It’s not so much the unpaid gigs. That you can handle – for now, at least.
It’s more the lack of sustained recognition; the very real blood, sweat and tears channeled into creating and sharing your music, only to receive enthusiastic responses in fits and starts. Those silent pockets of time between gigs make you want to put your mic stand through the computer screen.
You know your music is good, your audience knows it’s good, but how on earth do you get – and keep – the kind of momentum you need to make this what you do for a living?
It’s no secret that a lot of people in your local music scene are distracted. Last year’s music report by information measurement bastion Nielsen showed that, despite access to unlimited sources of new music online, the radio is still the source of the majority of new music discovered by Americans.
It’s as if fans still want the industry to do the legwork for them, telling them who’s worth listening to and going to see live. And research shows little likelihood of this trend slowing.
It’s a result of what has been dubbed “the tyranny of choice”. Simply put, with so many options out there, it’s easier and less risky for listeners to follow and spend money on artists who they perceive to have already proven their popularity. And all a record label has to do to make you perceive an artist in this way is to spend millions of dollars on PR and marketing campaigns, along with relentless radio play – money and resources up-and-coming musicians simply don’t have.
Still, music scenes survive – even thrive – on their own, far from the bank accounts of corporate music institutions. Often, it’s these scenes, organically grown and self-sustaining, that catch the attention of label scouts, leading to the discovery of a wealth of musical talent. Think CBGB-era New York, or the grunge scene of 1990’s Seattle, which exploded into a pop culture force majeure.
Salad Days, A Decade of Punk in Washington, DC, is a documentary chronicling one of the most influential DIY music scenes in American history.
It’s a rousing, thorough journey through the hearts and minds of musicians in 1980’s Washington, DC, who, without support from major – or sometimes even minor – labels, set out to take control of their own exposure, making and distributing their own records, creating their own record labels, putting on their own gigs in any spaces they could, and self-promoting by way of independently made ‘zines, posters, and mail order setups.
Without directly preaching, the film has a lot to say about how you can (and really should!) build, strengthen, and work to sustain the music scene in your own town.
Embrace everyone. The next generation of music heroes are going to be inspired by what’s going on right now, so you want them in your audience.
Consider the power of all-ages shows.
These can be held in outdoor spaces or school gyms, auditoriums, or rec centers. If you’re playing at a bar or in an establishment which serves alcohol, talk with the owner or booking manager beforehand to find out what they’re willing to allow. Often, the solution to letting underage fans into bars and clubs is as simple as marking their hands with visible X’s, so that bar staff know not to serve them alcohol.
Play music because you want to. After this, your reasons for strumming that guitar or writing those lyrics are your own. There are no rules, and no forms to fill out. Every reason for playing is a valid one, even if all you want to do it is to try it out for the laugh. If you have a message, by all means, share it. If you don’t, don’t feel pressure to come up with one for the sake of it. Don’t let anyone stop you or make you feel like you should explain yourself. Just show up and play.
Play music for each other (and support others who do) because it’s inherently human. Western culture has somehow managed to appropriate music as the specialty profession of a select few, which, in other parts of the world, is crazy, because in most other societies, making music is something everyone does. Don’t fall for the hype. You’ve got a right to play. Encouraging others to do the same leads to a super creative DIY music scene you’ll be proud to call your own.
Hook each other up. Maintaining a strong, convicted community is the only way this works. Whatever your skill or skill level, get involved.
Offer up any resources you might have. Got a car? Offer to drive bands to and from gigs. An empty space can be a spot for bands to play shows or hold practices. Have access to a printer or photocopier? Help make posters, album covers, and ‘zines.
Share your talents and skills. Everyone has something they can contribute. Write reviews. Take photos and let the zine guy use them. Draw some sweet cover art or cut and paste a rad collage for a poster. If you’re good at talking to people, offer to answer phones for small labels. Give bands crazy haircuts. The options are literally endless.
And, hey, while you’re at it, promote equality. Everyone should have a shot and a say.
Get off your butt. At the end of the day, none of the talent and support matters without a motivated, no-nonsense approach to getting things done.
A strong DIY music community is one where bands and fans come together, show up to each others’ gigs and events, and stay active. That means not waiting around for something to happen. No one will release your record? Do it yourself. Remember that just by doing stuff, you’re contributing to the history and substance of the DIY scene in your time and place, as well as the formation of new, exciting music to come.
And don’t wait for tomorrow. Mark Andersen (founder of Positive Force, an activist group that was instrumental in organizing music and social events within the DC scene) agrees. “(The time) is always now,” he insists. “So go. Make it real. NOW.”