February 09

DIY, à la Fin de Siècle

The term fin du siècle (or “end of the century”) is, of course, an exaggeration because we are not at the end of the century at all. Nevertheless, it does feel like the end of a DIY era – though, as I will explain at the end of this essay, I would never say that we are at the end of DIY. You see, a few weeks ago, it was announced that one of the great DIY venues of the United States, the SideWalk Café, is changing ownership. And with it, the venue is having its very last Antifolk Festival. Somer Bingham, who runs the festival, asked me to perform, and as I have only been back to SideWalk on rare occasions over the past 5 years, the first thing that came to mind was Sondheim’s Follies – in particular, the final New York Antifolk Festival, will be a week long celebration packed to the brim with legends of Antifolk present and past. (You can find information about it HERE).

I know there are venues which many big media blogs, such as Pitchfork, have touted as DIY venues in the city. But in actuality, the SideWalk has been the city’s premiere DIY venue for many years. Unlike other “DIY” venues, it has not had the benefit of an obvious insider connection to corporate industry professionals. (And would it even be DIY if it did?) And the idea that big media blogs have even tried to frequent DIY in the city is pretty laughable. In fact, the people at SideWalk have resisted every opportunity for greater recognition. I know this, because I’ve tried numerous times over the years to get the venue and the Antifolk crowd greater recognition, and my experience has been that they’ve fought me every goddamn step of the way. Here, it is of utmost importance to note that the SideWalk Café has hosted the largest and longest running open mic in the world. A breathtaking feat it was able to pull off, without any special connections to (or concern for) any major corporation or media conglomerate.

The Revisionism of DIY

I should note that I’ve always had a strong affinity for DIY aesthetic. Even apart from any connection to the SideWalk Cafe and the Antifolk crowd. You may not know this, but each of the three records that I released over the years has cost about ~$500-$600 to make. This is including the cost of hardware and software purchased in the year of making the record. It is from this perspective that I look at the end of the SideWalk Cafe and see it as part of a larger transition point for DIY. Again, I don’t for a second think that we are at the end of DIY. Rather, I think that wider social and economic circumstances have made it so that our understanding of DIY must change.

As I see it, I think there was a point where the concepts of “indie” and “lo-fi” and “DIY” reflected the sense in which musicians were just doing the best with what they had. This manifested itself in effects, such as the creation of independent labels, use of alternative technology, and the necessity that independent musicians literally “do it themselves”.

Recent history has made a mess of these concepts. For instance, lo-fi was at one time an aesthetic borne out of limitation, but now it’s become more synonymous with the artificial incorporation of distortion to make records sound like they were recorded on cheaper equipment. The idea of an “indie” label meant something, because at one point it was significant for one to not be connected to one of the major labels of the time. These days, however, musicians can be indie and easily spend $25,000 on an album release – an amount which I’m sure would give my Antifolk friends a heart attack. And of course the same thing happened to DIY. With the advent of computers and widespread music technology, one can put out a highly polished recording “by yourself” resplendent with heavy-handed auto-tune, purchased beats and samples.

Of course, given this democratization of music technology, the number of people trying to release music has exploded. And with that, the number of people trying to make public music exploded as well. This in turn increased the cost of publicity, especially as access to major outlets narrowed to a relatively small handful of publicity houses. Even so called DIY outlets have chosen to adhere to a business model of only using “preferred publicists and labels” as a filter for choosing what music to write about. So, perhaps the term “DIY” as applied to outlets has outlived its usefulness as well. It’s worth noting that I would give so called DIY publications a break if the act of filtering through the voluminous releases was extremely prohibitive. But the fact of the matter is that there are many independent music bloggers who do a perfectly fine job listening to a wider range of music, all without the “preferred publicists and labels” filter.

Two Conceptual Twists

Given all of this, I think you can see how the ground has shifted under the feet of the concept. And why I’ve come to view DIY à la fin de siècle. Where do we go from here? Perhaps what is needed is the revision of concepts, or the creation of new ones. So, for example, I’ve proposed an expenditures limit on the concept of indie. “Indie” music for me excludes music that the artist spent more than $10K for either making the record or on publicity or management, as I explain HERE. I also don’t consider “lo-fi” to be a real concept these days unless the concept incorporates a fiscal limit, as I explain HERE. And while I’m at it, I think it’s worth rethinking DIY in different terms. Perhaps the concept of “DIY musician” requires an expenditures limit as well. And perhaps the concept of “DIY outlet” requires a ban on the “preferred publicists and labels” publication model.

So, I’ve provided an explanation for how it is that three concepts, “DIY”, “indie” and “lo-fi” have become distorted over the years. And I’ve provided some solutions as to how they can be reconceived. But I had another reconceptualization to offer.

As I noted earlier, I think part of the spirit of DIY has to do with doing the best with what you’ve got. The thing is, DIY is actually a form of internalism, by which I mean that the power to be DIY lies completely within your own will. In that sense, DIY is a normative concept much like Kantian goodness. According to Kantian goodness, there are no circumstances, whether it be poverty or hermitage, that can make you irredeemable. And there are no circumstances that prevent you from the possibility of moral excellence. All you have to do is the best you can with your own reason. And really, I think that’s very close to what DIY music is all about. Regardless of your circumstances, whether it be financial woes or social unpopularity, you can be DIY. All you have to do is the best with what you got.

I suppose that is why, as I noted earlier, I am not predicting the end of DIY. In fact, I’m not worried about DIY at all. Because the concept has much deeper origins, and connects up in substantial ways with fundamental concepts in normativity. As I see it, DIY aesthetic is nothing more than the idea that, regardless of your circumstances – financial, social or otherwise – you have the capacity to be musically virtuous.