He’s hunched over the monitors on the sticky black-smeared floors of Siberia, holding his video camera, as vocals and guitars scream out. He lurks in the shadows at the Knitting Factory, hastily gathering footage of the Ex. He’s behind you at the Siren Festival during the Liars’ set, with his lens looming over your shoulder, jumping from left to right between the masses of heads and shoulders. And there he is—that elderly white guy with the knotted and gray Rastafarian dreadlocks, the same ratty green T-shirt and worn pants, and bare feet at Northsix, comfortable and patient with a huge smile on his face as Deerhoof play their gloriously disjointed art-rock and roll.
The man with the cam is Joly MacFie, a 52-year-old English expatriate whose website, punkcast.com, is the well from which NYC TV’s New York Noise, a new weekly program on basic cable available in all five boroughs, draws its riches. The show focuses predominantly on New York bands, and on November 1 the program will air exclusive video footage of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (“Yeah! New York” and “Kiss Kiss”), Ari-Up and the New Crew (“Don’t Say Nothing”), and Oneida (“Privilege”), among others.
MacFie’s been posting bands on his website since 1997, and shooting them himself since 2000. His ubiquitous presence has turned him into a fixture of the indie scene: He’s at practically every show worth the admission price, and his catalog proves it. Punkcast.com boasts hours of digital video footage of local, national, and international touring acts. The site’s impressive show roster either stirs up fond reminiscences or utter regret: the Seconds, UK Subs, Japanther, Agnostic Front, X27, the Hissyfits, Touchdown, Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros, Khan and Kid Congo, and Kimya Dawson are among many featured artists. He has filmed everywhere from the hippest lofts, spaces, and cafés in Williamsburg (Right Bank, Publick House) to rock clubs—including some (Coney Island High, the Wetlands, Brownies) long gone.
“It’s incredible what you can do with a good digital camera,” MacFie excitedly begins, departing from his usually soft-spoken and quiet English demeanor. “You can take something that would have been mundane and forgotten and turn it into something powerful.”A cynical person might judge MacFie a scheming parasite who lives off other people’s work, or figure he’s simply a hermit with too much time on his hands, hoarding video footage to swap with wire-rimmed college twerps and hipster merch junkies. He’s neither. He doesn’t collect the videos he makes, and he sells them back to bands at a mere $2. (He offers them on his website for $4, and his cost of labor is $1 per video CD.) The truth is he’s a catalyst, a one-man street team. Not to mention just as much of a punk rocker as his video subjects, shirking copyright infringement issues in a time when the recording industry sues 12-year-old girls for using Kazaa. Yet despite this age of digital-piracy crackdowns, MacFie has no worries, and insists that not a single band has copyright issues with him.
Shirley Braha, a senior at Smith College and intern-producer of New York Noise, shares MacFie’s passion. After creating a more “subversive” format (the program was originally titled Big Apple Beats, and was going to air a panorama of New York artists from Frank Sinatra to Fat Joe), she posted on Yahoo’s NYhappenings Web group, (groups.yahoo.com/group/nyhappenings), asking for indie bands to send in videos and show footage. MacFie replied, and Braha visited him at his midtown studio. Her initial skepticism was quashed.
“He showed me Monotrona, Ladybug Transistor, Mazing Vids, Out Hud, Tallboys. I was hooked,” Braha says, beaming. “I was totally impressed with the audio.”
MacFie quietly states, “Basically I make stuff that people can use to show off to their friends and that bands can use as merchandise. My purpose is to take the scene and amplify it.”
With a sardonic expression he continues, “People write me e-mails and ask, ‘Can I trade you?’ I’ve got more stuff I shot than I can possibly process. I don’t need any more stuff; all I need is more hours in a day.”
He also maintains that he cooperates with bands’ wishes if they don’t want him to shoot and sell his videos. But he accepts only one reason: They want to control what represents them, because they consider that part of their art. MacFie says that Lydia Lunch made this argument to him on behalf of Jim Thirlwell of Foetus. Consequently, at a recent Knitting Factory show, MacFie passed on Thirlwell’s new band, Baby Zizanie, and shot opening act the Seconds instead.
“Joly is probably one of the most genuine people in the scene,” says Jeannie Kwon, bassist of the Seconds. “He does what he does out of love for music, not to make money.”
The personal philosophy behind MacFie’s operation is that in the vaporous world of cyberspace, there are a small number of people who upload to a great many people who download. MacFie has cast himself in the role of Uploader Supreme. He cites the Yeah Yeah Yeahs as a prime example of his work’s efficacy. MacFie says that when he shot them at the Mercury Lounge opening for Moldy Peaches, they were ecstatic. Guitarist Nick Zinner put the video up on the band’s website right away. However when MacFie shot them at their “secret” show at Maxwell’s a couple months ago, Zinner asked MacFie to sit on it, which MacFie saw as an acknowledgement of punkcast.com’s clout.
“[Zinner] knows I pick out the new songs and put them up. But he wanted to work [them out] more and have the joy of surprising people himself with them. So I did sit on them.”
MacFie knows about promotion. Back in 1976, he was the impresario of his day as the proprietor of Better Badges, a London-based badge (or button, as we say here) manufacturer and retailer. (His first badge stand was at the Roundhouse in London, on July 4, 1976, where an unknown band called the Ramones was in town to support its eponymous debut album.) Over six years, MacFie’s 150,000-pound-per-year operation pressed and sold 40 million badges. He negotiated cheap prices for printing work with local fanzines, and forged symbiotic relationships with a few struggling local record labels—Mute, Rough Trade, and Factory.
After too many bands and stores reneged on owed money, MacFie sold BB. Now a destitute tax fugitive, he relocated to Los Angeles and worked for a year and a half at Goldenvoice, a concert promotion company, where he put on shows for Social Distortion, the Circle Jerks, the Dead Kennedys, Sisters of Mercy, the Cult, and Einstürzende Neubauten. (These days Goldenvoice promotes the annual All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, Strokes shows, and Simon & Garfunkel concerts.) MacFie then moved to Manhattan in 1985 and revived his badge stand, selling buttons at the Ritz, the Marquee, and Irving Plaza. He also started an online zine, What’s Up, when e-mail first became available. At $1 per message, though, it folded after MacFie skipped out on a bill totaling nearly $600. Then came the short-lived phone-line version of What’s Up, which callers could dial up to hear interviews and scandal. The phone line also closed down due to financial constraints. In 1994, he inherited $20,000, and he later purchased all the video and computer technology that make punkcast.com possible.
“If you go in trying to make money, or with the mentality that you’re going to cash in, you’ll fail,” he says. “But if you go in there and say, ‘I’m going to try and build the scene,’ you’ll be a success.
“My mission is to live and eat and be catalytic really,” MacFie muses. “And that’s it.”
New York Noise airs weekly on Saturday nights at 11 on NYC TV. Check your local listings, or visit nyc.gov/html/nyctv/html/shows_ny_noise.html.