Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The New DIY?

There's been been a couple of online articles recently (that's one shy of three, which almost makes a trend!) about what "do-it-yourself" means in the era of digital music. So we figured we'd do a little thinking out loud, then turn the floor over to the experts — in other words, you.

With the advent of user-friendly digital distro services, musicians now have a wide array of relatively inexpensive tools to get their tunes out there. Of course, with fewer gatekeepers and the "democratization" of technology, it also means you probably have to work harder to get noticed — there's no slick suit who can make it magically happen for you. (And if there is, maybe s/he can give us a call?)

All of this upsets the traditional artist-record company relationship, which we've seen borne out by the increasing number of established acts who have ditched their labels in favor of more "experimental" approaches to marketing and distribution. (Insert tired Radiohead/Nine Inch Nails analogy here.)

But can an up-and-coming artist really be their own label? Superstars clearly have an advantage in terms of the critical mass needed to achieve success with direct-to-fan schemes — most have already benefited from "traditional" label arrangements during their developmental phase. So what does DIY mean for the struggling artist/part time barista?

It kind of depends who you ask.

Digital Music News published a piece this week called "DIY and the Death of the Rock Star." This paragraph basically explains their take:

Major labels no longer have the ability to generate huge blowouts, thanks partly to media fragmentation. Then again, direct-to-fan relationships have never been easier to build — one dedicated fan at a time. Indeed, those that toil to super-serve a core audience can reap the rewards, perhaps enough to quit the day job.

The article also cites indie-punk-cabaret goddess Amanda Palmer, who has become quite the Twitterer lately:

. . .despite the hype surrounding DIY, big questions continue to surround the ultimate payoff for unknown acts. Either way, artists can expect to dedicate extreme efforts and lots of connected time to achieve traction. "I'm spending a lot of time connecting with fans... and I don't feel as much of an artist as much as a promoter of Amanda Palmer," Palmer relayed. "All of this instant connection has taken the place of making art. An idea that might have translated into a song before might now go into my blog instead."

The quasi-snarky music/biz blog Idolator recently published a post with the awesome title, "Is DIY Just Another Word for Nothing Left to Lose?" FMC's founders can no doubt identify with this section:

The do-it-yourself attitude, conceived out of a combination of ambition and necessity, was revelatory to a particular generation who may have grown up with punk but still saw the movement's bands releasing albums on major labels; what started as adding a lower rung to the ladder became an end goal in itself, with labels like Dischord and K insisting that DIY techniques represented a way of making music that was anti-hierarchical, inclusive, and democratic. Artists who chose to subscribe to that particular philosophy became part of a system of mutual assistance which, at least theoretically, enabled them to make music without the need for a major label's resources.

In the current age, DIY seems to have reverted to being a stepping stone to greater success, whatever that might mean. Except that, instead of being a lower rung on the ladder, the DIY rung is rapidly becoming the entire ladder, at least to hear a lot of folks tell it.

The fragmentation of traditional gatekeepers, the changing role of labels, tough economic times and rampant file-sharing are all factors in what can only be described as a major paradigm shift in the business of music. But it's not all doom and gloom: increasingly artists can make their own career choices, from DIY tour booking to stocking music with digital retailers. Although it's probably too early to predict how all his will play out, FMC is planning a study of musician income streams that will hopefully provide a clearer picture about how these disruptions/opportunities are affecting artists' bottom lines.

We wouldn't want to call ourselves prescient or anything, but the other day (before the aforementioned articles were published), we conducted a non-scientific, "just for fun" experiment with our Twitter followers. We asked them "What does DIY mean to you?" and received a ton of interesting responses. Here's a handful:

ANTIQCOOL: Freedom! no suits telling me what to release.

talegends: DIY to me means "you know you can't afford to hire anyone, so if you want anything to happen you have to DIY!"

oastem: DIY means forging your own tools to follow your vision wherever it takes you be it over/underground.

travisnorman: DIY for me = The Freedom to pursue your vision precisely as you imagine it, without compromise.

Interestingly, no one said "too much damn work." Although one person seemed to take the question a bit too literally: "DIY means 'do it yourself,'" they said. Well, we're glad to have cleared that up!

If you haven't already chimed in, tell us in the comments what DIY means to you!

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