By now, it’s nearly impossible to find an article about Jeff Rosenstock that doesn’t compare him to Fugazi or that band’s figurehead, Ian MacKaye. It’s a fair comparison given that, for the past 11 years, his own do-it-yourself ethics have been at the forefront of his every move—even to the point of refusing financial support entirely. As the artist behind Bomb The Music Industry!, Rosenstock was among the first to offer his music for free on the internet, taking the ideology of a hip-hop mixtape and adapting it to his own subculture. In the process, he established a blueprint that thousands of rock bands, both signed and unsigned, would soon adopt, even if it took them some time to follow his lead.
Rosenstock’s first step toward becoming a sort of DIY folk hero began on Christmas Eve of 2004. His ska-punk band, The Arrogant Sons Of Bitches, had broken up, with an album it spent four years working on still unreleased (it would finally come out in 2006). Throughout its career, the band had largely played by the rules: It snuck on the Warped Tour. It had cool T-shirt designs. It tried valiantly to get a record deal. But Rosenstock was tired of the grind and how his band’s merch was seemingly more important than his songs. So he quit—then and there. In order to make ends meet, ironically enough, he’d end up working for Merch Direct, a one-stop shop for a multitude of branded artist flotsam. “I was bagging T-shirts, literally shipping off hundreds of Taking Back Sunday and Brand New shirts,” Rosenstock says.
In the midst of this, feeling alone and depressed on the night before Christmas, Rosenstock would record “Sweet Home Cananada.” On a lark, he posted the song to MySpace under the name Bomb The Music Industry!, assuming that would be the end of it. But the songs kept coming. In February 2005, Rosenstock would release the first full Bomb record, the aptly titled Album Minus Band. Like many free hip-hop mixtapes, it features unlicensed audio samples to go with its unlicensed cover songs, and it was recorded using free trial versions of various music plug-ins. Since Rosenstock didn’t pay for those tools, there’s a harsh, audible hiss that pops up throughout the songs, thanks to anti-theft measures installed as a deterrent to pirates. To Rosenstock, this wasn’t an impediment. It was another sign he was heading in the right direction.
“[Making an album], you have to record in a nice studio, or you have to at least fucking pay for the plug-ins and not use the demo versions, or at least just not use that plug-in,” Rosenstock says. “Once you’re just like, ‘Nah, I’m just going to do whatever,’ then there’s no roadblocks, and you can kind of do anything.”
To Leave Or Die In Long Island would follow a few months later, also released for free to the internet. Soon enough, Rosenstock’s friends began approaching him asking for help putting out their own records in a similar way. He started Quote Unquote Records to make it happen, its tongue-in-check name a nod to the fact that it doesn’t actually make anything. Instead, its website boasts that it’s “the first-ever donation-based record label.”
As Bomb began to accrue fans, Rosenstock set off to tour the country, albeit in similarly unconventional ways. At times he’d be accompanied by just an iPod and sometimes a full band. Most notably, he launched the “Bring Your Own Band” tours, asking fans to show up with instruments, plug in, and play along with him. It’s an inspiration Rosenstock took not from Fugazi (no one was hopping on stage to play the bass line to “Waiting Room”) but from his ska-punk days. “You could show up with your trombone to a Less Than Jake gig and play ‘My Very Own Flag,’” Rosenstock says. “I remember seeing that happen and my mind being blown. As much as Fugazi inspired me, that’s my roots.”
While he still wasn’t particularly keen on T-shirts or other merchandise, kids wanted something at shows. So Rosenstock encouraged fans to bring T-shirts he could spray-paint or CD-Rs that he could burn Bomb’s entire discography on in exchange for a couple bucks. “The band started growing and people would come to shows and not really know that we do the spray-painted shirt thing, and they’d just be bummed out like, ‘All I wanna do is buy a shirt and help you continue to be a band, and you will not let me,’” Rosenstock says.
Eventually he gave in to selling shirts. Other labels even offered to press his records on vinyl. But that didn’t mean his philosophy changed. “We’ll never stop spray-painting shirts and we’ll never stop burning CDs,” Rosenstock says. “It’s still all available for free, but if you want to support us financially, we started making that possible.”
On October 10, 2007, Radiohead released In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-want download. Less than six months later, Nine Inch Nails offered a portion of its new album, Ghosts I-IV, for free on its own website. Coming as it did from two world-renowned artists, it sparked a thousand media think-pieces on what it all meant for the future of music distribution, which was quickly adapting to the proliferation of illegal file-sharing by evolving into something adopted by the biggest artists in the world. Meanwhile, Rosenstock (an avowed Radiohead lover whose Arrogant Sons Of Bitches released a full album of Radiohead covers) found himself dispirited to see his own, similar efforts being ignored by the press—but not entirely surprised.
“If I’m going to be completely honest—and this doesn’t make me look good in any way—when I found out that Radiohead put out In Rainbows, I was on a tour that wasn’t going super well,” Rosenstock says. “I had woken up from a fever dream to a text message from a friend that was like, ‘Yo, Radiohead just stole your idea.’ And I was like, ‘That’s it. Everything we’ve been doing is going to be forgotten and ignored,’ and it bummed me out at that moment. Which I hope it wouldn’t now, but I don’t know. I was just a kid in a van who was incredibly sick.”
In Radiohead’s wake, there were plenty of others making their own stabs at freeing music from labels and traditional distribution. That same year, Bandcamp and Soundcloud would each go online, both making the act of disseminating music far easier than it ever had been before, for musicians at any level. Today they’re used by artists and fans the world over. But at the time they were entering a landscape that was still being defined—and far from being seen as legitimate, as Rosenstock would find out.
In 2008, Rosenstock was told that his approach to releasing his songs without officially “publishing” them first could constitute copyright infringement. As NPR reported, it would take Rosenstock over a week to prove the offending files scattered across his site were actually his own songs. Meanwhile, Bomb The Music Industry! was also struggling to prove it was a real band to skeptical venues across the country.
“It was certainly not seen as a legitimate thing for quite some time,” Rosenstock says. “I’d send people links to the records, and people would be like, ‘All right, let me know when you have a record.’ Why does that mean that art is valid? Because you spent X amount of dollars on it or because you engaged yourself in capitalism? How come that is the only time that art is valid?” It would be this constant fight that would finally bring Bomb to an end in the early days of 2014.
“When we couldn’t play house shows and had to play venues, venues just wouldn’t write back, ” Rosenstock says. “I’d say, ‘Hey, we draw 200 people in your city—let me know what you think,’ and nobody would write back.”
While it would be easy to blame the end of Bomb on burnout from trying to hold onto its ideals for so long, as Rosenstock notes, that’s actually what kept him going. “I really didn’t feel a burden from anybody,” he says. “It was the opposite. When I would feel bad about things, I felt lifted up by that. It’s not like it didn’t work out. It’s just that we were done doing it.”
Following Bomb’s dissolution, Rosenstock would make the jump to Side One Dummy Records for his second solo album, 2015’s We Cool?. It was his first record to be released in a traditional way, though Side One Dummy still allowed him to give the record away for free on Quote Unquote. Last week, he announced Worry, his third solo album—and thematically, his most outraged since Bomb’s early days.
“Festival Song” highlights everything that makes Rosenstock so important to punk’s current world, its lyrics calling bullshit on the current music festival landscape, but not sanctimonious enough to keep him from admitting he hasn’t played a part in it all. The song opens with him declaring, “It feels completely ridiculous / That I’m a willing participant” before jumping into a chorus that offers catharsis to anyone frustrated by music’s commoditization: “They wouldn’t be your friend / If you weren’t worth something.”
Similarly, “Wave Goodnight To Me” summarizes his own pained feelings about missing the last few weeks of shows at Brooklyn’s famous DIY space, Death By Audio. “There were signs all over that big business was coming in and the old neighborhood was going to change,” Rosenstock says, alluding to the fact Death By Audio was closed to become the new office for Vice. “I wish it didn’t crush me the way that it did.”
When Worry is released this October, it will be pushed into a landscape that’s entirely different from that of Album Minus Band. By now it’s almost expected for high-profile releases to come without warning or to have physical products be an afterthought. “Chance The Rapper keeps talking about Coloring Book in the conversation for a Grammy. That’s fucking awesome to me,” Rosenstock says. “Ten years ago nobody would have said, ‘I’m putting out a record for free, and it’s fucking good and you have to respect it.’”
And while Rosenstock may ultimately remain a footnote in the story of that journey of free music from MySpace curio to industry standard, he remains at peace with that—even grateful for all that it’s allowed him to accomplish.
“I think if you’re underestimated, and people think what you’re doing isn’t serious,” he says, “then you can do whatever the fuck you want.”