7.06.2009

(More) Letters: The Myth Of DIY


The most obvious thing to say here... is that MUSIC won't die, hah. Even if every record label and distributor on the planet shut down, we would still have lifetimes of music being made every year. But obviously so much is changing in how music gets from one place to another.

I "work" for a record label... and I put work in quotes because I barely ever get paid, even though I put in a substantial of time. The owner of the label puts in tons of money to press CDs and digipacks, spends even more to ship out promos, print t-shirts, and do everything else small labels do. The other day I was talking to him and the owner of Fake Four records about their financial situations, and if we could all really afford to keep doing what we were doing. I essentially asked why they kept it up, and their answers were both that they just loved music and the bands they were invested in. "What else are we gonna do with our money?" So we all will keep our day jobs.

In my mind, the jury is still out on how much downloading is hurting the record industry. But lets just assume it's devastating it. The main thing that will die is the commodification of music, which might make people question why this became such a massive industry in the first place. I'm sorry to people like Michael Gira or the dude from Deerhunter or Gang Gang Dance that they can't bank anymore. Maybe the time of record labels in general is coming to an end. Artists keeping 50 percent? They can record and upload their stuff to the internet, or do short run.

I think the truth is that this is already over, for the most part. Its the people downloading Mariah Carey and Taylor Swift that will be the deciding factor in shaping the larger music industry. It seems like they are willing to do whatever is most convenient, which a lot of the time is buying from itunes. But like health care... why be distraught over middle men being cut out? Even if they are good people, I think the broader change in music that this drought signifies is more exciting than anything. And to look back and wish that people would buy more to keep an industry afloat seems awkward. That is not what art is about to me, and it doesnt need the backing of companies or labels to thrive.
Before I begin, let me just say that Chris Ruen's piece is brilliantly written, and it bears out a lot of the rhetoric that represents a fa├žade of a lot of the ideological arguments in place by the pro-piracy community.

That said, Ruen seems to miss a huge mark in his argument, and that may be what weakens it as a whole. And that is the arguments of the copyleft. I sent this article over to Boing Boing, see if Cory Doctorow (one of the few mouthpieces of the copyleft) will respond to it, but it's basically this: The whole system is broken. For artists (and labels) to continue making ends meet, they have to go about it in a completely different (and perhaps, morally unreasonable) way. If they are to survive, they need to build a new system to do so, one that takes into account the internet and the reality that people aren't going to give a shit if they don't have to pay.

I guess I'm one of them. For starters, my times with piracy predate Napster: I was partially involved in the Golden Age of Emulation (1996 to 2000). In fact, I can pretty much say that much of my thoughts on piracy date from that, since I didn't really put my head into music until 2002 or so. Back then, by about 1998, the SNES and Genesis were done with, and both consoles were at a primitive stage of emulation development (50-70% of all games emulated, though it accelerated quickly at that point). Yet it didn't stop either Nintendo or Sega from attacking ROM sites left and right (it makes you wish Sega had that much energy concerning the Dreamcast) on the impractical "1 download=1 lost sale" argument (in fact, they were losing more money because they weren't selling the games in the first place). So of course I felt something was wrong with that.

Another thing I've felt have much to do with this mess was the lack of tech innovation backed by the labels in the 1990's. They had a pretty open window of opportunity, and some degree of foresight (with the emergence of the computer and the internet by 1997), to figure out some way to transition into this digital era with minimal losses. They instead squandered that opportunity, clinging onto that cash cow that is the compact disc. And look what happened.

Labels and artists are slowly figuring this out. But I feel like there is going to be a massive depression in the music industry for the next 5-10 years (don't be surprised if one of the Big 4 collapses and declares bankruptcy, and several more indies go down the path of Touch & Go) because everyone dropped the ball on this one. Not to say it was entirely deserved, but they failed to see what was in front them.
I loved the piece by Chris Ruen on downloading, and how DIY goes both ways. Such a well-composed, straightforward argument (thought the theory-ish subtitle belied the soundness of the writing, though). Can't say I am in complete agreeance, but certainly the pro-downloading argument often relies more on fashionable rhetoric (looking at those Pirate Bay guys) than ethical reasoning.

There is a pretty shocking chasm between the internet presentation of independent bands and the reality of their situation. When I met Gang Gang Dance, a band who's last two albums high in TMT's year end list, they looked threadbare enough that my broke ass felt obligated to pay for their beers.

My question is, though, did indie bands ever really make it on record sales? My impression always was that, excepting superstars like Pixies or Pavement, everyday successful indie bands made it on the road, or by working record stores etc.
As another music writer and a native of Canarsie I'd like to commend you on raising some important points on music. However, I feel that there are some perspectives you've left out of your piece.

The older DIY you speak of relied on a close knit network of independent labels, art spaces, publications, and radio (usually college or freeform). In 2009 these separate pieces of one consortium has been starved and/or bought out by a the larger music industry.

I don't advocate piracy of any sort but it is an unavoidable part of where a lot of music must go in the future with the breakdown of this network.

The online sphere may not be the fairest place in the world vis a vie intellectual property but it's almost undeniable that it represents the best means to evade stylistic restrictions. It's forced bands to become their own corporations in some sense; offering vinyl releases, bonus tracks, advanced exposure to records, and even merchandise with releases. These encompass the very essence of DIY.

Without degrading you and your friends, people get hurt during paradigm shifts in music distribution; especially those just coming up. And I'm convinced that the same shift that's produced crass bittorrent downloads has already started to facilitate wonderful results for independent artists who never had a prayer of breaking into music during the 80's and 90's through the same means.

I do my best to support local music stores, art spaces, and basement shows but I realize that they occupy an odd and somewhat disjointed place in their primary role as retailers of music. I wholeheartedly believe they will still go on, but not with the same widespread and interconnected strength as they have in the past. Piracy is to blame for part of it, but also socio-political circumstances. My current home of Washington D.C. Was once impoverish and flooded with art spaces, indie record stores, and basement shows.

Gentrification has facilitated a bar culture that has replaced the coherence and beauty of a bohemian life and as someone who was born in Brooklyn during a period a great poverty for the city, I can say it's likely effected your current home too. Many of the hotbeds for hip hop and punk I grew up with have been shooed aside aside to accommodate the wide spread influx of professional people who've moved into the urban sphere. Again this isn't judgment, as this changes everything from in the way music is sold and scene becomes effected.

Still, this is your work on the line and not mine and I'm glad to see a musician willing to put up an intellectual fight for the opportunities of himself and his friends.

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