Ben Weinman and the Business of Responsible Creativity

Ben Weinman and the Business of Responsible Creativity
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"Life has no meaningWhen it's not justified."-- "I Love Secret Agents" by the Dillinger Escape Plan

Many people know that the Dillinger Escape Plan, with Ben Weinman as a founding member, is considered by many to be the best mathcore band in history.

Mathcore is a genre of music that interpreted metalcore -- a brutal mix of hardcore punk and extreme metal -- using unusual time signatures to produce a chaotic and innovative sound. Their influence on the genre has been severe, with Pitchfork calling their 1999 debut Calculating Infinity a "game-changing album."


While this achievement may be enough for Weinman to put his unique stamp on the world, he does not want to stop there. With his label, Party Smasher Inc., Weinman has been taking things to the next level. He wants to help foster a community that encourages the same independent, risk-taking spirit of the hardcore scene that ultimately made the Dillinger Escape Plan so influential.

With the new partnership of Party Smasher Inc. and the independent label Cooking Vinyl, he is telling the world:

Not only are good art and good business not incompatible, they are in fact nurtured from the same creative spirit.

To understand Weinman's artistic and business approach, we must consider that Weinman grew up in New Jersey in the late '80s and witnessed the burgeoning hardcore scenes of New York and D.C. There, he learned about the business ethics and ideals that were a necessity in hardcore -- do-it-yourself (DIY) -- because no one will do it for you.

It was from the hardcore scene that record labels such as Dischord Records (started by Minor Threat's Ian MacKaye) and Touch and Go Records (founded by the Meatmen's Tesco Vee) sprung up to demonstrate that creative music and innovative business practices could go hand in hand.

As an example, Dischord Records was known for refusing to charge more than $10 for a record and $5 for a show, all while insisting on all-ages shows to make sure that young hardcore kids could attend. They also would not advertise in traditional outlets such as magazines, because many of those magazines ran cigarette and alcohol advertising that violated the straight edge ethic of MacKaye.

Moreover, Weinman saw how these labels and the hardcore scene in general built a sense of community around different kinds of music that all shared a similar DIY ethos. "When we were coming up in the scene, there'd be a band that sounded like emo, and then there'd be a metal band and then a punk band. We all came from the same kind of place; we just had a different take on it," he said. "And we all played together, and it wasn't weird. We're putting out records ourselves. We're putting on shows ourselves. We need to make this happen, and that was the tie that was binding."

"That was my tribe."

Weinman's perspective was not simply based on a healthy dose of humility. It was the result of others communicating to him he had no chance of professional success. "I was in a couple of bands in high school, played in a couple of talent shows. Nobody gave a shit," he explained. "And I had so much trouble getting anyone to care about any music I ever made. I was the guy in high school who was running around selling tickets to my family and friends, trying to get enough people to come to the show so that the guy would let us play."

As a result, it never occurred to Weinman that music would be a career. "I was not one of those guys who was just like, 'Fuck you, mom, I'm going to be a rock star!'" he explained. "I was like, 'You can't make it.' It was like winning the lottery. It was so impossible."

So Weinman pursued a more conventional professional path. "I thought, I better go get a degree and get a real job. I had gotten my degree in psychology and had gotten my master's in corporate communications," he explained. "I was working at a corporate web company. I was dealing with fairly large clients -- AT&T, Network Solutions -- stuff like that."

Yet, this was perhaps a blessing in disguise -- for Weinman was so convinced that he would not have commercial success that it allowed him to pursue music based on passion for his art and the community of which he was a part. "So, I totally started Dillinger without the intention of pleasing any certain fan base or appealing to a certain market. There were no monetary intentions with the Dillinger Escape Plan. It was really just a way to vent and be part of a scene that I really loved," he said.

Even when the band was offered a record contract from Relapse Records, the band's own lawyer did not seem to take the band seriously. "He listened to our music, which, basically, at the time was to most people just noise. These guys looked at a band like Dillinger, who just sounded like garbage cans falling down stairs to them," Weinman explained. "And he was just like, 'OK, don't quit your day job.' And he made a couple of red marks on the contract and said, 'Just sign it.' So we did."

Weinman quickly realized that if he wanted the business side of the band to go well, he had to do it himself. "Our contract gave us no tour support. We even had to spend some of our own money to finish our record. We sold our publishing away to the label when we signed that contract," he explained. "I think the first lesson that I got is realizing that I had to learn as much business as possible and advocate for the band, because literally nobody saw an upside in helping us. So that started with figuring out how to get on the road and take care of all of the productions and figure out how to get from point A to point B."

But soon, the Dillinger Escape Plan's innovative mathcore sound was attracting hardcore and metal fans alike, and they began performing much better than expected in the marketplace. "We very quickly became the biggest band on our label -- which I think came as a surprise to everyone, including the label. At the time, the biggest band on the label had sold 30,000 records. We were at about 100,000 records," Weinman explained.

Unfortunately, record sales didn't translate into money for the band. "We're not making money at all -- literally, we couldn't even eat," he said. We just had to tour. That was the only way we were going to make money."

Rather than pack it up and go home, Weinman's solution was to keep touring and investing money in the band. "Then it went from just figuring out how to go from point A to point B, to now how can we make our production bigger? How can we appear the size of the band that we are without any resources?" Weinman explained.

The result was an ongoing series of complicated decisions with which Weinman had no previous experience. "And I'm like, 'We need to get a bus, because we're traveling so much. We're headlining now, so we have to be there really early, and we can't really stay in a hotel. We can't drive ourselves. It'll be dangerous. We're traveling in the middle of the winter in Toronto," he said. "So now I have to figure out how to get a bus on a budget, and I have to negotiate with these guys and get these buses that aren't fancy. Then it went to how do we get a light show -- literally, going to Home Depot and buying lights."

"It's just DIY, by hook or by crook."

To be sure, Weinman recognized that his passion for his work had a downside: He could be very self-critical. He would regularly say to himself, "I suck. I suck. I wasn't good enough. I wasn't good enough."

More, this resulted in what Weinman felt, in retrospect, was a controlling approach with the band. "You talk about the difficulties of being in a band. I went through all of them. I definitely got extremely obsessive about things. And it was really hard. Being someone who was so passionate about what I do, I was extremely obsessive. I was extremely controlling about things."

"I was an animal."

Interestingly, many of the leaders of the most successful bands in history, such as Pete Townshend of the Who and Johnny Ramone of the Ramones, have also been tagged with the label "control freak." In retrospect, Weinman feels that the intensity with which he approached the band, both in terms of the business and the music were needed to create a band as influential as the Dillinger Escape Plan.

"You can't do anything inspiring or special -- you can't change the status quo in any way -- if you're not insane, a little bit. Could anyone without a high level of anxiety create something so extremely inspired?" he said. "Because the reality is that I wouldn't be in the type of band that I'm in if it wasn't for that. I wouldn't have been in Europe screaming at everyone backstage because we weren't good enough. We have to go out and do better, do an encore that is better. I wouldn't be the guy who would go onstage with a broken leg and a broken neck -- and being obsessive about the shows and being the best band in the world at that time."

"To push the status quo without having resources and comforts -- that's what I'm most proud of."

Moreover, his experience with the Dillinger Escape Plan made him realize that for him, the dynamic energy that drove his music was the same energy that drove his entrepreneurial spirit. "I find that entrepreneurial guys and band guys are really cut from the same cloth. All that stuff was creativity to me," Weinman said. "Like how can we figure out how to do all of this cool shit. That was exciting to me -- the same as writing a song or putting out a record."

And soon, contrary to predictions, Weinman had to quit his day job because the band was becoming too big. "I think I realized the point at which it was time to switch gears is when I had to get off of work because we were playing in Japan," he explained. "And it sucked because I would have to get up early and put a tie on. I'd usually have a black eye from the show from the night before. It was really like 'Fight Club.' So I'd have to make up stories, 'Yeah, I play in a soccer league on the weekends.'"

By waiting to quit his job only when the Dillinger Escape Plan's success would no longer allow him the time, he was able to continue in the band on his artistic and business terms. "And what that did for me was that it enabled me to do everything for the right reason and not make artistic decisions based off of trying to eat or trying to put a roof over my head. And so, Dillinger was pretty successful by the time I realized that I needed to do this full time," he said.

"This is my job now."

Because of his success in managing the business side of the Dillinger Escape Plan, Weinman became sought out as a business consultant for labels and bands. "And so in doing all of that, I ended up becoming a resource for people on how to do things affordably and frugally -- how to do a lot on a dime," he explained. "Eventually, I started consulting for bigger guys, like major labels or managers. And that would be interesting because I'd come home from a punk rock tour and I'd go to Tommy Mottola's office and help these guys get buses."

Eventually, Weinman felt that he was ready to start his own label. And he founded Party Smasher Inc. with the intention of building a community of artists who created innovative music and business approaches. Weinman realized that this model could work -- as it did for him -- if the artists were passionate about their music.

"Party Smasher to me is the realization that you can do business and you can have extracurricular activities outside of typical musical creation -- but it has to be something you believe in. And it has to be something that you're passionate about," he explained.

Soon, Party Smasher attracted people who wanted to invest in it. But eventually, Weinman realized that many of the people who were interested in the company did not necessarily share his business ethics.

"After trying to get more funding and bringing in more people who were business-oriented, it started turning into something I didn't believe in," he explained. "I didn't think I could go to Trent Reznor or bands who were my friends and say, 'Could you support this? Because I really believe in this.' Because I didn't, and that's when I realized I cannot sell something I don't believe in. It's just not good business."

"I'm not that guy."

In fact, Weinman became so disillusioned with the way the company was going that he gave back venture capital so he could rethink the company. And giving back the money was as empowering to him as his initial feeling that he could take a DIY approach to his music.

"I literally gave back a couple of hundred thousand dollars and said, 'I don't feel good about this.' And just stopped for a few years, rethought it and went back to making music," he said. "And that changed my life. Giving back that money changed everything. It was so powerful to say 'no' to money because I didn't believe in it."

Moreover, it reaffirmed that he could pursue a career based on his original hardcore ethics, which were to pursue both art and business, but in an honorable way. "To me, Party Smasher is the realization that 'OK, now I'm going to do something I do believe in and that I'm really passionate about. And when you do that, you can do art and be entrepreneurial. But you really have to believe in everything you do. Because if you can't sell it with real honesty, then you're not going to move people."

"You're not going to be a responsible creator."

And so now, Party Smasher is the company that Weinman envisioned -- designed to support passionate artists who want to change the culture, not blend into it. "One of the reasons why I wanted to do Party Smasher in general was that I wanted to support artists that were doing things differently, that weren't exactly following the trends. "That's what Party Smasher is to me. It's about encouraging subcultures and tribes that are doing things differently and are not following trends."

Weinman recognizes this is no easy feat. "In this day and age, it's so difficult -- nearly impossible -- to not," he explained. "Because we're not going to have things like [David] Bowie as easily as we did in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Now there's a blueprint for every kid in Iowa to know what tattoo you should get, how your hair should be, what song you should sing, what plug-in you should use to make sure songs sound perfectly pristine."

"It's really difficult for someone to think outside the box."

For Weinman, the outside-the-box thinking applies to being innovative in business as well. And that means challenging some of the previous norms in the music business. "From a business standpoint, there are a lot of ways that things end up being monetized. What would be considered selling out in the old days is considered the norm and coveted," he explained. "So if you're a cool enough band to make a brand want to sponsor you or give you money, that's a badge of honor. Red Bull wants to support you on your tour and put you in the studio for free, just for some footage online to give them some content, that's cool."

"Other bands are like, 'How'd you do that?'"

And now, with Cooking Vinyl, Weinman has found a partner that can help amplify and enhance his artistic and musical goals. "I've been looking for a partner to help get the music side of Party Smasher out there, to have a platform to put out my music and bands, and to have some resources to do it right and in an honorable way," he explained.

Weinman knew he found a kindred spirit in Cooking Vinyl's new president, Howie Gabriel. "So they ended up bringing on this guy, Howie Gabriel, who was one of the founding guys at Red Distribution. He was from one of the biggest independent labels services in the world, helping independent labels to put out records -- labels who didn't have resources or staff, but were doing great things," he said.

"He comes from the '70, where you did artist development, and you found something that you loved and you nurtured it. And that's the world we came from. So when we met each other, we just kind of clicked."

"We're coming from different times, but are cut from the same cloth."

Weinman is looking forward to working with Cooking Vinyl to achieve his goals. "There are real artists out there that are trying to express themselves honestly and really have something to say. So for me, it's about not only celebrating those artists and bringing them to the surface, but it's also about encouraging camaraderie instead of competition between these people out there who are like-minded," he said.

Weinman remains committed to the same hardcore, DIY ideals on which he grew up. And he will continue to be committed to disrupting culture, not following it. "I don't know what the fuck is cool. I don't know what is going to be the next big thing," he explained. "I don't know what band to me sounds like shit, but is going to be really influential. And I'm not trying to. And I'll never tell somebody, 'This is garbage. This is unmarketable. This isn't going to go anywhere.'"

"I'll never tell anyone that."

Michael Friedman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International's Medical Advisory Board. Follow Dr. Friedman onTwitter @DrMikeFriedman and EHE @EHEintl.

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