Today on Twitter dot com I came across this tweet thread:
Many of you probably saw it, too, and I’m starting here because it’s where the decision to write this comes from. It’s about divorcing diy from genre descriptor and focusing on creating resilient communities based in local spaces and democratizing the supply chain. It’s a great point of discussion that lands on “to not place your faith in record labels to save you from squalor” which is, I think, an important point for small independent artists. It’s a call to invest in diy around you rooted in understanding of what diy is.
diy as a concept is rooted in anti-capitalism and providing an alternative to corporate and capitalistic industries. It isn’t exclusive to music or art but that’s where I’m going to focus here today.
I don’t think it’s that valuable to try to define hard line what is or is not diy as a form of gatekeeping or a marker of who is or isn’t ethical. Conversation around whether labels and distribution or management can be diy isn’t all that relevant (even if I’ve fallen into doing so) and leads to more argument over mincing identity than purposeful work toward more equitable experience, in this case, within music and art.
What is valuable is discussion over how the co-opting of the term has material harm on the communities that act. This, to me, comes in two major forms: bands (or labels!) that identify themselves with diy ethics but do not exist as diy acts and music writers who have assisted greatly in aestheticizing the term.
When it comes to artists self identifying with diy, it’s not always bad but there is a specification that needs to be made about diy artists and artists that identify with diy ethics who have grown to a size in which that is not feasible. A few months back I watched Stefan Babcock from PUP’s live stream of him answering questions and playing a video game. In it he got a question about what inspired his diy label, Little Dipper (it starts at 31:58 if you’re interested in his exact words).
He describes how PUP is no longer a diy band but Little Dipper a way to hold onto their diy roots and maintain creative control as that’s really important to them as a band. He underlines how great the people involved with PUP are while acknowledging their diy roots. Greta Kline has expressed similar sentiments about Frankie Cosmos being seen as a diy band and why they’re not, as well as acknowledging how their reputation as the poster child for diy “ruined” it. She describes self management up until far into their career as a band until being physically unable to do it anymore due to the size of the band. Both sentiments are really interesting looks into how existing as diy acts prior to major growth impacts the way artists view their teams, current success and how they go about being in their bands now.
PUP is an overtly political band that does and has used their platform to benefit causes they believe in. To divorce them from diy entirely due to not being a diy act at present is to do a disservice to the power that diy communities hold. However, it is pertinent to the discussion of reclaiming an accurate use of diy, that artists do actively separate themselves from being called diy acts.
(The mention of Frankie Cosmos/Greta Kline isn’t done with the intention to discuss the breakdown of how wealth and connections pushed Frankie Cosmos to their current success nor the privilege of people who may or may not exist within diy circles. I simply feel that trying to discuss the harm in aestheticizing of diy without discussing Frankie Cosmos would be a major mistake.)
When we allow artists to continue with the public opinion that they are diy while existing within and profiting from corporate music and art industries, that contributes to the perception of diy not as a method of action but as a lifestyle and identity choice. This, in turn, waters down the political and anti-capitalistic nature of diy communities and ethics. When artists actively detach themselves from being called diy artists, it is a help against the watering down of the term.
The other side of the coin is in the way bands are discussed. I’m talking about diy being considered a genre through fans looking for a way to identify a scene of bands they don’t feel comfortable putting one genre label on (genre’s dead right?) as well as the role music writing has in the genre-fication of diy. Music writers’ greatest work in watering down what diy means is shown beautifully through the height of popularity of Frankie Cosmos. The push to define FC and the artist community around them as the poster child for diy has a great deal to do with the way diy is perceived today. “Bedroom pop” being used for artists that have a similar aesthetic despite recording in studios is closely related. These terms that indicate a way something was created or a community it belonged to being used instead as genre descriptors creates a problem in which it becomes exclusionary.
The perception of “diy kids” as predominantly white people into lo-fi indie rock / pop (the irony of using “indie” here is not lost on me) is actively contrary to the point of diy. It should be a method of working that is counter to industry but instead it mimics the music industry’s racism and gatekeeping of exposure to those who look and act a certain way.
It is important that people who have influence over the way musicians are defined, be it artists themselves or music writers or people with a lot of followers on twitter, maintain an awareness for why you’re using certain terms. This extends to terms like RnB for pop artists who just happen to be black or indie to describe something that sounds like your 2007 perception of what “indie” was. You don’t need to be linked to old timey genre boxes but be intentional with what the words you’re using indicate.
I can hear you asking, why does this matter? Why should we mince words about diy and who is or is not diy? If PUP is sick (and PUP is sick), uses their platform for good and still identifies with diy ethics then why does it matter?
Well, it’s important because when companies have artists that are considered diy and represent people who are viewed as being part of a diy community without the distinction that they are no longer diy, that ethical and political association is implicitly placed upon the company itself. Association is a powerful tool. When diy communities and ethics are aestheticized to the point of representing specific genres or music scenes while being loaded with historical purpose and political associations, that is dangerous and, potentially, anti-artist.
Take Tiny Engines. Tiny Engines was (is?) a label based heavily within the indie punk scene. A label full of bands you might find mentioned all over diy twitter. There was a perception of them taking small bands and giving them access to resources and a listener base that they may not have had without TE. That is, after all, the role of independent labels. However, when we associate a label with a diy community due to genre or due to the personal ethical points of view of the artists, that label is viewed as, in turn, embodying the ethics of diy.
But now we know Tiny Engines wasn’t paying all of their artists properly for years and (allegedly) used intimidation and manipulation tactics to keep those artists from speaking out. This reputation vs reality is antithetical to what diy is and should be. I find it impossible to divorce the perception of diy and punk as inherently ethical and political from the systematic screwing over of artists in exchange for money or power.
Some labels can be considered diy. A tiny label helping small artists they believe in distribute their music isn’t inherently anti-diy. Asian Man Records? Don Giovanni? Diy? I’d say definitely embody diy ethics but the answers can vary and that’s not wrong. Like I said earlier, this mincing isn’t the point. Diy is also about community and that isn’t necessarily JUST artists. It’s trying to work in opposition to the industry so it’s best to be wary when the “diy music scene” starts to parallel the corporate music industry. For me, that’s being wary of music publications that tout themselves as anti-capitalist and socialist that rely heavily on PR to cover independent artists. It’s being wary of the role of PR in diy at all. It’s being wary of labels that are associated with diy on the basis of genre not action.
In my opinion, that change in mentality starts with the way we perceive what diy is and being intentional with the way we attribute it to artists.
As smaller and mid-tier artists have to reassess what being a musician looks like without touring, I think the nurturing of local diy communities is going to be vital. Direct fan to artist interaction has proven powerful. Diy isn’t against making money off your art, it’s a rejection of a capitalistic system in place that dictates who and what should be pushed.
Can’t believe I wrote this without mentioning zines once. I’m a new woman.
Here’s some articles and stuff about diy historically / fanzines / other stuff related:
Punk/counter culture specific (focus on fanzines + global perspective. first 40 pages that are available on google are a decent intro and include a bunch of cited zines at the end that are cool to look into. this book is really fucking expensive.)