“There is no shelter in the arts” – Vic Chesnutt
We often hear a ridiculous choice presented to independent artists these days: Do you want independence or success? Do you have values, or do you want to make money? The premise for these questions is entirely false, a complete bullshit lie. So, why are these ideas propagated by both the independent community as well as the conglomerates they're fighting to maintain independence from?
This false choice might seem true because at some point, “punk” and DIY values got mixed up with completely arbitrary rules; rules which prevent anyone who follows them from making any kind of sustainable income. Some of these rules are based on vague notions of how things have always been done, without any question or acknowledgement of how the world continues to change. For example, it makes sense for you to pay more for a punk show in 2014 than your parents paid to go to go to a punk show in ’87. It makes sense for you to pay more for a punk record in 2014 than your older brother paid to buy a punk record in ‘97. The costs associated with making things, travelling, rent in cities, and everything else have increased substantially. Why shouldn’t the price of admission to a punk show or the cost of a punk record reflect these changes?
But, in an effort to remain ever accessible and fair to fans, the ticket prices of punk shows and music have stagnated to the point of stifling artists ability to create. No one should feel like they need to give up their independence in order to succeed. And members of independent communities need to acknowledge this and be willing to adjust to changes in prices and customs that allow for sustainable community, even if it means sacrificing a “make it as cheap as possible” mentality in favor of more meaningful aspects of punk (i.e. independence). I’m not suggesting prices be exploitatively high, either. Prices must be fair to both creators and their fans. Anyone pressing me for a dollar amount is missing the point. Different artists create different things and have different travel and living expenses than others. Prices should reflect these differences fairly rather than remain tied to an arbitrary standard.
Another bizarre and unspoken rule of modern DIY and punk culture is that promotion is wrong and somehow “unpunk”. I do not know at what point or why we decided any attempts to promote a band other than word of mouth and maybe an ad in Maximum Rock N Roll was somehow morally remiss, it doesn’t make any sense to me. Surely “DIY” doesn’t mean that you alone must do everything yourself. It is okay, and often more logical to ask for help; bands and labels often go to friends and like-minded companies for t-shirts, stickers, cd, and lp manufacturing Packing orders alone takes a very long time, and tour can run much more smoothly with a roadie.
The spirit of DIY, to me, has always meant that the artist and creator retains control, not that they receive no help whatsoever. To not ask for or receive outside help is a major detriment to anyone trying to sustain their independence while growing. It is true that some publicists, distributors, booking agents, etc. aim to control and cultivate their artists, and will stifle creativity with an exclusive focus on the bottom line. However, it is only certain individuals who sometimes fill these roles and not the roles themselves that are controlling and manipulative. It is possible to grow and find help in doing so that aims to do no more than further a band’s own identity and message to a wider audience, independent of corporate influence and undeterred by decisions that may or may not be financially sound. Do some research: many of the biggest forces in the history of independent music had lots of help through like-minded people who shared their values and utilized marketing materials respectful of fans and artists alike.
Now imagine a world where we all supported independent artists in a way that was actually thoughtful and fair rather than dictated by ill-considered or arbitrary concepts and values: where independent artists had the tools to promote themselves with the same fervor as their major label counterparts. Imagine what would happen if there was more money brought in at shows, more money made by independent labels and artists. What if these resources could go back into the scene in the form of independent infrastructure (venues, shops, magazines, with the right resources the possibilities are truly endless) that didn’t rely on anything other than the independent community for sustainability? Imagine what could happen if more artists in your independent community were able to make enough money to truly focus on their music.
This could actually be a reality! It should be. It seems as though more people are involved in a larger independent community now than there ever has been in history. We can all do better than this. As an artist, fan, or community member, the first step might be taking time to evaluate some of the choices you make every day. It might make sense to pick apart what seems to make sense according to your own values, and what seems to be arbitrary and dogmatic.
Everything written here comes from my personal opinions and beliefs cultivated from going to shows, working with or being in independent bands. One of the most exciting things about DIY and the independent music community is the ability to make your own decisions about how things should be based on your own values and principles rather than someone else’s. I cannot claim to know what “DIY” is, or what “being independent” is. I can only explain what these concepts mean to me.