On DIY / Punk – Don't Tell My Wife I'm a Cult Leader

On DIY / Punk

I grew up thinking that punk and punk rock was merely an aesthetic choice. I believed that the dyed hair, dark clothing and the other non-conformist trappings were just superficial costume choices. When I began listening to punk music in college, my thinking evolved and I regarded punk as musical lifestyle choice that deemphasized musical skills in exchange for boosting the antiestablishment sentiment associated with punk culture.

Mind you, the only thing I knew about punk I learned from mainstream channels: MTV, record stores, and whatever else the media allowed me to know about punk. It turns out that the appearances punks presented to the world had less to do with "looking cool" and more to do with showing how serious you were with the movement. If you dyed your hair a wild color and got a non-traditional haircut, and you got tatted up and your face was full of jewelry, you basically were saying that you're part of the club "for good." It's like the Jewish convert who gets a circumcision, part of the rite is letting the world that you're not going back.

But now I'm starting to learn about what's at the heart of punk: it's about eschewing the powerbrokers all together and doing your own thing on your own terms. You sacrifice the ability to "make it big" in exchange for putting your nose to the grindstone and carving out your own smaller, albeit more loyal niche. And I get why "making it big" is considered selling out, but I also get why people choose to sell out after many arduous years of making it in the DIY / punk culture.

I admire the punk pioneers--who without a record label and the media exposure that comes with it--were able to schedule their own tours, build their own following and self-release both their music and their literature (zines) that promoted their own philosophy. Usually that philosophy was anti-authoritarian, anti-corporate and the means of perpetuating that philosophy was through direct action, rather than relying on corporate media and publishing houses to do the grunt work. 

The corporate label has an easy sell: they tell you how awesome you've been honing your sound and building your base. They make an offer: you can perform for bigger crowds and apply more of your time towards music-making rather than the backbreaking slog of promotion and logistics. What you may lose is the approbation of your original audience, but their loyalty is not something you can take to the bank forever more either. So I don't blame these bands for cashing in, considering the pros and cons.

But in punk, if a band sells out, their base has every right to be dismissive of their move. If your whole approach is based on anti-establishmentarianism, then you can't hook up with the country's biggest powerbrokers and expect to be taken seriously by the people you played for in the first place. That's because you have turned the philosophy you lived and breathed into an empty shell. You transformed what you stood for into something that can be safely consumed by vast numbers of people who have no interest in the message behind the aesthetic.

You did have some bands take DIY to the next level, like Black Flag, that released their own music under the label SST, and got others to join in, but after time, even the homegrown approach was beset by their own problems, with bands leaving acrimoniously after a few years of trying to make things work out for all parties.

Point being, there's no such thing as a happy path to all of your life's goals and you can't promise anyone that you won't burn people or sacrifice your founding ideals along the way. That's because we're human beings who have to make difficult choices in short order without the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. I'm sure there are many established bands that pine for the simpler good ol' days when they first started out as there are bands that worked tooth and nail for years never getting their shot at filling a stadium or even a nightclub.

I do think that the punk movement shaped us more than we realize, and lot of us are working aspects of punk culture into what we do, especially those among us who are artists or entrepreneurs. To me, the heart of punk culture is about living your ideals and forgoing the usual channels in building a platform. If you're making art that tells the story of your soul and you slowly and surely find people who pay you for your work, then one day a selection of your works gets published as a coffee table book, you're not "selling out" because nowhere in your ideals do you prohibit yourself from becoming a published, successful artist that can focus on the art and allow the promotions to be done by someone else.

Take the founders of baseball's Negro League and how they got their start as player/managers who hired their own teammates, and did their own barnstorming and booking too, all in an atmosphere where they were mostly not welcomed by a sizeable portion of the population. They became a success for decades only to see their best players get siphoned off by the Major Leagues once they were allowed in. And since Black folks were allowed in to stadiums to see their favorite players, it didn't take long for the Negro League to fold.

Also, what can start off as punk can become a calcified institution if things go the "right" way. Take for example Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Jeff Bezos. They started off as iconoclasts who brought down decades-old gateways of the distribution of both information and goods. Now their three names are synonymous with strident gatekeeping, at least by my standards. I get that they provide a valuable service and many DIY folks would be lost as to where to start without them, but when you hold in your hand an enormous veto button that's arbitrarily used, you can't say that you're the last bulwark and bastion of liberated voices everywhere. Plus, even if you do play by the amorphous Terms and Conditions, you used to be able to build a steady following on your own in social media with only sweat equity, but now it takes big bucks, catering to influencers and employing a lot of other "mainstream" methods to get noticed in these ever-swelling mediums.

I think we live in a time of flux where we're trying to figure out of platforms are publishers or if they are something else all together. I get that new media companies should have a line in the sand that's obvious when crossed and that they're trying to figure out what those lines are that are understood and accepted by everyone. But I do feel the longing of the early days of the Internet when the web was basically a Xerox copier in the clouds. That is, right now I can make 1000 copies of a flyer that espouses the most incendiary rhetoric the world has every seen on an 8.5" x 11" page, and the Xerox can't do a damn thing about it, nor does it care. It's empowering even though I know that my flyer's reach is only as far as I'm able to hand them out, and even then I can't make people read it. But how's that different than any day on Twitter, where only the juiciest, most controversial tweets gain any traction, and only after other gatekeepers within that medium deem it to be worthy of a retweet?

In conclusion, it's hard to navigate the push and pull of the powers that be, but if you have something you want to say or make something that you want to make, you should take a survey of the current media landscape and commit to an honest round of DIY, with a little punk philosophy thrown in when necessary. Unless you are a big name or have a big budget, you will have to grind it out, even though there's no prestige in many of the tasks that beset a DIYer on the ground floor. But I'm sure those punk pioneers did that work with alacrity, finding a way to "embrace the suck" of all the necessary constituents that go into fleshing yourself out and becoming a known quantity.

At the end of the day, if you're able to reach a critical mass of people with what you say, do, or make, and you're able to engage enough of those people to keep your thing going for as long as you want to without selling out your ideals, it can be a great accomplishment during our short time on earth.

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