Column: DIY Roundtable Discussion

Brian Miller (Deathbomb Arc), Jordan Lee (Mutual Benefit), Nina Mashurova (Silent Barn), and Brent Smith (Portals) respond to a recent column on evolving DIY culture.


About a week ago I wrote what turned out to be a somewhat controversial think piece for Portals called DIY in Decline, in which I cataloged some of the changes in DIY touring in the last decade, and discussed some of the causes and effects of those shifts.

In my attempt to distill the nuance and diversity of these changes and the scenes themselves into less than 1000 words, I left some people in contemporary DIY communities feeling neglected, negated, and marginalized. In his excellent, must-read response piece, Mutual Benefit’s Jordan Lee writes, “whether Ben meant to or not, I felt like the article was almost advising people to not take a shot at touring when they’re a young nameless band and that notion made me sad.” That was the furthest thing from my intention, and today I hope we can help shift that tone.

I am joined today for a round table discussion by Brian Miller (Deathbomb Arc, True Neutral Crew, Foot Village), Jordan Lee (Mutual Benefit), Nina Mashurova (Silent Barn, Portals), and Brent Smith (Portals). This selection of contributors contains a wide sampling of past and current touring DIY musicians, writers, and venue operators, all of whom come at this topic from very different but very compelling places, as you’ll read below. —Ben Martin

Brian Miller (Death Bomb Arc, True Neutral Crew, Foot Village)

Before I get into where I think grassroots touring is at here and now, I want to talk about the irrelevance of the term DIY at this point. When I first would read about DIY as a teen in the early 90s, it felt probably the same way as it does for young excited musicians now: a battle cry to make incredible things happen on one’s own terms. That feeling will always remain legitimate. The thing is, DIY is a term that has become commodified and perhaps even codified by this point. I’ve seen the term printed on boutique greeting cards at stores my mom would shop at for cutesy stuff. I’ve seen the term tossed around by people working at all levels of art. I’m not talking about the death of the spirit behind DIY, but rather just that any vague idea like this that lasts long enough eventually entails so many contradictory elements that it becomes misleading. Much like the meaninglessness of the genre term ‘noise’ at this point, it could mean almost anything to say DIY.

I’ve booked many tours for Foot Village that pass through the same venues where bands with professional bookers play. Foot Village performed at two ATP fests, both with no booking agent to help us out. I’ve booked my own tours that have made money. I’ve had tours booked for me by professional agents that lost money. The terms by which a tour can be considered successful vary depending upon one’s goals. Attendance and profit aren’t necessarily a 1:1 ratio. For some, participating in a fantasy of what being a cool band is might be enough—playing at certain venues or with certain bands even if both attendance and money is scarce. Does one’s definition of DIY even include success in any of these categories, or just that the process didn’t involve outside help? Knowing one’s goals for a tour is the most important thing. It can help shatter preconceived notions of the right way of doing a tour.

For me personally, I want people to be at a show. I make music shared publicly because I want people to experience it. I also am married and don’t want my family to suffer financially just because I get to go share my art. This means that as gas prices rise and many of the venues/underground scenes become unable to provide “break even” amounts of money to bands, I can’t just get in the van because it sounds fun.

On the other hand, technology has come a long way since booking shows by phone and there is at least one new solution that I truly love: The internet live stream show. I’ve seen many of these from the comfort of my own home and I fucking love them. The term “Internet Popular” is used in a derogatory manner, but like most new things, it translates to “I’m prejudiced against young people.” Internet Popular can mean an act actually has an insanely huge audience. Who cares if very few of them live in the same town? With these live stream internet shows, I’ve seen acts perform for hundreds of people at once even though they probably couldn’t get more than 30 into a normal club. It is super futuristic. My own label, Deathbomb Arc, did a live stream internet show about a year and a half back. Long before anyone outside of LA had even heard of them, both clipping. and I.E. performed. Again, for hundreds of people. And the response was incredible. It made both acts a bunch of loyal fans. I’m not saying this internet show is directly responsible for the recent success of both acts, but it definitely was a meaningful step along the way. And best of all, was at no risk of financial loss.

So yes, things are changing and doing things some old way just because it is established as cool is not worth holding onto. Art is the safe place for dangerous ideas, and that includes method, not just content. Dare to say fuck off to the past and defy what is sacred. Think about the resources we really have and how to use them for goals you actually want. Make your own paths. The only thing I’m not interested in changing as time goes on is my ethic of helping everyone I can. That is a philosophy beyond selfishness and selflessness, because if everyone shares it, we all win. Death to DIY, long live DIY.

Jordan Lee (Mutual Benefit)

I wrote my original rebuttal because I strongly believe there is a vibrant, thriving scene, online and all over the US, of resourceful artists, underground venues, unpaid music writers, and show-goers who are undeterred by the unique challenges of these times and continue to support one another because it feels right. The main problem I find with the logic of “DIY in Decline” is the idea that commercially aspirational pop music and art/DIY communities are an either/or situation, that one’s fate effects the other. I see them a lot more as two independent spheres that occasionally overlap.

What I’m not trying to do is make sweeping statements or seem dogmatically against music industry people or shame musicians trying to make a sustainable career out of music anyway they can. Sure, if you compare Lana Del Ray with Godspeed You Black Emperor than it seems like they exist in different universes, but some of my favorite discussion after these articles were written came from the band Hundred Waters. To me, they represent an interesting middle ground. Their music is meticulously crafted with lots of band members and instruments, not to mention they have serious potential for broad appeal. Their success in that context isn’t at the expense of people trying to self-book or make less commercially viable music, nor does it negate the value of more informal touring situations where fewer parties stand to gain or lose financially from the night and the performers are free to express themselves anyway they want (for better or worse).

Everyone has their own value system. I don’t like playing 21+ shows, and I especially don’t like feeling like an entertainer on stage who exists only to bring beer and ticket sales to some run-of-the-mill bad vibes venue that doesn’t care whether its me or Pearl Jam karaoke on stage. I feel like it contaminates this very special thing that all of us have inside to share. I’d take an intimate living room show for two or three dozen people pretty much any day. Maybe I’m just crazy, but the less money and the less the performer/audience dynamic come into play the more special of a night it usually turns out to be.

I’m sure those words seem super counter-intuitive and probably just plain stupid to anyone who is trying to use music as a part of their career path—and I don’t think they’re wrong. But that’s why I find myself often identifying with my weirdo friends in the DIY community rather than the music industry, even though both spheres have been important and valuable in my journey.

Nina Mashurova (Silent Barn, Portals) 

I feel like DIY has always been first and foremost a localist movement. It’s not about waiting for Drake or even for Dan Deacon to come through town, it’s about recognizing that local bands are just as important as nationally accepted cultural ambassadors, about encouraging and supporting your community, and about feeling empowered to start something if you don’t see or hear it existing. In Every Town—The All Ages Manifesto, is one of the best DIY documents I’ve ever read, and its whole theory is that while fostering a national DIY circuit is a neat bonus, it’s most important to develop a local infrastructure, without which a national circuit can’t even hope to exist.

In other words, maybe DIY with a national scope is in decline, but I’m not sure that was ever a real thing to begin with.

There is definitely a school of thought that posits the DIY scene as a sort of little league to the pros, or the lowest rung on a career ladder. This is actually getting to be increasingly true. Major labels rarely need to manufacture artists from the ground up—they can swoop in DIY scenes and snatch up their pick from a crop of self-made cultural workers, many of whom even come with existing fanbases. For business-savvy young artists, DIY then becomes a very practical thing to engage in, to an extent. And if practicality acts as the yardstick, DIY touring is definitely not the best use of time or resources.

However, DIY has always appealed to me when it’s something inherently impractical—something that resists commodification. DIY is an arena to rewrite existing scripts, to experiment, to value process as much as (or even more than) product, to interact with people on a human level. In that sense, the DIY tour is a worthwhile experience in itself—meeting strangers, discovering scenes and kindred spirits in new towns, leaving the daily routine and seeing something new, and doing all this at the exact moment you want to, not when your manager tells you that you’re ready.

Yes, it will probably lose you money, the way that a DIY venue will probably get shut down in a couple of years. But acceptance of failure is a sort of liberation. Everything interesting happens at the margins. The chaos is what’s appealing.

Brent Smith (Portals)

It’s important to understand how vastly different of an experience one can have with what we’re calling DIY/DIT. There is no all uniting umbrella to classify or define this approach. As much as social media can now bridge together disparate and far flung communities, there are still so many varying factors that can alter perceptions as to the current state DIY/DIT is in—style, ethos, tradition, geographic location, and so forth. Ben’s assessment accounted for a few of these factors, but perhaps it felt a bit oversimplified in that it failed to leave the door open for others. In any event, this is his impression, one coming from an individual who has been involved with DIY communities and touring for many years, and it is a valid one.

Differences of opinion are absolutely valid. Let’s seize this as an opportunity to put a critical lens on how we view DIY/DIT, and better understand where it’s come from, where it is, and where it’s going. Let’s not take social media for granted in assuming we’re all on the same page, and understand that maybe things are happening a bit differently in different minds and different communities. And this is such a good thing. This means we can still learn from one another, even if we don’t always agree on everything. In the spirit of togetherness, let’s embrace that.

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