D2D Interview: Rikk Agnew

Photo by Stephanie Pick

While typically the D2D interviews are geared around drinking culture, I’ve met a good number of interesting people over the last few years with insight, experience, and perspective who no longer partake in the consumption of alcohol, yet still have plenty to add to this series. In the case of Rikk Agnew, the former guitarist for the Adolescents and an icon of the early Southern California punk rock scene, sobriety has given him an entirely new lens through which to convey the wisdom of more than three decades in the music business. Rikk has always been a self-motivated, DIY kind of guy. He’s a versatile musician (he was also the original bassist for Social Distortion) and in 1982 he proved it with his first solo release All By Myself, upon which he sang all the songs, played all of the instruments, and took on production duties, later earning him the moniker “the Brian Wilson of punk.” As someone who greatly enjoys comparing and contrasting industry trends and the evolution of pop culture genres, I had been gently nudging Rikk over the last month to sit down for a one-on-one so I could hear his thoughts on the music business and the changes he’s observed over the years. I've written numerous articles over the years about the similarities between alcohol and music. I’ve also spent endless captivating hours listening to Rikk’s albums, his ability to morph seamlessly between various genres of music, weave complicated harmonies into simple sounding melodies, and continue doing so well into his late fifties. I knew he would have something interesting and profound to tell me about a long career in music, and I knew I would find parallels within that conversation to my own life and work. We finally caught up on the phone this past week and our conversation is transcribed below:

David: Let’s talk about the current state of the music industry. 

Rikk: Well, of course, everything’s gone from industrial to information as far as the economic situation of the world and where we are technology wise. A lot of industries have shifted drastically, but especially music. Now you can get music basically anywhere online, but at the same time if you make the right moves…how do I put it? It’s a whole different animal, you’ve just gotta be familiar with it. It’s harder for sure because there’s way more competition out there, so you’ve gotta be trickier. It leans towards that pay-to-play mentality because bands will reach more people if they have money to spend, but that’s the same old song and dance we’ve always had with advertising.

David: How would you contrast what you’re seeing today with the past? How did you make money as a punk musician in 1980, for example?

Rikk: You didn’t (laughs).

David: So when did the switch happen?

Rikk: What’s funny is I’m at a point now where over the last four years I’ve been able to support myself via music; I pay rent, I have a car, equipment, and the whole bit. I mostly have more money now because I’m sober, so I don’t spend money on drugs or alcohol. Back then you got signed by a record company and they were the financier for your projects. They would believe in you and invest in you. The studio time was way more expensive, whereas now you can pretty much do everything from home. Now, as well as back then, you’ve really gotta get out there in person and bust your ass. You’ve gotta go see and play to the people and do it quite often now that there’s more competition. 

David: I had the same conversation yesterday with a brand owner about the amount of time needed on the road to promote a label today. It’s a non-stop venture and as soon as you leave a market the momentum stops. It requires constant attention.

Rikk: You’ve gotta be out there non-stop to get the attention, keep people interested, and of course to get signed. Back then with no internet it was really hard. You had to depend on fanzines and that kind of thing. Nowadays you can post all over the web and saturate the field. It all balances out in different ways. With what it costs now to press records and CDs, you give them out at a gig and people end up throwing them on the ground. Now it’s all about downloads. Before you needed a lot of money to put something out and to advertise it in magazines and newspapers, whereas today you just post it online.

David: Thus, more competition.

Rikk: Yeah, they flood the market. It’s not enough to be really good anymore. You’ve gotta have other ways to get attention.

David: This sounds very familiar.

Rikk: Traveling and touring is still the way to do it, but you’ve gotta be on the road almost constantly to interest the people who have the money to back you. Bands today are more self-sufficient as a result. It’s more DIY, which is what punk first started out wanting to be, so we got our wish—via technology of all things! It’s a trip. 

David: Can you still make money selling music as a commodity, or is it all just touring now?

Rikk: It’s that, but also merchandise. You have to reinvest the band money in putting out product. I kind of prefer it in a way. The hard part is distribution, but you have things like Bandcamp and of course the internet. If you’ve got somewhat of a name you can still do alright. If you read Keith Morris' My Damage or Lemmy's White Line Fever, you will find similar observations from them. I'm sure there are many others. I like having control over what goes on. When I was signed to record companies in the past it could get really horrible and it almost did every time. The label that’s always treated me well is Frontier; that’s why I stick with Lisa Fancher. She’s the real deal. She’s been through everything and she’s a good person to have on your side. She’s a good egg. Same with Robbie Fields who had Posh Boy Records. He helps with publishing and legalities now and he’s another guy I can trust. He’s always been there for me. Joe Escalante from Kung Fu Records is another. I try to learn from them as best I can. Today it’s a matter of being punctual, being smart, taking risks, and living like a pauper. But there’s nothing wrong with barely treading water so as long as the air you’re breathing while you’re treading is sweet. 

David: It sounds like having solid relationships and being happy with what you’re doing is ultimately what’s most important.

Rikk: Right, you don’t need much else. When it was all industry, more of the money went to the industry than the artist. Nowadays an artist can make all of the money, but they have to be on top of things. They have to reinvest. I’m on the computer a lot today, juggling seven or eight bands, and I do the business for almost all of them.

David: So it’s more work?

Rikk: Oh yeah. You can’t be the rock star anymore that has no clue about what’s going on and just says: “give me my check.” It’s not like it was in the late sixties and early seventies when they didn’t even know what publishing was, but they had an endless supply of credit cards and cash. When an industry is in its teenage years, as I call it, there tends to be ton of money and a lot of investment, but later on it all falls apart. The artists and actors find the success of money, but then they get bored and they turn to other things like drugs. Next thing you know, things are crumbling because rock stars start dying. It’s more responsible now. If you want to be successful, you don’t need to have a mansion and a yacht. You’ve just gotta be smart. It’s like the song that Cypress Hill did, “Rock Superstar.” Did you ever hear that? That’s it in a nutshell.

David: Do you feel like you’re more on top of your game now that you have more control over what you’re doing and you understand the business side of today’s industry? Your last album Learn. was incredible. I read some reviews where critics thought it was your best work.

Rikk: I feel like I’ve always been on top of my game in one form or another, creatively speaking. I think I’m a helluva songwriter and I have a broad spectrum in terms of the type of music I play. For example: Gitane’s brother is a big supporter of hers, but he’s never heard her music because he’s a hardcore Christian. It’s always been too dark for him. So we went into the studio and did five gospel tunes as a gift for him. We did five standards and he cried when he heard it; he was amazed. So we’ve done gospel, we’ve done full-on free form jazz, and now we’re working on a classical piece.

David: You're very good at tailoring music to specific audiences. There’s a situation in my industry at the moment where brands are losing marketshare, so they’re looking for customized projects since the ability to make a big impact these days is far more difficult. It’s sort of like you pointed out earlier: there’s no more limitless spending unless you’ve got someone like Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber.

Rikk: But some of those acts are not really even music. They’re product. Whatever makes people happy, but ultimately that has more to do with marketing a human being into a demigod. The music is just the medium. 

David: Do you still feel the same about real music today after having worked in the industry for so long?

Photo by John Gilhooley

Rikk: I always look at it the same way. It’s in my blood, it’s in my bones; if I don’t do it I will physically die. I tried to quit for three months one time because I got bitter about the industry. It was an ugly time, I needed money, but the music wasn’t making any money. I was high and drunk all the time and I was just kind of pointing fingers. Finally I just said fuck music; I’m going to quit. I just did regular work after that and didn’t even touch an instrument for about three months and started feeling weird. I was literally dying. When I started playing again after that I felt better. It’s physically engrained in me. It’s in my DNA. I have to do it to survive. 

David: Where did the bitterness come from?

Rikk: I think some of it came from watching my peers. I would say: “Gosh, look at them. They’re just flying right up there.” I’d always wanted to be a rock star, so to speak, and watching some of my peers become rock stars, moving ahead of me while I was sitting on a ladder, that’s when I started getting bitter. I wasn’t in sync with my body at the time and I was spiritually empty. 

David: Besides sobering up, how did you move past those emotions? Did you come to terms with something profound?

Rikk: Yeah, I had to come to terms with the fact that music will always be there for me. It didn’t let me down, I disappointed it. I let music down, not the other way around. When I was in high school, I was a tormented, stinky, ugly kid with fucked up teeth. I was a whipping boy. I was the one they picked on. Sometimes I would come home crying and go into my room and listen to music, or grab a guitar and play. It was juice and it got me through all that. I take the experience, the bitter, the tragic, and write about it, turn the poison into medicine. 

David: How old were you when you joined your first band?

Rikk: Fourteen.

David: What was the band called?

Rikk: At first we were called RMS because on the back of an amplifier it will say something like 50 watts RMS. After that we morphed into another band called Praying Mantis. I was the bass player. At that time every band was a cover band; no one wanted to do originals. We used to play high school parties and gigs like that. 

David: But then you found success and the crowds started getting bigger. What do you think is the biggest crowd you’ve ever played in front of?

Rikk: That would be in 2002 at the Inland Invasion. That was an amazing show, probably in front of about 60,000 people. However, I love doing more informal, DIY, security-less parties and small personal venues, so the size of a crowd means little to me. I feel the energy and impact (in large shows) dissipates into this sea of sheeple, most of them oblivious.

David: That was with the Adolescents?

Rikk: Yeah, before Casey and I got the boot for the fourth and last time. But now we’ve got the Radolescents, which is Casey, myself, and other people who were in the band at one point or another. The band had stopped doing all the early stuff, and people were jonesing for it—ourselves as well—so Casey and I threw this idea together to play the early hits and people went nuts. We had some people telling us we were better than the present Adolescents, but I would say: “Well, you’re just going down memory lane.” We don’t want to start a rift. Tony’s already not happy with this.

David: Tony Adolescent?

Rikk: Yeah, but he’s getting over it. I saw him the other night and we hugged. You know, we’re all best friends forever in the end. That’s another issue with the industry of music: once bands start making a buttload of money the ugliness manifests itself and brother turns on brother.  

David: I think that’s part of any industry, right? That’s the old Cyndi Lauper song: “Money Changes Everything.”

Rikk: Yep, that’s why you try and make the deals and financial agreements right at the quick of it. You’ve gotta get everything on paper so that there’s no arguments later. Do your history. That’s what always happens. 

David: That’s always been an issue in the music industry with record labels. 

Rikk: Yeah, but today you have more creative control. Back in the day you’d turn in a record and the labels would say we can’t accept this because it’s too this or too that. Oh, and you need to dress like this, cut your hair, and lose twenty pounds. Fuck that shit. A lot of bands would do it though. Maybe you’d make a lot of money, but the artists didn’t make it, the industry did. I love the current model because I have creative control and ownership over my music. If you want to sign with a record company you usually have to sign away half of your publishing, but there’s nothing wrong with that as long as they’re affiliated with a larger label and they really push it: get it in films, on TV, and such. 

David: That’s the same for distribution in the booze business. But it’s getting harder today with so many brands out there.

Rikk: That’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. Because of the saturation of the field they’re really cheap today with how they pay for publishing. They’ll only give you a one-time fee, whereas before it was a percentage over a certain amount of years. If you complain they’ll say: “We can get a hundred bands that sound just like you who will do it for free, so take it or leave it.” That’s life. 

David: You still seem to have a positive outlook through. I have a love/hate relationship with the modernity of the internet and the industry challenges that come with it. Having creative control is really important though. If I didn’t have that at K&L there never would have been a Frontier Records collaboration and we never would have pressed those records and made those spirits. We never would have met.

Rikk: Yeah, doing those side projects adds value and spice to life. Making things happen, not having to go by protocol all the time. That’s the joy. There’s the old adage: money cannot buy happiness. Happiness you can make for free. If you’ve having fun and you’re not worried about the money, it seems like things start falling into your lap. When I started taking care of myself, it seemed like things got easier. That’s when I realized I needed to start producing more and more. I’ve gotta use these gifts, I can’t abuse them. I was being rewarded for doing things the right way. The thing that makes me happiest in life is when people get something out of my music. 

David: That’s happening all the time, trust me.

Rikk: I get to meet people every now and again who say things like: your songs made me feel like you understood me, I wanted to kill myself, but you saved me life. When I hear things like that I get...excuse me…I get choked up. That’s a gift in life that you cannot buy. I can die happy after hearing that. 

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll