SoundCloud changed my life: An introduction to DIY music
I grew up in suburbia. I went to Catholic school until I was 18. I wore a uniform, and I kept my hair short. Aesthetically, I could not have been a more accurate cookie cutter of a middle-class teenager, and I was fully uninspired artistically — at least until I found do-it-yourself music on the internet.
My first semester at the University of Michigan, word got to me that Pinegrove, an incredible indie rock outfit I had found on Twitter a year prior, would be playing a space known as Lincoln House within a 10-minute walk of campus. In a feeble attempt to blend in with the local scene the night of the show, I put on a shirt that read “Pity Sex Is a Band,” representing one of my favorite groups that hailed from Ann Arbor, and began my walk to the space.
I walked quickly up the driveway toward the group of people smoking cigarettes out back, hurrying to escape the blustery fall night. I entered the door, paid whoever was collecting money $5 while stealing glances at the blindingly lit kitchen behind them, and walked down the concrete steps splattered with chipping white paint.
Surprisingly, the basement was fully finished. I was greeted by a cacophonous crowd atop a white linoleum floor, a bar topped with all the bands’ merch and flood lights attached to sconces on the wall that lit up a drum kit in the middle of a small space at the back of the room. I approached the bar to check out the T-shirts and settled on purchasing a simple design that spelled out “Pinegrove” in rotating colors for each letter.
The opening bands were skilled musicians and entertaining performers, none afraid to hold back during their time at the front of the floor. If I hadn’t been so excited to see Pinegrove perform literally two feet in front of my face I might’ve even been able to pay more attention to the opening sets. Sooner than I had expected, it was time for Pinegrove to play some songs for the enigmatic crowd.
Before their rise with the 2016 release of Cardinal — landing them a spot on Lollapalooza’s line-up mere months after the basement show in Ann Arbor — Pinegrove performed songs off an album I had first listened to on Bandcamp entitled Everything So Far to a crowd of less than 100 people in a dimly lit basement. This is DIY music, its practitioners and its followers at their finest.
DIY music refers to almost anything uploaded to Bandcamp or SoundCloud by artists independent of a record label. It comes from every genre you can think of, and centers around music made by those looking for discovery or with the simple desire to share their work with the internet. In today’s world, artists are starting to depend less and less on record labels. Just look at Chance the Rapper — he’s doing it flawlessly.
Yet, beneath the glamor and fame of arena shows and highly produced tunes, there’s a whole other world of music being made by dreamers, hopefuls and imaginative creatives, performing and making music for the sake of art itself. It’s a world with important parts both big and small between the people who not only make the art, but also those who manage the spaces to present it. It’s a tight-knit niche of friends and fans alike.
What exactly were your favorite bands doing before playing shows at The Palace, Saint Andrews or other hometown venues? Most likely blowing up some basement for the price of gas in front of the passionate individuals that help these artists get their first major footing in popularity. Without these spaces and this community, many bands wouldn’t have the chance to even begin making a living through their art.
First and foremost, these artists need the basements, old churches and other homely spaces to perform their art. Sara Johnson, club manager of the Flint Local 432, a space where I’ve seen innumerable up-and-coming artists perform, wrote in an email interview that, “I do this because kids deserve a safe environment in which to enjoy live music, the beautiful thing that it is. I'm never happier than when I'm at work, and not many people get to say that, which makes me appreciate it even more.”
The Local is a substance-free venue — a true blessing for anyone who is as sick as I am of getting hit in the head with beer cans at shows — providing a stage for artists of all genres and a space for all ages to safely consume art and performance. It’s a universal notion among those who book DIY shows that they do it for the love of performance itself and their first priority is making the space as welcoming as possible to newcomers and veterans alike.
“It was really incredible to be able to host Empire! Empire! (I Was A Lonely Estate)'s last show,” wrote Johnson. “We love Keith and Cathy so much, and the rest of the lineup was amazing — all of the bands were ones I'd had on my ‘book @ 432’ list, especially Joie de Vivre and The Island of Misfit Toys. We sold out the show, the room was full to bursting with love (and sadness and grief), and it's a night that will have a special place in all of our hearts forever, I'm sure.”
Now I highly doubt you recognize any of these band names, and that is absolutely OK. This is an introduction to DIY, one for those unfamiliar with this world of music. No, those involved in DIY aren’t “hipsters” or “music snobs” (all right, you caught me, they actually might be). Truthfully, their biggest concern is satisfying their hunger for new music and performances; it’s comparable to a book worm or a movie buff getting a fix on their art of choice.
The fact that Johnson has a “book @ 432” list is perhaps one of the strongest testaments to their passion for music. Not to mention the show they are referring to was one of the most emotional I have ever attended at the Local. To say the room was bursting with love is an understatement, as the typically strict line between fans and artists at mainstream venues was blurred into oblivion. Bands were constantly dispersed throughout the crowd, speaking with other artists, fans and friends. It was a glowing atmosphere of camaraderie truly unique to the DIY scene.
DIY music is also just as concerned with diversifying genres as it is with representing the unique identities within those genres.
“Punk as a subculture is known for being overwhelmingly white, cis, and male — and while the Local certainly doesn't mind booking acts that fall into those categories, we're disappointed every time we fail to represent women, people of color, and LGBTQIA+ folks on our stage,” Johnson wrote.
Both these efforts and popular bands within the scene, like Girls Living Outside Society’s Shit and PWR BTTM, show that any and all identities have a place within DIY music where they can thrive and have their voice heard. It’s an environment that embodies inclusivity.
In addition to getting details on booking shows, I had the opportunity to speak with LSA senior John Sciortino, whose band Bonzo often plays at local spaces in Ann Arbor and is a strong staple in the DIY scene.
When I asked what his favorite part about playing DIY shows is, Sciortino said, “The fact that you can go to shows and listen to music for free.” Taking a full shift away from his own work, he also added that “Some of my favorite albums and EPs have been stuff I’ve been able to download for free off Bandcamp.”
Obviously, music taste is one of the most subjective facets of the human consumption of art, but knowing that your favorite bands don’t care for your money only makes the listening all the sweeter. The lack of focus on capitalistic venture creates an evident lack of pressure on the artist.
Sciortino expanded upon removing a ticket price from the equation, saying they create inclusivity.
“Especially with donation-based shows, and pay-what-you-want shows, you’re not keeping kids out of clubs and they’re usually all ages,” he said. There’s a valiant focus on the fans in the DIY scene among both the artists and the people who manage spaces.
“I’ve always been bad at pushing my music,” Sciortino said about popularity and promotion. There’s a lack of desire in DIY to draw nameless fans, and a larger focus on meeting others with the same ideals while forming a community.
“Our experience in DIY is that it’s a slow increase over a long time to get to know people,” he continued.
But what does happen when your DIY music takes off? Should I even dare to use the word “popular?” Enter Jeff Rosenstock, a reigning forefather of DIY music and a musician whose newest album WORRY. has already appeared on multiple “Best of 2016” charts just this past week.
Rosenstock has been around DIY punk music for years. He’s been involved in multiple bands before finding more mainstream success under his given name. Yet, one of his most important contributions to music was being one of the first artists to put his work on the internet in a pay-what-you-want format, and implementing the same model under his own label, Quote Unquote Records.
The beginning of DIY involvement wasn’t always glamorous for Rosenstock, who wrote in an email that “The first shows we played were not great. We played my backyard. We played a coffee shop up the street. We played a place called the C-Note Cafe. We were horrible and people didn't like us.”
But this didn’t deter Rosenstock’s passion for performance, and he continued to play shows for the hell of it or for charity, another common theme in the DIY scene.
“I specifically remember our friend Dan putting together a benefit show called Cancer Sucks out in Babylon, where around ten bands played and all the money went to cancer research,” Rosenstock wrote. “We were kids and we weren't even thinking about money we just wanted to play shows, so there were always benefit shows happening.”
Rosenstock also wrote about now being on SideOneDummy Records, noting that even while working with a label, he hasn’t let go of his DIY roots.
“Thankfully when we were talking and I had mentioned that I needed total creative control, I needed to still put my records out for free on Quote Unquote and a handful of other things, they were down,” he wrote.
Despite working with a label, Rosenstock refuses to let go of his DIY ethos that has motivated him since his earliest shows.
And DIY’s ethos is certainly its most important facet. Hold onto your passions and do what you want to do. Give a middle finger to expectations and responsibilities. Let an artist, or even just a song, consume you. Let your emotions take hold and do something you love for the sake of loving it. If you’re afraid of taking the leap, Rosenstock even included advice:
“There are going to be a lot of people telling you that you can't do it,” he wrote. “That you need an agent, a manager, a record label, that you can't record yourself. A lot of the time these people are saying stuff out of love, so it’s hard to ignore them. But they’re wrong. You can do anything.”