Interview: Henry Rollins: Hardcore Punk Icon, Radio DJ, and… Content Marketer?
In the 1980s, Henry Rollins was the scowling, bloodied face of American hardcore music. He snarled and screamed his way through years of blistering music history, performing as the frontman of the Los Angeles band Black Flag.
In many ways, Rollins is still the man he was in the ’80s. Fans identify with his particular brand of counter-culture—Rollins has been famously straight-edge (abstaining from alcohol, cannabis, and even red meat) for decades. He’s also a relentless, prolific performer. It’s just that the content of his performances has shifted slightly.
Once, he was famous for getting physical with the crowds that attended his shows. As he told The Los Angeles Times at the height of Black Flag’s fame, “Violence was my girl … I got beat up, and I beat other people up.”
For this reason, it was a bizarre experience watching Rollins, now 56, address a crowd of several hundred people at Content Marketing World in Cleveland. I’ve interviewed him before, so I know that he’s spent the last decade traveling the world and creating different kinds of art. But content marketing?
Rollins says his relationship with brands and content has changed drastically over time. For instance, it became increasingly tough to fund artistic projects with money from media companies. In 2016, when the owners of LA Weekly unceremoniously laid off most of the newsroom, Rollins walked away from the column he had been writing for seven years in solidarity.
After that, Rollins expanded his list of possible collaborators to include the occasional brand or content marketing conference. He seems to have a sense of humor about it all. In 2018, Rollins told me that laughing at himself was the only way he could avoid “bemoaning his aging carcass.” After years of performing and writing for a disillusioned, edgy crowd, Rollins seems to understand that his brand can be aimed at martech nerds too. After all, a captive listener is a captive listener.
The renaissance marketer
As one of the 2019 keynote speakers at Content Marketing World, Rollins delivered a presentation that was thankfully Keynote-free. He paced around the huge stage, delivering material that was partially adapted from his sold-out spoken word tours and cult-beloved radio show, though he added a meditation on content creation and curation.
The speed at which garbage is churned out, Rollins told the crowd, has increased beyond his wildest imagination since he began his media career. He practically pleaded with us to take pride in their work, and to calibrate our output to ensure that we put more good than evil into the world.
Most notably, he used the word “content” in his passionate missive. Like, a lot. This was the first thing I asked him to explain when I met him backstage. How could one of the most famous rebels of all time feel comfortable using a marketing buzzword, one that makes so many professional writers cringe?
“I remember a few years ago hearing, ‘I really like your content,'” Rollins explained. “And I started to have contempt for the idea, because it’s mere content. People would say, ‘Well, we need some content’ and I was like, ‘Oh.'”
I should add that hearing this particular “oh” come from Rollins’ mouth is devastating. It sounds like it’s coated in liquid hate. “When Capitol Records brought me in to do some work a couple years ago, they said, ‘We want you to interview people about records, maintaining your vinyl, stuff like that. For the content.’ I thought, ‘Hm, there’s that word again.’ But it doesn’t have to be bad. The way it gets slung around makes it sound like you’re describing gruel for the rabble. It’s just content, you know? The thing is, we’re all content creators, providers, consumers.”
Rollins considers himself a content creator now that he’s in his 50s. What’s the harm in that? Well, I pressed him further, citing a 1993 Rolling Stone interview where he said this about working with brands:
“I’ve done voice-overs for the Gap. Why? This sounds loaded – I did it for the money. Do I enjoy standing in a studio reading copy? No, I’d rather drink paint. But with the money I can make in 10 minutes doing that, I bought more software [for the book company] and put out two hooks. I love going into major media holes, slick agencies, taking that money and putting it into my own little art projects. I love spending corporate money on counterculture art. To me, it’s a Rambo mission.”
Was Rollins’ appearance at CMW another Rambo mission?
“We as content creators can’t have any contempt for the industry, because we want to be taken seriously,” he said. “We want to have a job next year and we want to do good. So we can’t go, ‘Yeah, sure, I provide content, now get out of my house.'”
Though he’s lucky to work for himself these days, most professionals can’t afford to reject certain terminology when all they want to do is create art. More importantly, most consumers have to be incredibly selective about choosing who gets their time and money.
“I meet people after my shows who are just barely hanging on. Two kids, a car that doesn’t work, a bad job, and the house is falling apart,” Rollins said. “I know that they put down a big chunk of a paycheck to pay a babysitter and come see me. That’s my audience.”
Rollins seems to believe that working for himself or a brand shouldn’t change the central mission: to entertain and provide a cathartic service to his audience. However, there is a lot of content Rollins isn’t interested in. After writing 27 books and working as on-camera talent for different networks, he’s constantly fielding requests to do more.
“I had to reinvent what content meant to me,” he said. “I make things that people consume one way or the other. For a while, it was people saying, ‘Hey, read my blog,’ and now it’s, ‘Hey, listen to my podcast,’ to which I say, ‘No.’ Then they ask, ‘Hey, be on my podcast,’ and I say, ‘Extra no.'”
Content marketers, I told him, are told constantly to create engaging work, but there’s not a lot of instruction out there for those who want to tune their ear to quality. He said he tries to be “hyper-aware” of his audience’s needs. “I don’t want to waste their time. I’m not in it for the wallet, and I truly want to give them something good.”
The once famously angry Rollins doesn’t get angry much anymore. But if anything could set him off, it would be lazy and thoughtless creators.
“I want to be smarter leaving than when I came in. More informed,” he said. “I do this for a living, so I know when someone’s phoning it in … That’s the thing that bedevils a lot of content: mediocrity. It’d be more interesting if it was awful, but if it’s just, like, eh? I’m not even going to write you a letter in that case, I’m just going to go somewhere else.”
Becoming a faithful content retriever
One avenue of content marketing Rollins added to his tool-belt recently is content curation. He has traveled around the world to track down counter-culture music from the furthest reaches of human civilization, talking to young people in places including North Korea, Syria, Lebanon, and Sri Lanka about the punk or death metal music that excites them. “Then I stick that Sri Lankan death metal on my radio show, and my listeners say, ‘Is that Sri Lankan death metal?’ and I say, ‘You’re damn right it is, and I climbed a mountain to get it!'”
He calls this role the content retriever, which is slightly different to his past role as a content creator. “I’m a retriever dropping the content rat or pheasant at your feet. Because of the freedom I’ve found in my career, I can book travel, do my reportage, and I come back with a human story,” he told me after the presentation. “And I use every part of the deer. I use all of it. I take photographs, I interview people. It turns into a thing for a magazine. It goes into a newspaper. It’s my next travel book. It goes into my next photo book.”
As a content marketer who previously identified as a counter culture writer, it’s refreshing to hear my childhood idol make sense of the changing industry. I figure, if Henry Rollins is open minded enough to think quality content can come from a brand, well, I dare anyone to try and change that guy’s mind.