around my artists, and that means listening to them and acting on it. You have to listen to people, and you have to include more voices too—diverse voices.

I'm not a scholar on this subject—I'm a student, I would recommend Shawna Potter's Making Spaces Safer, which is a great book on this subject.

Over the last several months, there's been a lot of conversation within both culture publications and the music industry as to how to combat and undo continuing legacies of bigotry, abuse, and inequity. What do you see as sincere, and what do you see as disingenuous?

Anything not actually shifting power is at best pointless, at worst disingenuous. Otherwise, all you’re doing is waiting for next issue to come—you're not actually addressing anything. But no one wants to shift power because it means ceding power. That's why these solutions never work. You have to be willing to say, "I'm willing to make less at my job, leave this position, or maybe even dissolve a company so that things are fair."

If there was cheating discovered in the first half of a sports game, we wouldn’t say, "Okay, we're gonna keep playing the game with the score as-is, and stop the cheating moving forward.” People can see why that’s not fair in sports, but that's the solution being offered to society at all of these companies. "Okay, moving forward, we're gonna start signing Black artists." Well, if you weren't doing it for 30 years, you're not just gonna erase these issues. "Moving forward, we're gonna hire women." If you weren't doing that the entire time, then you're not actually solving any problem. You're just introducing a new variable.

What has it been like to run an independent label during the pandemic?

It's been really interesting. In the short term, for me as a label, it's been incredible. We've probably had some of the best months of sales we've ever had financially. The problem is why that's happening. It's not that we're selling more, but that we're the only game in town if you want to buy stuff. Stores are closed, and our artists aren't able to go on tour—which is how you used to buy those records. Now, we're getting full price for those sales. We're selling through all of our stock—I can't keep stuff in print.

The problem is, what does it mean that all this money is coming our way in the long run? Are our artists ever going to be able to tour again? Will these record stores actually reopen? Will there continue to be releases? Everything we've been putting out was scheduled six months ago, before the pandemic. It makes planning really hard. I don't know what's coming, so I can't make meaningful financial predictions. I'm scheduling tons of releases for artists that want it, but that might be my demise too if I have all these releases that don't sell, because the artists can't tour and the releases can't be sold in stores. The spaces we can compete fairly in are independent venues and record stores, so if those are gone, we're back to the old universe.

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Jamie Larson