State of the Scene: DIY or DIE!

Michael Venutolo-Mantovani

Michael Venutolo-MantovaniWhatever it says – or whatever we think it says – about us can basically be boiled down to this: “we’re earning it.” Nobody wants to be thought of as the silver-spooned, and nobody wants to be thought of as having taken anything they haven’t earned or, more importantly, fought for.

Bands are supposed to have battle scars. They’re supposed to be road-hardened. Their tires (both figurative and literal) should have a lot of wear. And when they make it to the top of whatever mountain they’re trying to climb, DIY ethos intact, their brows are supposed to be slick with the sweat and grease of years and years of banging it out on the road, making their own breaks, and creating their own destinies.

But what was once an endearing and enduring ideal has increasingly become an excuse for mediocrity. Today, ‘doing it yourself’ is more often than not in congress with providing a shitty product.

The Culture Of Garbage
DIY has its benefits for the creator. You sit in the driver’s seat and control the destiny of your artistic endeavors without having to answer to anyone. Potentially, and only if you’re smart and savvy, you reap 100% of the financial windfall. What’s not to attract us to this idea of total control? Why would any band want to sign with a record label that would apparently control their art and cut into their revenue and, thus, their livelihood? It seems so simple to just put out a record, make some shirts, go on tour, and make some money.

But what so many don’t realize is that doing it yourself also means filtering yourself. Therein lies the inherent problem: he’s rare the man who can filter himself – most especially when it comes to making his art.

So while there are many upsides to DIY, the major downside is the absence of filtering, or curating for lack of a better term, that artists need. Many young bands no longer think they need record labels (they do, but that’s a conversation for another time), and without those record labels – those experts – there is no one to discern what is good and what isn’t. In these instances, there is no one to say, “No. We’re not going to put this record out. Because it isn’t very good.”

As far as the artist is concerned, the record is great and usually described as “a mix between Radiohead and Led Zeppelin. A little Rage Against The Machine in there and some Rolling Stones.”

Really? You just made a record that is an amalgam of the greatest music ever made? Cool. Can’t wait to hear it.

But your record sounds nothing like that.
What many people don’t understand is that DIY is not an excuse to provide a shitty product. Just because you can play the guitar doesn’t mean you should start a band. Just because you and your pals have cobbled together a few songs does not mean you should record an album on Garage Band and release it for free on Bandcamp. This deluge of mediocrity is what has flooded the musical landscape and made music as a whole much more middling and much less valuable than it used to be. It’s far less common these days to see bands strive creatively as hard as they used to, because there is no longer a need to stand apart. If you can’t find a record label that wants to put out your record, you can just do it yourself.

“But dude. The playing field is leveling!”
Well, maybe it shouldn’t be level. No. Forget maybe. It absolutely shouldn’t be level. There should be bands that are never allowed to make a record. And just the same, those bands that do rise to the top of their game should have to carve out an existence with their blood and sweat. And it’s usually only through that blood and sweat that most bands get to the point of creating worthwhile music and playing amazing shows.

Gimme Gimme Gimme
Formerly, the DIY culture was all about giving back. You book my band and I’ll book yours. You get me on your local comp and I’ll bring your 7” to my local record shop. Pass our demo off and we’ll do the same with yours.

Now, however, the culture is more about taking than it is about giving. We no longer live in a DIY-centric culture. Now the playing field resembles something you could call DIO – Do it Ourselves. Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and the other crowdfunding platforms that I am gladly ignorant of have taken Doing It Yourself to a pretty disgusting place.

Bands don’t have to hack it out or save their pennies or go out and earn money as performers (which in turn makes them better performers) anymore. All they have to do is ask, and it seems most people are willing to part with their hard-earned money for a digital download and a thank-you note.
This disgusts me, and each time I’ve wrestled with the idea over the years, I’ve consistently come to the conclusion that using these methods to make your record is just embarrassing.

Think of it like this: I want a new car. So if you give me five thousand dollars, I’ll give you a ride. If you give me ten thousand dollars, I’ll let you use it once a week and I’ll cook you dinner. If you give me fifteen thousand dollars, I’ll drive you to work every day, cook you dinner, and send you photos of my new car in front of national monuments as I drive it across the country.

Ridiculous, right? Well, crowdsourcing your product is no different, and it’s hardly doing it yourself. Even DIO is a misnomer, as it’s not really “Do It Ourselves.” It’s more, “What can you do to help me out?” which is essentially in opposition to the core ethos of DIY.

Allow me to get anecdotal
I can’t begin to tell you how many small bands, labels, writers, and the like I’ve helped out, put in a good word for, booked shows with, passed out stickers for, re-posted links to videos, and so on. And I’d venture to say that less than 10% of it is reciprocated toward my own band. Now, maybe I’m looking at it in the wrong light. Maybe my band sucks. Maybe we’re not worth booking shows for, and no one wants to play with us because we don’t bring a crowd. But I sincerely doubt that, since we have both an impressive show resume and a very sturdy sales history to back up the claim that we are actually kind of good.

So what is it? How come almost no one has ever asked my band to play a show? (That’s not an exaggeration. Of the 200+ we’ve played, I’ve booked all but about 20 of them).

I like to think that it’s mainly due to the fact that everyone is afraid we’ll rock their asses right off the stage. But more realistically, it’s because people in today’s scene only give a damn about their own band. But we can’t blame them (well, we kinda can) because it’s become our norm. Our status quo is selfishness, and thanks to technology, it’s simple not to care about anyone else, because it seems that you don’t need anyone else anymore. The world is at our fingertips, so we no longer need to give anyone else a hand.

Now, I recognize that my little rant here is a pretty broad generalization, and maybe (hopefully) it’s only the case in our scene up here in NJ and NYC. After all, the reason most people move up here is to “make it,” so who can blame them for being self-centered? I can’t. But what I can do is not like them for it.

So where has our nobility gone? Was it only here because it had to be? Were we only helping each other out all those years ago because it was the only way? Has the Internet and social media proven that we’ve never really given a damn about one another? I sure hope not.

So What Am I Saying?
I’m saying that I do support most DIY artists and bands and movements. I always try my hardest to have the backs of those who are doing it themselves. I’ve even put out several of my own records and booked and financed my own tours. But I’m also saying that even though you are doing it yourself, in the end you have to realize you’re doing it for someone else. Most importantly:

1) The Fans – Don’t ever forget that as musicians, we are first entertainers, and we are asking people to plunk down their hard-earned money on a product that we claim will entertain them, whether it’s a record, a video, a live show, or anything else that we claim is worthy. So entertain people.

2) Your Fellow Artists – It’s us. The Brotherhood. The loose brethren who understand how much it sucks to go on a self-financed tour. We’ve done it just like you have, and we know how hard it is sometimes, so lend a hand when you can. We’re all in this shit-heap together.

And I’m saying that just because you can do it yourself doesn’t mean you shouldn’t present the absolute best possible product you can muster. The things you create are your cultural calling card, and they should be something you’re proud to show off. So don’t let yourself use DIY as a shortcut. In fact, think of it as a bigger hurdle to jump. Make yourself and your band better every day, and maybe someday soon, you won’t have to do it yourself anymore.

About the Author

Michael Venutolo-MantovaniMy name is Mike V. I write about things that make me angry. Or happy. But usually angry. Because when I'm happy, I don't want to write. I want to be happy. I grew up on the Jersey Shore and I play guitar and sing in a rock and roll band called The Everymen. We fucking rule.View all posts by Michael Venutolo-Mantovani →