How DIY shows challenge expectations of music in a consumer culture

At some point during the course of this project I started to wonder - why do we even need “DIY” as a term? Don’t people just do things themselves all the time? Shouldn’t people playing music for themselves and their friends just be something that people do? Why is this being thought of as a movement?

The reality is that although these things might -seem- natural, the vast majority of us are alienated from cultural production. 

Within our lifetime, those of us who are in their twenties right now, saw music represented first as CDs, then as mp3s. Unlike vinyl and tapes, the physical object of the compact disc gave no hint as to how music would be put on it - they were smooth, fully digital, slickly packaged, highly commodified. mp3s were ephemeral - with the advent of the mp3, music was presented to us as an encoded timeline. (For more in-depth thoughts on this, stay tuned for our feature with Spitzer Space Telescope.) 

And for most of us, that is where music stopped. When we visited the Vera Project in Seattle, I couldn’t help but think how happy I would have been if I could have been a part of such a participatory music culture as a kid. Instead, we had to wait until we were 18 to go to concerts, and when we did, most of the bands I loved played in uniform Live Nation-owned venues. Liquor was as much of the focus as the music. The format was always the same. Bands went on one after another, played their allotted time, and left after an obligatory encore. We went to festivals and crowded in with hundreds of thousands of other people. Encountering so many fans of the same music should have been affirming, but any sense of camaraderie was eroded by the overt commodification of the experience. For every person we bonded with at the front of the crowd, there were hundreds more who flitted from stage to stage, trying to catch the most sets in order to get the most for their money. A lot of these festivals were forbiddingly expensive, and once we got there we continued to pay too much for water and food and merch. Music was a commodity tied to an industry and that industry was tied to other industries - alcohol, security, t-shirts. 

That said, we were still the lucky ones. At least, growing up in a big city, I had access to music. Friends from the suburbs had to settle for hiding out in their rooms listening to recorded music, never getting to see their favorite songs performed live, never getting to meet people moved by the same sounds in person.

As I got older, I learned that none of this is evil in itself. As it gets more and more obvious every day, people need money to survive, and it is difficult to make money working in the arts, especially as an artist. So bands will play Lollapalooza and graphic artists will make band shirts and they’ll get their checks and pay their rent and go home where, ideally, they can keep making interesting art.

The problem occurs when this is where it stops. WIthin commodified spaces, musicians become producers and music lovers become consumers, all working within acceptable, “safe” frameworks. The eye-opening feeling of possibility that attracts listeners to new music is suddenly cheapened. There is no magic.

That’s why DIY shows feel so revolutionary. 

Within the utopian space of a DIY show or DIY festival, you can break down all your preconceived notions of what music is supposed to be and what a show is supposed to look like, and build it back up however you like. You can open with a potluck. You can project wild images on the walls. You can occupy an empty warehouse or an inhabited home, challenging ideas of industry and domesticity. You can curate a show where every musician plays old-time sea shanties. No age limit, no set limit, no set cover charge. No parents, no rules.

For teenagers, these are spaces to be treated as people with ideas and agency rather than as a marketing demographic. For musicians, these are spaces to experiment, without worrying about guarantees, draw, or brand fidelity. 

For someone who has spent their entire lives encountering music only within this framework, the initial experience of a DIY show has the same effect as hearing a new and strange piece of music for the first time. It opens new doors of possibility - it shows you that another world is possible.