Domestic Defects – DIY as a Keyword

4:49p.m. 8 August 2016

Bricolage

For all its ostensibly edgier connotations, it is interesting to note the banality of DIY (do-it-yourself) in its etymological origins – that of working to improve one's place of dwelling, to be house-proud, to inhabit and to decorate the domestic. Barry Bucknell popularised the term in the late 1950s on an incredibly popular BBC television show, yet the abbreviation later became associated with exercising poor taste – modifying housing in an amateurish, slapdash way, without proper regard for bespoke, extant architectural forms. The American equivalent – home improvement – bears a similar, intriguingly tangential relationship to what DIY is taken to mean now, in terms of musical work at least. Bricolage – the French translation – by contrast connotes fusing disparate elements into a potentially subversive structure, and even became a term within cultural theory to describe the construction of subcultural identity, thanks to Dick Hebdige.

Yet whilst Homebase has gone into terminal decline, technology and ideology have ensured that the amount of hobbyist musicians, promoters and producers has continued to rise. DIY musical production, distribution and promotion – like its domestic antecedents - also entails focused learning (learning what buttons to press on my Zoom, or learning the rules of social media based marketing), standardisation (everyone's got the same loop station/Facebook/Bandcamp to work with) and cheap materials (my distortion pedal keeps emitting plumes of smoke/my laptop struggles with writing paragraphs/poor quality cassette dubbing). Disasters can, of course, be virtuous.

This more humble and egalitarian side of DIY is evident here – making processes hitherto denied to most people reasonably cheap and accessible. However, there is a liberating aspect to what DIY means in a contemporary musical sense, hinging on (in my view) a specifically fetishised view of the Y in DIY, and based on intertwined notions of collectively (scene based & locally specific) and individually (libertarian & entrepreneurial) experienced creative freedom. The affective power of both of these tendencies accounts for how DIY cultural production appeals, even as it struggles for space, money and (even) definitions.





Radical Individualism

DIY, like all terms that permeate everyday discourse, can take many meanings and forms - and this effort is only a solitary drop in a puddle. In terms of production and distribution, the DIY enterprise designed to “make it big” and avowedly sell-out is one familiar to students of Detroit's Motown, Edinburgh's Fast Product and indeed Malcolm McLaren's plans for filthy lucre. This form of transient DIY pursuit is honestly and explicitly there to embrace and be swallowed whole by the culture industry, going beyond the hustle of the indie start-up. There are others that seek to be resolutely non-commercial or underground – this can span from doggedly independent bands/labels that possess politics of transcending (or at least mitigating the worst excesses of) capital and oppressive patriarchal structures (progressive DIY), to enterprises that push the envelope of experimental culture without any specific political intent (libertarian DIY).

Both sorts of DIY practitioner can have grandiose sensibilities about their respective approaches – on the one hand, the potential for autonomous organisations of anti-folk fans leading the revolution, or – on the other - the very liberating nature of reifying, niche consumer capitalism (I am the records I buy!). both tendencies ultimately add much to the cultural and physical landscape of our towns, brightening environments with proliferated chain stores and estate agents. Yet experience of wider political histories suggest that change ain't gonna come solely out of a multi-purpose arts venue, if all that entails is an enclosed & self-congratulatory ethical consumerism. DIY needs to point to a wider political ecology of music making, that involves questioning sustainability, environmental issues and societal structures – not only the buying and selling of bespoke products. The progressive side of DIY does emphasise, however, crucial and unmistakably good elements – always paying bands, widening access, and not skimming off their surplus value for your own enrichment.

Indeed, there is also a perversely individualised DIY ethos at work in both strands – one is the vanguard promoter with good politics, spearheading local initiatives for the greater good, and the other a more entrepreneurial maven. Both are often intertwined roles, and can both bear the solitary brunt of failure – in terms of creative work as well as for promotion and business. West of Ireland micro-label Rusted Rail's founder Keith Wallace speaks of a “do it ourselves” ethos - which in practical terms is unavoidable – but one which is also crucial for spreading the economic/psychic cost of failure amongst many, as well as fostering a sense of community identity (eat/work/jam out together). This emphasis on the collective – potentially leading to more co-operative DIY spaces – is more often than not loose and ad-hoc, not based on specific corporate models like limited companies or co-operatives.

Indeed, one of the great elements of DIY scenes is this often (apparently) loosely constituted interconnectedness, forming intricate art worlds (a phenomenon famously theorised by sociologist Howard Becker). However, it is also worthwhile remembering that individuals still are elevated as the locus of such independent cultural activity – witness the ways in which Geoff Travis (Rough Trade), Sean Price (Fortuna Pop) and Calvin Johnson (K), to name but three who are considered to be synonymous with their label's work.



Gentrification

It makes sense how individuals come to be viewed in this way. In DIY contexts – from the Manchester post-punk rock zine City Fun in the 1980s, to Brighton's refreshingly fresh Dictionary Pudding today – a specific, coherent aesthetic sensibility is crucial. This is often far easier to achieve by one or a handful of people making decisions rather than extensive and sometimes problematic group-think. The limitations of this auteur-ish could be highlighted by Calvin Johnson and K's recent travails over the non-payment of artists – the aesthetic is ultimately subservient to the bottom line (man). Liverpool's recently deceased community run cafe/gig venue/practice space Mello Mello in the so-called “Ropewalks” district points to this, as well as (to a lesser extent) Edinburgh's Bargain Spot arts space – two not for profit entities swamped by the processes of gentrification they unintentionally helped facilitate.

Genrefication

In perhaps a reversal of how the term lo fi is used (a recording method now taken to be emblematic of an aesthetic), DIY often connotes a rough-edged sound, rough-edged haircuts and a preponderance of guitars. A degree of messthetics are followed; making a virtue out of cluttered limitations and improvising with busted or obsolete technology. Yet this doesn't entirely capture the broad remit of DIY. Scottish new pop band Miracle Strip have described themselves as DIY, but produce a sound that is meticulously constructed and not remotely ramshackle. Likewise, Stuart Arnott and Susan Fitzpatrick's Acrid Lactations are as idiosyncratic, odd and (indeed) DIY as they come, yet conform to no easy generic definitions. Perhaps their DIY credentials are better summed up in terms of sensibility or spirit – a dedication to a vision, even if not monetarily successful, and in the face of a diffuse audience that may just be entirely indifferent to what you're putting across. The Icelandic music writer Arnar Eggert Thoroddsen makes an interesting distinction between the DIY musician and the amateur - “a DIY person can be brilliantly skilled, a master at his craft, even a ‘professional’ in his trade”, whereas the amateur is more concerned with the struggle for fun. You could also modify this dichotomy and delineate between serious and fake DIY; please bring along an ideological polygraph machine to discern this.


The Totalising Logic of Synergy

This in essence has been bubbling underneath the surface of all the other sections in this piece. As cities become ever more dominated by a narrow spectrum of consumer practices, those who wish to play or put on gigs at venues often need to seek accommodation with lucrative businesses. These are often of the cool capitalist nature and seek to rawly commodify the apparent “authenticity” of artistic production in order to sell more bespoke beers and/or quinoa salads.

DIY consumption is tied up with this – the market's awareness of the desire for aforementioned authenticity, and the awareness that particular consumers seek out DIY's low-key, limited edition and often relatively cheap commodity. “Think Global, Buy Local”! DIY also points to having to do deals with anyone and everyone in order to survive and attempt to “break even”. Thus DIY of the libertarian and progressive strands are both inescapably pragmatic – in order to put on gigs or release records that aren't obviously fitting with a hugely popular, market-driven ethos, you have to feed off the crumbs somewhat.

There is a humility about this – labels like Number 4 Door and Soft Power putting out small runs on cassette, Miracle Strip self-releasing a limited run of their debut 7” - that feel like low-key shouts of defiance against the prevailing orthodoxies of streaming and digitisation. This also goes for the (often way over-emphasised) DIY tendency for personalised, home recordings. At the same time, the neoliberal logic that underpins where we're at as of now is at once both actively hostile to and supportive of such ventures, hostile because they make no money, but supportive because they inherently privilege privatised, domesticated entrepreneurial behaviours – be productive! get on your bike and make a record! It may not need to be said, but taste does not determine ethics. Organisations such as Arika have gone on from DIY music consumption, to production, to promotion, and then onto a more engaged active politics. Their work of late attempts to question and debate the very nature of both artistic work and work more generally in the present conjuncture. Demands for a universal basic income dovetail with this, as the dole has been thoroughly dismantled after 20 odd years of rhetoric about “shirkers and strivers”.

Room To Think

However, the actual physical environment in which they exist is crucial if variegated forms of DIY are to have any sort of point. A meeting place or social space – determined (or overdetermined) by economic or market logic – can act to bind together cultural workers, especially those whose conditions of existence are ever-more marked by precarity and lack of public space. Record and video shops (the less hyped, forgotten young 'un) have served this function in the past, but flats, youth clubs, art schools, libraries, university spaces (access dependent) etc can all allow artists some room to think, loiter and be warm. [Full disclosure – I am using the basement electroacoustic studio in Edinburgh university's Music department to record an indie rock album.] If there's resources for hope, there is the tendency for groups of people to improvise and find ways around the strictures that seek to silence us, where possessing money any which way you can is correlated with moral superiority.

by KC





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