Why DIY is a Methodology not an Ideology

Two things have recently inspired me to get this concept out in the world. One is the number of artists who have jumped headlong into doing things on their own in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the other is a flurry of questionnaires I’ve received from music degree students exploring ‘DIY vs signed’ as an undergrad thesis topic.

My place in all this is that, for the last 20 years, my career has looked like the textbook example of how to be ‘DIY’ in music – I’ve been self-recording, self releasing, self-managing, self-booking for pretty much all of that time. I even do my own photoshoots, my own album artwork. I’ve yet to interview myself for a magazine, but it’s surely only a matter of time, eh?

So it looks – from the outside – like the life of someone ideologically committed to a DIY ethos. To a life of keeping everything in-house, to the innate value of – literally – doing it all yourself.

However, that’s not the case. At all. I have no particular attachment to being DIY. It is, as the title of this post says, a methodology, not an ideology. It is the route by which I execute the things that I AM very much ideologically committed to, in the absence of any other route revealing itself as I go along.

I do, in fact, have a real issue with the idea that DIY should be an ideology. As far as I can tell, to be committed to DIY contains no particular meaningful ethical consideration of other people, of their wellbeing, of the potential for collaboration helping everyone out, of the ways in which music projects and identities can scale in  relation to public recognition in ways that can start to support micro-economies and build scenes. DIY as an ideology says that – for no apparent creative or humane reason – doing literally everything yourself is objectively purer than hiring other people, or working in larger teams.

What’s odd is that this being the dominant view of DIY is a pretty new occurrence. The DIY punk scenes of the 80s, perhaps best described in the extraordinary book Our Band Could Be Your Life, were very much DIY out of necessity, and became increasingly collaborative and, in some notable cases, structured as their visibility grew and required a greater level of infrastructure to manage the various implications of that success. DIY was the start point, it was a way to stop blaming a lack of ‘support’ for not making art, and it was definitely weaponised culturally to create a sense of ‘us against the world’ – easy enough to do in the fairly binary pre-internet record releasing world of ‘Major or indie’. But the mechanisms by which things got done – at least by those who weren’t epically inhibited by drink and drug addictions – were notable for their practicality. Everything seemed to be geared towards making the next thing happened. The frustration documented in Our Band Could Be Your Life around having to recoup on one record before being able to afford to even press copies of the next is an indication of just how practical they needed to be. There wasn’t really much room for ideological purity, but there was also precious little room for ‘selling out’ – for most of the bands in the punk scene in the US, ending up on a major was deeply unlikely before Nirvana moved to Geffen.

But back to our idea that DIY is a method. Because if it is the method, what is it that we’re working towards? What is the ethos, the ideology, the creative aim that is being served by a DIY method? For me, it was a commitment to productivity, to knowing my audience, and to creative freedom. Not that I wanted to be wilfully obscure, just that it always struck me as deeply reductive that labels would try to squeeze artists into a category that they felt best able to market. I mean, I understand the desire to make back the money that was invested, but I don’t understand the lack of trust in the artist to make the music that matters to them. So even at a small indie level, back when I started out in the age of all music sales happening via physical media, the economic need to recoup placed creative strictures on what any given artist could do on any given label. (as an aside, I first began thinking about this LONG before I began my solo career – working with various artists in gospel music/CCM in the early/mid 90s, I’d come across a number of artists who felt completely unable to write honestly because their label demanded a lyrical adherence to a pretty moribund and juvenile set of theological benchmarks. On US Christian radio at the time, there was literally a ‘JPM’ count – ‘Jesus per minute’ – that required artists to name check the big guy a certain number of times to get played. These artists I’d come into contact with were severely hampered in their professional growth and ended up living lives completely out of whack with the trite bullshit on their records… An object lesson at a time I didn’t realise I needed it).

So, I needed the freedom to make the music that mattered to me, to not ‘make it funky’ or ‘do an all-ambient record’ or any of the other things that angry bass-splainers would email me in those halcyon pre-social media days. I needed to be able to make the music that I cared about. That doesn’t require me to professionally isolate myself from other people, but it does require them to demonstrate a significant understanding of my creative priorities before jumping in and getting involved. Or alternatively, for the interaction to be short-lived enough that they provide a service, I provide music, and we move on. So I would occasionally play gigs booked by other people, and had a couple of quite significant supporters of my early live work (Sebastian Merrick in London, who now runs kazum.co.uk and Iain Martin of Stiff Promotions on the south coast), neither of whom ever tried to tell me what to play, or in any way hindered or hampered my music progress. I also had a co-producer for Behind Every Word – Sue Edwards – who had demonstrated over and over that she completely understood what I was trying to do and why, and her advice was always geared towards me making the best version of what I do, not moulding it to anyone else’s notion of what it ought to be… Sue’s continued to be a valued collaborator over the years, having had vital input into aspects of my music life at various times.

So my DIY method has continued in the absence of anyone or anything coming along to fill those roles more effectively and in an economically sustainable way without impacting my creative aims. I’ve had various offers over the years, from production companies wanting to put together tuitional videos, an early offer of a nationwide CD distribution deal, and the unsolicited occasional expression of interest from a producer evidencing zero awareness of what I do or why I do it.

Developing the know-how, the skills, the competencies and assembling the tools and resources – as well as refining (often downsizing) the external benchmarks of success – has been an ongoing daily discipline for 20 years. Getting better at everything every day. Taking every opportunity to learn about the skills needed, iteratively improving my skills at playing, recording, writing (words and music), photography, design, web design (my current website design is another example of someone coming along and offering to do the job WAY better than I could, without impacting negatively on the big picture – thanks Thatch!), mixing, mastering, social media, videography… Every element improving daily. I never whinge about having to do a multitude of things because not doing them would require me to pay someone else to do them, skill-swap, or rely on someone else’s generosity for personal gain, and if I CAN do them it means that the offer that comes in to replace them needs to be significantly better than what I can do myself.

At any moment, any aspect of my career is open to help/support/collaboration/advice/learning/outsourcing. But if it messes with those core aims, if it suggests making less music so I can make more money by focussing my attention on marketing one thing, if it removes me from the audience community that sustains the work, if it starts telling me the kind of music I should be making to reach more people, it’ll be cut off straight away. I don’t have time to spend explaining why those things are bullshit in my context, why I’m not interested in any of those metrics of success or why I’m way more happy in my obscure corner of the internet making ridiculous amounts of music for people who are actively invested in its ongoing viability than I would be landing a track on a Spotify playlist then touring off the back of the listener data it generates having to play the same music each night… Those are not sustainable practices.

So where does this leave us? Sadly, there is no simple binary that says DIY=good, record deals=selling out. That’s a fairly childish nonsense and belies the complex reality of how and why music gets made, marketed and funded. People’s purposes are different, and people’s sense of what validates their art is different, and the discussion about the implications of those validation strategies is separate from the acknowledgement that the infrastructure needed to sustain different types of music career is complex and varied and requires completely different levels of outside support.

However, what is universally true is that any skill you acquire is one that someone has to actively demonstrate they can improve on to be of value to you and the pursuit of your creative or ideological goals. If you can make your own recordings, you have a concrete benchmark for what someone offering to help would need to improve on to be of value to the project. If you can design artwork, you can then connect with people whose vision and ideas are demonstrably more in line with the aesthetic you’re looking for than your own attempts. If you’re sat waiting for someone else to make your art happen, you’re far more open to being exploited or coerced into doing the things that will meet the commercial aims of the other party rather than finding a win/win that benefits everyone.

It’s also important to acknowledge that seeing the acquisition of support as a sliding scale enables us to innovate in how we think about the exchange of value between creative and business entities. Skill swaps, collectives, short term collaborations and the distribution of labour amongst a community can all be replacements for more hierarchical economic structures around the production of art. As they get more complex and have more invested in them they may require more formal structures (the forming of a legal co-operative for example), but they are all possible ways to explore the extending of input into our creative lives without seeing the world in falsely black and white ‘DIY or signed’ terms.

The mantra is the same as it’s always been. Keep making your art, keep practicing, get better, seek knowledge wherever and whenever you can, and find ways to collaborate on meeting yours and others’ creative goals. Everything else is just method.

4 Replies to “Why DIY is a Methodology not an Ideology”

  1. excellent post! it gets me thinking (something I’m very fond of, but is becoming increasingly difficult the longer I’m locked down due to the panicdemic).

    I do the DIY thing out of sheer necessity. much as I love to learn new things, sometimes the learning curve seems to interfere with the music making bits. it’s my hope that I can achieve a better balance between the two before I shuffle off this mortal coil. time will tell (they say) but I don’t have a lot left in the top half of the hourglass.

  2. Amazing post Steve, you’ve always been my frame of reference on this topic.

    Now that I’m off social media for good, I sincerely hope to read more often from your blog. I’ll be missing your short witty posts on FB and Twitter, but to be honest, the perks of leaving are too good not to do it.

    Nevertheless, I’ll be using my blog also for short posts, the kind of quick stuff that I used to run on my social media channels. I always thought that blogs were for long-reads. I don’t anymore. I wish I could see you on this side of the internet, for good 🙂

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