Is “DIY” Just Another Word For Nothing Left To Lose?
When I get sick, I tend to read music books. (I don’t really know why—maybe because all the plots are basically the same?) And during a recent illness, I broke out Michael Azerrad‘s telling of the indie foundational myth, Our Band Could Be Your Life, and it’s informed a lot of my thinking lately about the cyclical nature of the genre and our brave new world in which We Are All Indies. Whereas doing it yourself—DIY—was once one option among many and employed for specific aims, now it seems to have become more of a requirement for anyone wanting to put out an album. And that move, from a technique characterizing particular styles of music and levels of fandom to something that is supposed to envelop all of pop, represents a significant change in how we interact with music. As Digital Music News put it this morning, “is a DIY, niche-targeted, ‘middle-class musician’ goal not sexy enough for some artists—or their fans, for that matter?”
Azerrad’s book reminds us that, though the idea seems like a cliché now, at one time the idea of being a musician and making records was something only given to the elect. The do-it-yourself attitude, conceived out of a combination of ambition and necessity, was revelatory to a particular generation who may have grown up with punk but still saw the movement’s bands releasing albums on major labels; what started as adding a lower rung to the ladder became an end goal in itself, with labels like Dischord and K insisting that DIY techniques represented a way of making music that was anti-hierarchical, inclusive, and democratic. Artists who chose to subscribe to that particular philosophy became part of a system of mutual assistance which, at least theoretically, enabled them to make music without the need for a major label’s resources.
In the current age, DIY seems to have reverted to being a stepping stone to greater success, whatever that might mean. Except that, instead of being a lower rung on the ladder, the DIY rung is rapidly becoming the entire ladder, at least to hear a lot of folks tell it. And that means that the overtones of cooperation implied by the Dischord model are absent, resulting in the term being shorthand for “you’re on your own, kid” and coming with a much higher sweat equity. It’s worth pointing out that it results in a system that’s far from perfect, and the fact that nerds on the Internet might be happy with it doesn’t mean that everyone is—in particular, artists. It is true and fine that, as DMN says, the ultimate goal for a musician now is getting by, not luxury. But its practical ramifications would seem to conflict with the artistic expectations we have of musicians:
“I’m spending a lot of time connecting with fans… and I don’t feel as much of an artist as much as a promoter of Amanda Palmer,” Palmer relayed. “All of this instant connection has taken the place of making art. An idea that might have translated into a song before might now go into my blog instead.”
The article portrays this shift from luxury to sufficiency as “the traveling troubadour instead of the helicopter-riding hair band.” But, of course, that’s a misleading comparison; you also have the traveling troubadour—an artisan who must dedicate more time to promoting songs than writing them—instead of Brian Wilson, or Kevin Shields. As much as we came to ideologically detest that idea of the godlike musician, that aura of mystery has had a real appeal for fans as well, as evidenced by our continued tendency to embrace artists with compelling images. When an artist is chatting with you on Facebook or Twitter, that wall comes down and such mystery seems impossible. Of course, there’s always the option of dividing labor—have, say, the bassist do the blogging so the guitarist can get on with writing the songs and being the Mysterious Lone Genius. But that model isn’t being promoted so much.
Even if you like these sort of breakdowns, it’s important to ask if everyone else does, and if your status as a “free rider” on the imagistic system of pop has consequences for others. As the pie shrinks, the squabbling starts, and cooperation becomes impossible. Even the implicit cooperation of mutual ambivalence toward fans of other genres and other models breaks down in favor of grabbing whatever you can before it’s gone. Is this good? In a way, of course, it doesn’t matter. It is what it is.