Comfort With Disorder: Finn Mckenty of The Punk Rock MBA

Underground music, especially the extreme spaces of punk, hardcore and metal, has always had a do-it-yourself (DIY) ethos. There’s a lot that goes into it, but the main principles that emerged out of the early 1980s are: make the music you want, without worrying about the mainstream; don’t ask permission to start a band, label, venue or zine, just do it; and don’t rely on big, corrupt institutions to come and make you a star, build a network of people with real passion and integrity.

On its face, you might think this has no relevance to the world of business and commerce. After all, many of the bands were (at least rhetorically) openly hostile to the corporate world and its oftentimes stifling conformity, monotony and mode of exploitation. But this isn’t exactly right. Stripped of its aesthetics, the underground network of labels, venues and bands, was a very entrepreneurial effort. It stood in opposition to the music business, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a commercial enterprise. It’s like a small, specialty shop vs. a giant chain.

Regardless of the economic system you want in place, there will always be a demand for goods and services, and there will always be people with creative, independent and unorthodox ways of meeting that demand. That is part of what makes the underground so special. And as the head of The Punk Rock MBA, it’s Finn Mckenty’s mission to educate people about it.

Finn Mckenty is the Director of Operations at URM Academy, which is an online school for rock and metal producers. But aside from his day job, he also runs a fun and informative YouTube channel and Podcast called The Punk Rock MBA. In his videos, Finn dives into topics like how a certain band got big, what made a genre big and then what killed it, musings on bands that should have gotten bigger, and a host of other topics. His channel represents a synthesis of his time in the metal, punk and hardcore scenes, and his background in marketing and other fields.

Typically, he ends each video by describing what people can learn from a business perspective. Much of what he says is targeted at professionals in marketing, design, advertising and other creative areas, but it can certainly be applied to sales, finance and product strategy—given the right context. He occasionally dives into other relevant topics like education, mental health and addiction, including a very personal and powerful video about the straight-edge scene.

I wanted to learn more about what he does and why he decided to put the channel together. So here’s our chat, along with some of his videos:

Hey man, thanks for taking the time to chat with us at Decibel. Tell us about the Punk Rock MBA. What is it, and what would you say is its mission statement?

The Punk Rock MBA is my YouTube channel (and now podcast!) where I unpack trends in DIY culture: punk, hardcore, metal and all the adjacent scenes and subcultures like skateboarding, graffiti, visual art and so forth. Maybe I am getting up my own ass here, but my goal is to help anybody watching/listening get a little closer to whatever their goals are, whether that’s getting more people to listen to their band, understand a little more about themselves, start their own business, or just be more comfortable with who they are as a human.

I don’t think of it as being about music per se, although most people probably do… to me it’s about understanding human behavior more than anything else. Why do people like what they like, and do what they do? I talk about all of that in the context of music because that’s what we’re all familiar with, but it’s about the culture and ideas around the music more than the music itself.

But maybe I am just being like the dudes in thrash bands who would say stuff like, “A lot of people think of us as a thrash band, but we’ve always thought of ourselves as a punk-influenced speed metal band with hardcore elements; we don’t understand the ‘thrash’ label at all!!!”

A lot of people within the punk and hardcore communities are suspicious or outright hostile to the idea of “business” or commerce. Are they mistaken? What are they getting wrong or missing?

What they’re missing is that business, and specifically entrepreneurship, is at the absolute heart of the punk and hardcore communities.

This is really ironic to me, because it’s not even a matter of punk/hardcore and business peacefully coexisting, they are the same thing!

All your favorite DIY labels, magazines, websites, venues and other cornerstones of the “scene infrastructure” are businesses. Most of them aren’t operated with the focus on maximizing profits and shareholder value that you would find in a Fortune 500 company or whatever, but they’re fundamentally no different: they need to at least break even in order to keep doing what they do for the scene. And all your favorite artists, producers and other creative people who play a vital role in the scene are also entrepreneurs, no different than CPAs, real estate agents, landscapers, or anyone else who decides to hang up their shingle and take the crazy risk of betting on themselves.

If you’re not into business, that’s totally cool, it’s not for everyone. Just understand that it is the engine that enables the whole scene to exist, and at the very least don’t stand in the way of the people who make it run.

Likewise, what do you think business practitioners, even those beyond creative industries or departments, can learn from the underground extreme music scene?

There’s a lot, but the main thing is simple: don’t wait for permission. Just do shit.

I didn’t realize this was an uncommon way to operate until I worked at Abercrombie & Fitch with a lot of people who went to fancy Ivy League schools. I was a bit intimidated at first, because I’m just a guy who got an undergrad business degree from a mid-tier midwest state school. These people went to Harvard and Yale, they must be way better at everything than I am, right??

But after working with them for a while, what I realized is that they weren’t actually great problem solvers at all. They were great at following a script, because that’s how you get into those schools: get good grades, have the right extra-curriculars, write the perfect application essay, etc.

And hats off to them for that, because they went to Yale and I didn’t. But I realized that when the shit hit the fan (as it pretty much always does in business), they often flailed because there was no script for them to follow.

On the other hand, for those of us who grew up putting out zines, doing basement shows, shitty van tours and all that, chaos is second nature. For example, when you roll up to the venue only to find out that the show was cancelled, the promoter is nowhere to be found, and you’re SOL. But you hustle, make a few calls, and somehow or another you find another show in town to play that night and all is well.

And because of that comfort with disorder and ambiguity, we are often way more effective than people who have better credentials but can’t handle the chaos that is business.

Do you have an example from your career in which you used your experience in the scene to achieve success?

Tons! The most obvious one is my “day job” as Director Of Operations for URM Academy, an online education company for rock and metal producers, where vast knowledge of weird music is actually a requirement to do the job.

But beyond that, almost every job I’ve ever gotten is directly because of the friendships I’ve made in the scene. As one particularly random example, I actually got my job at Abercrombie & Fitch through someone that read my old metal blog!

It’s really interesting how the people you hang out with at shows as a kid can become your professional network as an adult. There are hardcore, punk and metal people in the ranks of every company, even ones you would never expect. I get messages all the time from people who are, say, corporate attorneys at Microsoft or engineers at Amazon.

I think this is especially true in hardcore (vs. other genres) where people tend to either become pretty successful or complete burnouts, rarely much in between.

Let’s talk about metal for a second. You’ve talked before about metal, oftentimes in a trolling and satirical manner. But you’ve since backed away from this, as you mentioned in a recent video.

There’s a certain segment of metal fans that can be real assholes online, and to be honest they annoy the shit out of me because I really dislike rude people. Sometimes it can be fun to fuck with them, but the truth is that it’s a waste of my time and energy and sets a bad example. Engaging with them is what THEY want. Like in that old movie War Games, “the only winning move is not to play.”

Unfortunately, that means I have to avoid talking about metal, because any time something metal-related comes up, they come out of the woodwork and ruin the vibe by being dicks to everyone. I’m not saying I won’t ever talk about metal, but I do have to be careful about it for the sake of my own sanity and to keep my comments from being a total cesspool (I read all of them and I greatly value the people who comment).

You’re a big fan of old-school death metal. Why do you think you’re drawn to this style of metal the most?

When I was a kid I was always on the hunt for something more extreme and aggressive. First it was your typical hardcore, thrash and crossover kinda stuff like The Accused, Suicidal Tendencies, Black Flag, DRI and Sepultura– then I discovered the Earache “Grindcrusher” comp with Morbid Angel, Napalm Death, Terrorizer, etc and the “At Death’s Door” comp with Deicide, Obituary, Pestilence, etc. and it was all over!

At the risk of sounding like a boomer, I find newer death metal kind of sterile, overproduced and not heavy even though it’s probably objectively “better.” It’s just too polished and perfect for me … I like the rawness of OSDM, although I’m very aware that’s probably because I am old, and it just sounds like shit to most younger people.

Don’t worry, that doesn’t make you sound like a boomer. But it sure makes you sound like a Gen-Xer! There’s a lot of “new” old-school death metal bands out there jocking the old ways. What do you think about bands that take on an old style on purpose? Is it a sign of stagnation or a pathway to find new avenues for a form of art?

Just to be clear, I’m not the “MUSIC THESE DAYS IS TRASH WHAT HAPPENED TO REAL MUSIC!!!” guy. Generally speaking, I think today’s music is way better in every way!

As far as new bands that emulate an old style, it’s not very interesting to me. In my opinion, the appeal of some specific styles like “real punk” and old-school death metal is that they sound the way they do because of a kind of genuine naivete that can’t be faked or recaptured … that context is critical for me.

In other words, to me it sounds good specifically because they didn’t know what the fuck they were doing, and it’s impossible to have that vibe 30 years later when the formal aspects of the genre are very well defined and the clay is no longer wet. It just feels kind of contrived to me, like faux-outsider art made by people who are the definition of insiders.

That’s why I’m always interested in whatever the new version of “kids making shit in their bedrooms that the grownups hate” is at any given moment in time—the true outsider art. Death metal and black metal were that in the 80s and 90s, metalcore and EDM were that in the 2000s, and rap is that today. I’m sure that will eventually become stagnant too and something else will take its place.

How would you define “selling out?” Did people make it up as yet another way to socially one-up each other in conversation? Or is there something to this concept?

It’s hard for me to wrap my head around this one … I suppose the easy definition is “doing something you don’t want to do because you want the money.” Or maybe more precisely, when the inevitable “art vs. commerce” trade-offs come up, making those trade-offs in favor of commerce over art.

I don’t get it. Who am I to tell someone else how to manage their career? If you wanna get paid, then good for you, get the bag! I think a lot of it is sour grapes to be honest: resentful people who never got the success they wanted and cope with their own feelings of failure and inadequacy by cutting down those who did succeed.

Don’t be that guy/gal … it won’t make you feel any better, it just makes you look like a pathetic, sore loser.

What is your primary work with bands nowadays? For example, I’m a big fan of Periphery (esp #2) and A Day to Remember (esp Homesick), what cool stuff have you done for those guys?

I’ve worked with the Periphery guys a lot over the years on a bunch of different projects: first with Matt and Nolly at CreativeLive, then with a couple of companies they co-founded (GetGood Drums and Horizon Devices) as well as promoting some of their tours, albums and merch. For ADTR, it was mostly promoting some tours, merch and Self Help Fest via their management company Fly South.

I’m not currently working with any bands, just because there are only so many hours in the day and I have to be picky about what I spend them on. I spend most of my time on URM Academy/Nail The Mix, with the rest of it going to PRMBA and that just doesn’t leave much time for anything else.

…Favorite Hatebreed album? Favorite Hatebreed song?

Every album has several bangers, but if I had to pick one it would be The Rise Of Brutality. Favorite song is definitely “Diehard As They Come,” with runner-up being “Chose Or Be Chosen.”