This week’s NME looks at 11 of the UK’s thriving DIY scenes. But why is DIY important? How do you get involved? What challenges does it face in 2014? We asked seven diverse DIY instigators to discuss the big issues, and tellingly, there are few conclusions.
The panel: Rachel Aggs plays in Trash Kit, Shopping and Sacred Paws, and works at Hackney DIY venue, Power Lunches; Kelly Bee is a DIY promoter in Nottingham; Bryony Beynon is involved with the DIY Space For London and Good Night Out projects, as well as working as a sexual violence prevention worker, running a label and playing music; Matthew Fidler is the co-founder of the record label Barely Regal, and also promotes shows and lives in London; Dan James managed recently shuttered Plymouth DIY venue the White Rabbit, and he also promotes shows and plays bass in Woahnows; Liam Jolly is a promoter, drummer and visual artist from Redruth, Cornwall, while Jake May drums in Grubs and does free PR for DIY bands.
What does DIY mean to you? Why is it important?
Jake May: Because it’s inclusive and safe. If someone wants to get involved, they don’t have to be rich, they don’t have to subscribe to questionable ‘norms’ or be super confident.
Kelly Bee: It’s doing something for the love of it and not being motivated by money. I’ve done DIY gigs for years – 99 per cent of the bands we work with are independent and most of them don’t play music that is commercially viable.
Liam Jolly: In a place like Cornwall DIY is very important in all art forms. We lack the small ‘toilet’ venues so for young bands it’s either a case of learning covers quick and signing up to the pub circuit, or putting on your own nights and teaming up with others doing what you do.
Bryony Beynon: John Peel called DIY the ‘atom-splitting moment’ – once you realise there’s a way of doing things that doesn’t involve asking or waiting for permission, it infects your whole worldview and there’s no going back. I’m interested in the economy of trust. I’m still so keen to push women into making bands, doing labels and being active participants. I get a buzz every time someone who’s not a dude moves over from being an observer to producer.
Matthew Fidler: DIY is about being able to do what you want on your own terms, without having to compromise on your beliefs, and finding a way to make things work even if circumstances are up against you. As a legitimate alternative to the mainstream, it’s a powerful vehicle for social change. DIY has proven that it’s possible to create an open, inclusive environment where at least people feel able to call out prejudice where they see it and are supported for it. Organisations like Constant Flux, who work to create touring opportunities for disabled musicians, have gone to show just how much you can do to achieve sustainable social change through DIY.
Sign up for the newsletter
Dan James: It’s a domain where people are free to be creative, the melting pot where ideas are shared, expanded and experimented with.
Rachel Aggs: It’s an alternative to the mainstream. Being queer, female and mixed race means it’s always been important for me to make things and be visible, be heard. I’ve always sought out people who create spaces where I feel comfortable and empowered, encouraged and inspired.
Is DIY inherently political?
Kelly: If anything I see DIY shows as ethical rather than political.
Bryony: Yes and no. DIY came out of the radical tactic of ‘self-organisation’ – British groups like The Buzzcocks, Desperate Bicycles and Crass applied it to music-making and created the enduring models for ‘do it yourself’ in music. It’s also drawn from an anarchist idea of making collective decisions that aren’t handed down from above. It’s political in so much as it shows that you don’t need loads of money or connections to create your own culture, and shows young people that there is more than one measure of success in life, that it’s not basically just a big choice between Tesco or X Factor. DIY is a trendy buzzword of late, which really annoys some people, but I don’t really care. Even if it’s actually backed by corporate money, which is inevitable these days, then it might turn someone on to dig a little deeper and make their own band or zine. Ten years ago I might have worried about talking to the NME about DIY in case some righteous bro called me out for not being punk – but as I’ve got older I’ve realised that, just like with politics, cultural work and radical ideas need a wide popular platform. I want people who grew up in the neighbourhoods where gigs happen to come to them – we should be much less closed off.
Matthew: An example: you get bands that book their own shows, sort their own press etc, but as soon as they get a better offer they’ll jump ship. Conversely you get bands who get offers from major labels, booking agents etc but decide to take the DIY route anyway. Then it’s political.
Dan: People who do DIY rely on communities of like-minded people and shared knowledge. These things promote awareness, which in turn makes people realise what’s happening around them.
Rachel: It’s anti-commercial and provides a space for more radical ideas or groups, and for people who may find themselves marginalised by mainstream culture.
Is your local community receptive to DIY?
Jake: Plymouth interestingly isn’t really dwarfed by more commercial music stuff, but the council destroying the bus station where two independent record stores and our major alternative music venue [The White Rabbit] is based hardly helps.
Kelly: Nottingham is an amazing hub for DIY activity. More people are coming out to DIY shows than ever before and without knowing the bands. I actually moved back after four years in London because I missed the community.
Liam: Cornwall suffers from being very spread out and lacking decent transport, so getting to or from a gig can be problematic. Shows often take place in pubs where you get a real mix of gig-goers and people that couldn’t care less what is happening, which can create an interesting tension! Regardless we do have a core passionate audience and a thriving scene. I’ve often said that if you could put all the towns together we would have it as good as any major city.
Matthew: There’s definitely a solid community in London around DIY activity. I imagine that’s always been there to some extent, but key people like Bryony and the DIY Space For London lot have done a lot to build that.
Dan: Plymouth’s DIY community is self-sufficient. Any potential gig space will be considered, which keeps things interesting and exhilarating. There’s nothing like 100 sweaty punks rocking out to their favourite DIY band in a disused café.
Rachel: It’s a constant struggle to find space in London, but I think it charges the scene with a particular kind of energy that I like. There needs to be better venues: Power Lunches is one of the few independent venues in east London that’s not owned by Vice or whatever, which is a shame – we need a DIY space badly.
Do you ever have to compromise on your values to ensure that what you’re working on goes ahead?
Jake: With PR I think you need to play the game a little, though that’s not to say values are compromised.
Kelly: Not really. There wouldn’t be much point in being a DIY promoter if so.
Bryony: I think if you work with a sensible model and start small you can stick to your guns, but everything involves some level of compromise. I’ve put on too many gigs in spaces that a person that using a wheelchair couldn’t access easily, for example, and that sucks but is also the nature of far too many venues. I’ve definitely had to work hard not to strangle a patronising soundman so that a gig I’ve booked can go ahead – you have to pick your battles.
Matthew: There are definitely instances where we have to make small compromises – for example, finding all-ages spaces for larger scale shows is really tough, sadly – but we’d never compromise our overall values.
Dan: Everyone has different goals. For instance I ran a venue [The White Rabbit], and we were 100% DIY in ethic, but obviously we were a business, which sort of goes against the anti-consumerism mindset. It’s not easy, but the idea is to do as much as you can.
What are the challenges facing DIY music culture today?
Jake: There’s some behaviour that excludes people, and I think we constantly need to show people we’re not exclusive and that anyone can get involved.
Kelly: As a young girl putting on shows sometimes I wasn’t old enough to be in the venues or people didn’t take me seriously. Now with all-ages spaces and an open community, people starting out won’t have to face that, I hope. One of the main issues is making it more accessible for everyone: making provisions for disabled access and facilities. The Live Music Act definitely made it easier for DIY spaces to thrive, now I’d just like to see these spaces reflect the open attitudes of the people that run them.
Bryony: Space! All DIY scenes need their HQs, but too often they’re fleeting, inaccessible or expensive. I’m part of a cooperative called DIY Space for London that’s been raising money since 2012 to get something sorted like this in London. We have some of the money, now we just need the space!
Matthew: Hateful attitudes. Granted, most people involved are pretty switched on, but you still get sexist, homophobic, transphobic and racist attitudes, and in some circles it seems to be tolerated to an extent, which is incredibly damaging. We need to create a culture where people feel able to call out anything that makes them feel uncomfortable, where everyone listens when they raise these concerns. There’s no fucking place for close-minded idiotic dinosaurs anywhere, but DIY should be setting the example.
Rachel: Space – the change in the squatting laws has meant people find it harder to live and make music in cities, but I think there a kind of resolve, especially in London, to keep trying to get away with existing against the tide of housing development bullshit.
How much does what you do rely on money?
Kelly: I’ve lost a lot of money putting on gigs that I’ve subsidised with my day job and profits from other gigs, which can be totally disheartening… but you know the risks as a promoter. It’s definitely a labour of love.
Liam: Everything costs but luckily there are people who are willing to muck in to help make things happen. I swapped an artwork for a PA hire recently, that felt good. The growing costs of staging events and the lack of disposable cash has made things much more challenging recently. People seem to engage with the larger shows as I guess they set aside cash in advance. But smaller club shows have definitely suffered – the only upshot is that we have to think more creatively.
Bryony: It’s a commonly held myth that DIY is somehow about doing away with money. DIY is all about money, but it’s about being smarter with it. You pay a touring band well and you make sure that money is going directly into their petrol tank and their bellies, not lining the pockets of some idiot booking agent or publicist – you don’t need a ‘team’ behind you, you need a community around you. This leaves leftover cash to put towards benefits and community resources like shared equipment and backline. We need to think critically about the amount of disposable income you need to rent a practice space even just once a week, and what that means for the social background of most bands and all the music that gets left unmade as a result.
Rachel: Not at all! I don’t have to spend money to practice ‘cuz we use the basement at Power Lunches and I’ve been very lucky to know people like Chris at [label/promoters] Upset The Rhythm who continues to release [my band] Trash Kit’s records even when nobody buys them! My only problem is that I spend so much of my time playing music that I don’t have time to work a proper job – I’m always poor but it’s worth it.
How did you get involved initially?
Jake: When I was in my first year of uni, I was going to lots of shows and decided to write for the SU newspaper. Through that I met lots of local Cardiff bands and promoters, I started a blog then wrote for ‘bigger’ publications. I got frustrated that the small bands I loved weren’t being written about and decided that getting other journalists to write about them might be more useful than writing about them myself.
Kelly: I was 17. I asked a band to play Nottingham; they said they would if I booked the show. I didn’t really know what I was doing but I wanted to see them so I rang a load of venues, made a crappy flyer and begged my friends to come. Some of the guys that came asked me to book their band. I just carried on.
Liam: I was 21 and had just returned to Cornwall from art school in London, where there was a vibrant scene. I quickly realised there was nothing happening here that I wanted to engage with. I was working part-time in a record store where local bands wanted to sell their CDs. As a musician myself I knew a lot of them so a community grew around the counter. Before I knew it I was putting on a few parties, these became gigs, which became weekly club nights…
Bryony: When I was 15 I started going to DIY hardcore gigs in south Wales, a really small community where people worked hard to make things happen. I loved the gigs but found it hard to see a place for myself as an active participant because I was a teenage girl who couldn’t play an instrument.
Matthew: I’ve been playing in bands for years. We started our label Barely Regal when I was 22 (I think) and started putting on shows a bit before that. I think the main reason I got involved was because I was really inspired by the music scene in Cardiff, there’s such an incredible community there.
Rachel: I was 21 when I played my first show with Trash Kit. We played for Andrew Milk (of Mïlk Records) at his warehouse in Manor House where loads of people used to live before they got turned into posh flats. Rachel [Horwood] and I had both only just learned our instruments, it’s still the best show I’ve ever played! I wasn’t sure if the band was terrible or not but after I was so ecstatic, I was like, “I have to do that again!”
What’s your advice for someone who wants to join in or start something but doesn’t know how?
Jake: Just do it. Ask questions. Eventually you’ll be doing it.
Kelly: Don’t be afraid of joining in – I’ve never met someone involved in DIY who wouldn’t welcome others. I got loads of advice when I started out (I don’t think I even knew what a backline was until my third show). It’s OK to mess up, it doesn’t have to be perfect.
Liam: Make yourself visible, go to gigs, talk to people and just do what you do… and keep doing it.
Bryony: Take risks – ask your local community centre, church hall or launderette if they’d be up for having a gig, the answer might surprise you. If you’re at a gig on your own, chat to strangers. Be very suspicious of anyone who tells you ‘no’ or suggests there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do anything.
Matthew: Look to the people who inspired you to get involved and get in touch. Don’t let anyone get you down: snobby idiots might think that because you’re new you don’t know what you’re doing, but ignore them. Focus on the supportive people.
Dan: Ask how to get involved. This is entirely the point of DIY. Do it yourself, and contribute.
Rachel: Come to shows and let people know you wanna start a band or put on a night. People will support you – it’s new ideas and new bands that keep the scene going.