Why I’m not Writing About DIY Anymore

By: Tom Beedham

It’s 2017, and I’m sitting on the floor at a noise show at Toronto DIY music and art venue Double Double Land. The night of the fall equinox, the black-painted linoleum is sticky with residual summer heat, and even if you aren’t peeling yourself off the floor with every slight gesture, Alexandra Brandon has you pinned in place. Her electronics generating an abrasive wall of static from the side of the room, the Baltimore-based artist better known as TRNSGNDR/VHS is pacing the sparse, majority white audience and turning the apartment venue into an inverted microscope. 

She has questions, and she wants answers: how much can we really call these venues community spaces if the people living in the neighbourhoods they’re located in don’t show up for the parties? How many people spent money in neighbouring businesses before the show? Since our scenes thrive on cultural individualism, and individualism is essential for free-market capitalism, how are our scenes beneficial for the communities that facilitate them as they are being displaced and gentrified by capitalism? Does anybody here have a trust fund?

Brandon’s shows recently became more about creating open forums for scene dialogue than more (relatively) traditional concert performances. After a quick introduction at the top of the set, establishing some safer space rules, and requesting audience members answer using collective pronouns (“we,” “us,” etc.), she says we’re going to talk about this. If people don’t start volunteering to take the mic, she’ll start picking people to speak. 

It never comes to that, but they’re questions that simultaneously locate the performance, the audience, and the venue itself in relationship to the neighbourhood they’re occupying while putting a question mark next to the scene’s socio-economic bubble. It strikes me that this is easily the most confrontational gig I can remember attending, and I wonder what that says about this scene that often gestures toward community building. Three years later, I’m still wondering what opportunities we’re missing out on by approaching the informal creative environment we call the underground in centralist, individualist terms. Can we really keep talking about DIY and independent music if we truly wish to further the goals that initially attracted us to it?

It’s a bit of a colloquial trip how commonly DIY and independent music are spoken of in the same breath as – and often in conjunction with – community, espousing virtues like accessibility, inclusivity, equity, collaboration, resource sharing. Underground music culture has often – perhaps always – benefitted from inter-scene care and intervention, even since DIY and indie rock became vogue parlance in the 1980s and 1990s. So it’s even stranger how rarely this tenuous relationship goes under a critical lens.

From those early days, DIY and indie were purposefully codified as grassroots alternatives to corporate-major label hegemony, artists eschewing the bureaucratically byzantine formal structural elements of the recording industry (A&R, PR, distribution, publishing, tour managers) while leaning on brass tacks resourcefulness. Their activities necessitate a nurturing zone of communal support that ranges from word-of-mouth good will to informal tape and zine swapping networks.

Marathon van warriors like Black Flag and Hüsker Dü relied on the advice of fellow touring bands in their scene, and Vancouver hardcore pioneers D.O.A. played a pivotal role in connecting them with gigs in the Pacific Northwest.

“The hardcore grapevine had already spread word of the Hüskers, but hardly anybody had heard their music,” Michael Azerrad remarks on Hüsker Dü’s early success touring the Pacific Northwest in Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991. In 1981, the band played a week of shows in Seattle after D.O.A. hooked them up with some local punks responsible for Seattle music-forward newspaper The Rocket

It’s a scene tradition that’s sorely taken for granted about artists operating outside of the major system: budgets for booking research are minimal if existent, so bands and solo artists naturally turn to peers within the networks they’re embedded in. 

When Mark Milne, Sandy McIntosh, and Tim Poctocic of Tristan Psionic formed Sonic Unyon as an independent record label based in Hamilton, Ontario in 1993, it was simply a means to release their own music, but soon began promoting other local bands. The basement of their headquarters has often held shows and their business was eventually augmented with a distribution arm that represents over 200 non-majors like Jagjaguwar, Matador, Secretly Canadian, Thrill Jockey, and Warp. 

For Godspeed You! Black Emperor and their label homebase Constellation Records (est. 1997), you’ll be hard pressed to find a history of either that fails to mention the continued role Mile End enterprises like La Sala Rosa, Casa del Popolo, the Suoni per il Popolo festival, or the Hotel2Tango studio play in its existence. From 2003 through 2015, Toronto’s Blocks Recording Club provided a utopian outpost for locals operating outside the heteronormative guitar rock world, producing classics like Owen Pallett’s He Poos Clouds next to mini-CDs from anticommercial MC gangs that screamed over iPod “drummers.” It was about as “DIY” as you could imagine, but it thrived on mutual labour, including communal “make-days,” where labelmates came together to hand-assemble packaging for each others’ physical releases. They eventually incorporated as an artist-owned cooperative.

The energy and material flowing through these separately understood undertakings are intricately woven into narrative tapestries of cooperation. They’re not islands, so why do we talk about them like they are?

In function, the DIY/indie monikers seem to serve little more than a fetishization of the individual, their mythos virtually erasing entire networks of support and care. Furthermore, the groups most frequently erased from these ahistorical myths are too often their marginalized support givers, and artists themselves, even when the projects they contribute to are celebrated for their collectivism: the influences of Haitian and Jamaican music are largely overlooked (or written over with placeholders like “exotic”) in narratives surrounding Arcade Fire; Karen Ng has collaborated with Broken Social Scene on numerous occasions but still can’t get a mention in the seemingly endless list of members attached to their bios.

How do we flip that?

As an alternative, Rosina Kazi – one half of grassroots Toronto electronic duo LAL and a member of the artist-activist collective operating Sterling Road community art space Unit 2 – has been offering that we should extend our understanding of DIY to a DIT (Do-It-Together) ethos for years. 

“[W]e realized very quickly that we didn’t really do things ourselves. Often it was a group effort, as friends, community members, artists, chosen family, organizers, and activists. It is not really project-based, but rather an ongoing negotiated understanding that we can, and are, building and making things happen together to create a new collective future,” Kazi told Toronto Arts Foundation in a recent interview. “As a group of artists we have been collaborating for over 25 years. Without the support of our community we would not have survived.”

For Kazi, a DIT vision serves a larger intersectional, anti-colonial, anti-capitalist project, placing emphasis on collective contribution and consequences. Unit 2 has informed its programming accordingly with community dinners for QTBIPOC (queer/trans/two-spirit folx who are also Black/Indigenous/people of colour) and friends. They have also played host to Bricks & Glitter, an arts festival celebrating talent, ingenuity, caring, anger, and abundance within the same communities. When the pandemic hit, Unit 2 shifted the focus of their community dinner program to a food-delivering support program for street involved communities.

“We want to dismantle colonial and capitalist ways of moving in the world, and so we must do this together,” Kazi says.

A similarly decentralized notion has informed much of writer Liz Pelly and artist/researcher Mat Dryhurst’s writings on so-called independent music.

Having spent the past five years critically examining the streaming economy as a writer for The Baffler, Pelly has frequently questioned the adequacy of “independence” as it is articulated in relation to cultural production, especially in the context of Spotify’s monopolisation of the streaming landscape.

In a 2018 article comparing Spotify’s branding practices to Uber’s, Pelly warns that (1) there is nothing independent about attaching recorded music to an enormous consumer tech platform, and (2) that companies like Spotify co-opt notions of independence in their branding to instill trust in artists and capitalize on their precarity, meanwhile “bind[ing] these artists more tightly to the industry’s new centre of power.”  This twist of irony (3) further allows them to create more bleak conditions for independent music as we have previously understood it.

Spotify CEO Daniel Ek seemed to confirm as much in a July interview with Music Ally.

“You can’t record music once every three to four years and think that’s going to be enough,” said Ek. “The artists today that are making it realize that it’s about creating a continuous engagement with their fans […] It is about putting the work in, about the storytelling around the album, and about keeping a continuous dialogue with your fans.”

The “continuous engagement” Ek is talking about reads a lot like new content all of the time, and for Spotify’s purposes, that spells a workforce of around-the-clock free labour. Arriving months into a pandemic that decimated live music, these comments gave Ek’s suggestions an especially tone deaf flavour, and many offered where he should go.

“Another suggestion might be to look deeply into the darkest corners of existence, accept the inevitability of death as a lifelong companion, and pull notes like tendons from the corpse of false hopes until [the] universe resounds with uncontrived joy,” Charles Spearin tweeted in response to Ek’s comments. It was a bleak and glib reply, but The Happiness Project artist expressionistically articulated a relationship between labour and wellness that Ek sidestepped all too conveniently in his comments. 

Increased labour resulting in monetary gain that is so miniscule it cannot even begin to approach the cost of project upkeep often leads to burnout. That’s not a complicated calculus. We might additionally consider that a culture which centres the success of the individual alienates them from their peers, simultaneously overcomplicating their access to wellness while reinforcing precarity.

In a 2019 Guardian op-ed, Mat Dryhurst argued that we should cease romanticizing independence, offering a vision of  interdependence in its place.

“We need technical and economic concepts that reflect what working artists have long known to be true: an artist creating challenging work is dependent on resilient international networks of small labels, promoters, publications and production services to facilitate their vision,” Dryhurst wrote. “A vision of interdependence acknowledges that individual freedoms thrive in the presence of resilient networks and institutions.”

For Dryhurst, shifting from a culture of independence to one of interdependence would establish norms around investing in collective organization, allowing artists to pool resources and pursue cooperative-scene wealth initiatives or collectively bargain with corporate brands to invest in infrastructure within their scenes rather than supporting individual artists.

An artist and researcher who teaches at the New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, the Strelka Institute, and the European Graduate School, Dryhurst has turned the subject into an ongoing conversation with the Interdependence podcast he and his partner/collaborator Holly Herndon record with guests from their studio in Berlin, and frequently lectures on the subject.

In a slide Dryhurst uses to articulate some of the distinctions between understanding non-major-supported music as independent versus interdependent, he juxtaposes an independent music paradigm where “LISTENERS RENT MUSIC FOR PENNIES ON STREAMING PLATFORMS” next to an interdependent music ideal where “LISTENERS PAY ARTISTS DIRECTLY ON BANDCAMP/PATREON/MIXCLOUD/CURRENTS.FM.” 

This is not to suggest the Bandcamp, Patreon, Mixcloud and Currents.FM are perfect embodiments of the interdependent music virtue, but that an interdependent music culture would value listener patronage and establish it as a norm. (Also, Canadian streaming royalty rates – some of the worst in the world – might require the former to more accurately read “FRACTIONS OF PENNIES,” but that’s another issue.)

Caption: A teaching slide Mat Dryhurst uses when lecturing on the topic of interdependent music.
A teaching slide Mat Dryhurst uses when lecturing on the topic of interdependent music.

As a culture writer predominantly entrenched in emerging and experimental music, I have to consider how meme-level colloquial placeholders like “DIY” and “independent” can contribute to honest, diligent, and ethical journalism – but of course, there’s an intensely ironic conflict of interest wrapped up in all of this, too: the rise of streaming has coincided with a gutted music media, so how do I continue to employ the use of terms that have been co-opted by brandings that have been responsible for the dismantling of my own field? As Dryhurst suggested in his Guardian op-ed, Spotify “threatens to displace criticism as a source of music discovery. You could be forgiven for wondering if the elimination of the very institutions that lent credibility to the concept of independence is a core design priority.”

But maybe there’s room for change. Utopian as it might seem, the tour-stopping, world-flattening effect of the pandemic has already galvanized musicians and music workers around the world to engage with intersectional activism, banding together to unionize and form cooperatives.  After their formation in July, the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW) launched a campaign for justice at Spotify at the end of October, demanding the streaming giant “deliver increased royalty payments, transparency in their practices, and to stop fighting artists.” Meanwhile, Bandcamp has adopted a practice of waiving its revenue share for album and merch sales on the first Friday of each month.  On Juneteenth, Bandcamp held a fundraiser that ceded 100% of their share of sales to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, all simultaneously encouraging listener patronage. 

A new culture is emerging, so maybe I’ll write about that instead.