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The DIY music movement and the internet: a new age for independence? January 26, 2012

Posted by wallofsound in Uncategorized.
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The term popular music suggests three different sense of ‘popular’. In part it means ‘widely liked’, and it should be clear that the mass popularity that some music-makers can achieve is central to the growth of major record companies, and ultimately, because of the political economy of recorded music, to the increasing tendency to concentration in the record industry. It is also clear that the second sense of popular, as texts of poor cultural value, is often applied to the records produced by these large record companies. It should be no surprise, then, to discover that there is also a whole range of record industry activity associated with the third sense of popularity, the idea that music belongs to ordinary people and should express their aspirations. We can see this idea reflected in some aspects of the idea of independence and alternativeness at the heart of DIY music. That is, the idea that the political economy of music should be in the hands of those who make and consume music; musicians and music fans should be doing it (the music economy) for themselves.

In this formulation it is easy to see why independent companies were seen by many to avoid the tendency (as they saw it) of mass music popularity to undermine its cultural value. This is clearly the basis of the support for those independents in the 1950s, 60s and early 70s. DIY music culture is often traced back to the late 1970s, as ideas of the alternative society were applied more systematically in popular culture, and especially in anarcho-punk culture. The punk fanzine Sniffin’ Glue, and Mark P’s (1976) encouragement to DIY activism, is often seen as an emblematic moment in the development of DIY: “don’t be satisfied with what we write. Go out and start your own fanzine or send reviews to the established papers. Let’s really get on their nerves, flood the market with punk-writing!”
However, as George McKay (1998) has shown the idea of DIY music culture goes back much further, and is not restricted to anarcho-punk or punk. His example from skiffle, mod culture and house music, along with Tony Mitchell’s (2007) examination of Australian Hip Hop, show how widely idea has been used. Nevertheless, the idea has been particularly strong in anarcho-punk. Lucy Nicholas (Nicholas, 2007: 1) has summed this up succinctly thus:
“This DIY ethic originates from the rejection by punk bands of the apparent compromise of signing to major music labels, choosing instead to record, release and distribute music, and organise gigs, themselves. It has been extended by participants in the punk scene to other cultural creations and to everyday politics, wherein participants avoid the ethico-political compromise of participation in institutions and practices they consider exploitative, doing as much as possible themselves, according to an autonomous anarchist ethos”.
Pete Dale (2008) has shown how these important parts of anarcho-punk ideology grew out of earlier punk and continued in less politically charged forms. Most helpfully he examines the connection of the idea from earlier decades with its deployment in connection to online technologies and social media. Dale engages with the utopian perspective which sees the internet as ‘circumventing’ the sorts of restrictions that were outlined above, casting doubt on the extent to which such optimism is rooted in reality and asking important questions about how we could research the area further.

If doubts have been cast on the potential of DIY music initiatives to secure independence, other theorists have opened up the question about the degree to which cultural aims as well. In particular the very male nature of many DIY music cultures has been highlighted by a number of commentators. Setting aside that this is a criticism that can, and has, been made against other music cultures which aspire to alternativeness, and to mainstream popular music, these authors make important points about the ability of DIY cultures to engage with questions about alternatives that go beyond the economic in anarcho-punk and dance music (Nicholas, 2007; Rietveld, 1998). The final section of this chapter picks up the questions about the degree to which the internet has increased the potential for DIY success.

There has always been a degree of utopianism about independence within the music industry, then. Since 2000, though, this became an increasingly strong theme in the way that both journalistic commentators and scholars have approached the potential of the internet within the record industry. While twentieth century small independent companies faced difficulties in getting records pressed in significant numbers, limitations in accessing funding, and the physical problems of distributing CDs or vinyl records, twenty-first century record companies could use the internet to distribute their records as digital files, removing these problems completely. Beyond this practical transformation, many writers have used Chris Anderson’s (2006) promotion of ‘selling less of more’, which he developed out of the idea of the ‘long tail’ (see Anderson, 2004). He suggests that the internet changes the economic imperative within the record industry, detailed earlier in this chapter, to sell large quantities of a very small number of releases. He argued it was possible to make money out of the ‘long tail’ of record releases that only sell in small numbers, and so transform the political economy of music. More generally, writers have pointed to the potential of the internet as a new medium of communication for musicians and small record companies to increase awareness of their music without the ‘gate-keeping’ role of traditional media.

This has lead writers such as Kembrew McLeod (2005) to contend that the falling costs of recording, production and distribution, and what he calls the ‘consumer-led file-sharing explosion’, has enabled small labels and independent artist-entrepreneurs to challenge major record companies and radio. However, like most of the contributions to this debate, McLeod offers only assertion and quotations from numerous advocates of independent record companies, rather than empirical research to support these claims.

Matt Manson (2008) picks out file-sharing as one of a number of ‘youth-led’ activities which he believes has radicalised the music industries. In particular, he cites the punk and DIY movements we discussed earlier, along with counterculture ideas, pirate radio, and street-level remix and re-use artistic culture, being transformed through the computer and the internet to offer artists and musicians as way of resolving what he calls ‘the pirate’s dilemma’. For Manson, this is the tendency of one group of capitalists to sell pirated products to undercut over-charging major corporations. Although this is strictly the dilemma faced society, rather than by producers who impinge on copyrights to produce facsimile goods, Manson believes an independent and alternative capitalism can undercut ‘pirated’ goods and promote artistic vitality at the same time.

However, we know far too little about the effectiveness of these new forms of online distribution and promotion to judge what their likely role in industrial change is likely to be. Given that CDs sold through conventional means still remain a buoyant sector in 2012, and the major companies still remain dominant, the utopian position clearly is not sufficient to understand what is going on. On the other hand, these new technologies clearly provide opportunities for small-scale enterprise, and many of the positive examples provided by McLeod and Manson, amongst other, show that imaginative entrepreneurs can make a living in this new virtual space. What is clear is that the internet and this utopian perspective have provided the basis for a whole range of technologies and services, which offer musicians the opportunity to be a DIY record industry. Putting aside that this often means that independent artist-entrepreneurs are not doing it themselves if they are signing up to online services which seek to replicate the activities of a record company, they do point to the importance of the internet as a space in which new forms of record industry activity take place.

Perhaps the more important conclusions that need to be drawn are three fold. Firstly, it is clear that this is an area which badly needs less hyperbole and more research. Secondly, the major change is not in the activities of record companies online, but in the consumption practices and culture of music fans. This in turn leads to the third conclusion, that the internet, and the way digital and online distribution change the cost structure of the record and radio industries, are enabling new forms of economic activity, rather than simply online ways to repeat the practices that developed to make money out of physical records on vinyl and CD. Certainly the development of the music services – like Spotify, Pandora and Last FM – and the role that new companies from outside the traditional record industries have had in this new economy, suggest this is the case.

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