Ben Martin discusses the state of DIY touring and how we got here.
A few weeks ago, Phil Elverum, the legend behind The Microphones and Mount Eerie, posted an interesting quote on Twitter: “If I played a show there over 5 years ago, it’s most likely a condo now.” Reading that off-handed tweet, it struck me just how much the DIY scene really has changed in the last few years. It doesn’t feel that long ago that you could see Thee Oh Sees or Ponytail or Dan Deacon dropping through town on an all-DIY tour. And while some of these shows and venues are still around, we seem to have moved past the golden age of the DIY circuit.
Like most bad things in life, it’s mostly rich people’s fault. Little did cool urbanites in the early 2000s know that by making cities awesome, we would make it super appealing for rich people to move in once their suburban McMansions lost all their value in the financial crisis. The influx of wealth to central city neighborhoods basically means that instead of renting a DIY space to you for super cheap, it’s a way smarter move now for your landlord to sell the space to a developer who can spruce it up and resell it to some yuppie who stays at home on the weekends and watches The Big Bang Theory. Oh yeah, and because the new neighbors don’t like loud noises, they’re gonna get the cops to shut down the venue across the street too.
The 2008 economic collapse and the recession that followed also fundamentally changed the way bands chose to tour. I don’t know how many of y’all remember how cheap gas was before the recession and Iraq War but I’ll tell you it was crazy cheap. That made it (relatively) easy for small bands to tour around the country with a lower risk of extreme life-ending financial devastation. A lot of these bands weren’t big enough to command audiences at “real” venues, so a whole community of support cropped up around the DIY circuit.
At the close of the last decade, two wars in the Middle East destabilized the oil-rich region and inflated gas prices. A domestic recession left us with way less money to buy this expensive gas. It was suddenly much more difficult for bands to justify playing a show to 5 people in an unfamiliar town if they weren’t even going to make enough money to get to the next town. In the fallout, it has become increasingly common for bands to skip the DIY circuit phase of their touring career, instead opting to wait for a record deal, promotional agency, and some media buzz to carry them successfully through their first journey abroad.
Please do not misunderstand me. I’m not saying that DIY venues are gone or that bands don’t use them. Just off the top of my head, The Silent Barn in Brooklyn, The Museum of Human Achievement in Austin, and Rhinoceropolis in Denver—these are all places that continue to kill it on a weekly basis. What’s more, I know a few brave souls who still embark on full DIY tours, like friends-of-Portals Poppy Red or Born Gold, currently halfway through a tour of exclusively house shows.
On the other hand, there has been a notable increase in bands that have taken the reverse strategy. Artists like Purity Ring or Youth Lagoon have leapfrogged the DIY stage of their careers, rather waiting for a bit of buzz and name recognition to increase their odds of touring successfully from the start. In the wake of over a decade of global financial instability, even fledgling musicians have had to become more logical, strategic, and grown up about “career planning.” Touring musicians have gotten wise to the myth of getting filthy rich off the music industry and are instead attempting to play smart and safe in the hopes of eking out a meager living. In this devil’s bargain we lose a little of the spontaneity, excitement, and danger of the heyday of DIY, but what other choice do we have?
The big question is: did this shift in touring strategy have an effect on the music we listen to? It’s hard to determine causality in this situation, but it is interesting that the global economic recession and the decline in popularity of DIY tours occurred exactly at the same time as the rise of Poptimism. These are the same years that indie culture began a full-on love affair with mainstream pop, reflected in the sounds of our best and brightest. Think Grimes and Twin Shadow. Think Panda Bear appearing on the new Daft Punk record. We’ve traded in our noise, our smelly warehouses, our shows for five people playing sloppy, trashy music for pristine-sounding pop, for real venues that have a bar and charge enough at the door to guarantee some cash to make coming to your town worth the band’s time.
There are tons of great things about this new pop-friendly era. I’m incredibly excited by new artists like Blood Orange who wouldn’t have fit the model of a decade ago. I love that I don’t have to feel ashamed to throw on Ciara at a party. In my personal life, I find writing succinct, beautiful pop songs presents unique and sometimes even more difficult challenges than the ones I faced back when I played post-punk at DIY venues. But there’s a little less danger in music right now. More importantly, there’s a lot less IRL community building. For everything gained in our more enlightened attitude toward the mainstream, it’s important to remember the values we’ve had to give up.