If you’ve spent any time in a local music scene, you’ve probably witnessed a bit of an obsession with DIY. Whether it’s enterprising bands boasting of their indie cred (what’s more independent than doing it all yourself?), home-made zines teaching you to take art into your own hands, or any number of advice blogs dotting the internet that teach you to book tours, repair your gear, and record entire albums by yourself.
Full disclosure, I have nothing against DIY in and of itself. Before my band became a band my music was a series of self-produced records, with much of it being entirely engineered, produced, and performed solo. Artists from Prince to Petra Glynt have thrived in solitude and many “bands” like Nine Inch Nails and Of Montreal are essentially solo projects. It is when the idea is spread that the solution to the woes of the industry lays in doing-it-all-yourself, or that there is some honour in DIY that doesn’t exist in more collaborative avenues, that we run the risk of promoting a neoliberal solution to a fundamentally neoliberal problem.
Music’s had a rough go over the past few decades. Musician’s unions—once powerful enough that they held sway over The Beatles’ TV appearances—have become largely irrelevant to most budding musicians after waves of changes in the 70’s and 80’s. While they once were able to ensure standards of payment for live shows, nowadays they have become primarily a group you pay $200 to in order to arrange to apply for a $2000 P2 visa to tour America.
At the same time, recording media has moved at a breakneck pace, to the point that nowadays it is so convenient to illegally download MP3’s that it is perhaps a minority of music fans who even pay for recorded music. The changes wrought by the era of file-sharing have made major labels particularly risk-averse, meaning that most artists are now signed after achieving success on their own. Many recording studios have folded as it becomes less and less economically sensible to pay to record versus self-recording – not only because self-recording is cheaper but because record sales have slumped. Who’s spending $2000 to record a CD when the breakeven requires you to sell 200 of something that you can get for free on the internet?
In light of these changes, it’s become something of a necessity for artists to be self-sufficient. It’s no surprise, then, that the advice of the day is to DIY. A google search of “music advice blog” returns the Sonicbids blog on the first page – a quick search of their own blog reveals almost 3000 instances of “DIY” within these pages. While Sonicbids is hardly the only music blog recommending self-sufficiency, I think it’s telling that a blog operated by a website known for predatory practices would advance the narrative that DIY is a necessary solution to the predicaments of the day. Sonicbids, after all, is a website in which you pay money to simply be considered for gigs—the sort of unnecessary evil that thrives in an industry in which people are encouraged to be their own booking agents. It should come as no surprise that they would sell a dream of being a DIY artist who gets noticed of their own hard work—it lets them off the hook for selling a product that fundamentally cannot work for everyone who uses it. Oh, did you miss out on Pop Montreal again? Next time use these 5 tips to get the gig!
Of course, DIY’ing really is largely a necessity for young artists these days. Not every artist can be signed or hire artist services. It’s a trend that reflects the larger reality of working-class people in North America. With good jobs becoming scarce more and more people prescribe an entrepreneurial, self sufficient approach—“be your own boss”, or “be the rich dad not the poor dad.” It is one of the great cliches of our time to suggest slogging it out at demanding service jobs to eventually ‘fund your dream’. These sort of individual solutions function as though the systemic issues facing workers—brought on by years of cutthroat globalization and the shift towards neoliberalism—are simply a result of not working hard enough.
Charles Hoppner is the co-lead singer and guitarist of Valois, a glam rock band based in Ottawa, ON. You can catch their next live show at Live On Elgin, Saturday, July 13th.