“Music and theatre should belong to nobody, everybody.” - Hannah Nicklin compares ‘DIY’ music with ‘DIY’ theatre
(Andy’s note: Much of this relates to UK-specific art subsidies, but much of it doesn’t.)
(Start a Revolution by Tim Etchells. Photo by Hannah Nicklin, taken at the Edgelands event, in Edinburgh, in 2011. Details of the work can be found here.)
“Theatre Belongs to Everybody; Ideas Belong to No One.” - Chris Goode
A few months ago I cried at a gig for the first time. It was Koji/Into it Over it/Starters at the Old Angel in Nottingham. Koji was onstage and he stood and talked to the sticky, buzzing room about community; about what it meant, but also about holding it to account; about knowing when to call people out, and making a community stronger. I cried for two reasons; one, to have someone stand up with a mic and give me permission to be the kind of person who stands up meant the world to me, and two; because the amazing fucking feeling of all those people living and loving and breathing the words and music in that tiny room filled me up. Filled me up in a way that until that point I had mainly associated with theatre.
I make theatre. I have had work in London, Nottingham, York, Manchester, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Derby, and worked with many other companies besides. I make odd, pervasive performance pieces; stuff you download and walk through a specific city listening to, an audio piece for the top deck of a bus at 1am in London, pick up and play games, installations for swimming pools, or a simple stand-up piece made for a pub back-room where I stand in my protest gear and talk about having a policeman for a father.
When people ask me what kind of theatre I make, I haven’t really got an answer, but I’ve realised recently that if I identify with anything, it’s what I would call ‘DIY’ theatre. In that little sweaty room in Nottingham at the beginning of Autumn, I felt the radical resonances between those two worlds I love; punk and performance - albeit one where I am a maker, and the other an audience member – and since then I have been more and more interested in what both worlds share, and what they can learn from each other.
Daniel Yates of Exeunt Magazine sums up ‘DIY’ really usefully as “small scale, culturally distinctive, alternative producers of experience” (link). That sounds a bit academic-y, but I think at the root of the ethics of DIY is something born of a place and community, and which offers a distinct alternative to the monoculture that thrives on top-down structures, (the mainstream music industry e.g.) and ‘one size fits all’ models of entertainment.
I co-ran an event in Edinburgh this summer called ‘Edgelands’, in it a guy called Tim Crouch talked about monoculture, and the best weapon we have against it; the alternative. Any alternative. All of the alternatives (link). And DIY, in my opinion, is the best alternative there is, because it’s grown and shaped by a certain place to fit and make room for the people that want to live in it. Criticisms of scalability are bollocks in this context; one top down system and thousands of homegrown artefacts meet in the middle.
The quote at the head of this post comes from a booklet given out by theatre-maker Chris Goode (link) at an early version of his most recent show ‘Keep Breathing’. The scratch (work in progress performance) happened in a dusty old factory re-named ‘Stoke Newington International Airport’ (link) where I and many others rehearse and perform for free. Action Hero (link) are a theatre company that got bored of struggling to put their work on in theatres, so made 2 pieces for bars, and another for music venues. Their home is the ‘Milk Bar’ in Bristol, a disused building borrowed from the council where several companies work and support each other’s work. The Forest Fringe (link) has become the highlight of most of the contemporary theatre’s Edinburgh festival, and fills the community-owned not-for-profit Forest Cafe buildings with performers and volunteers, who all work for food and accommodation only. The DIY theatre community is alive, kicking, and as fucking exciting as the music one, but they hardly seem to know of each other’s existence, and that seems odd to me.
There is, though, one massive difference (barrier?) between the two communities; public subsidy. Even if none of the above artists/companies are subsidised directly, the infrastructures in which they move, are.
Here’s the thing about subsidy:
1) Most music can’t get it. (This is wrong, but true)
2) Every work of art is accountable to the establishment (albeit an arms length QUANGO subsidiary thereof).
3) If you’re used to it, and then lose it, you’re mostly fucked.
4) All artists subsidise themselves, anyway. 100% at the beginning, but every single theatre maker I know frequently works for free/expenses only.
Here are some more things about subsidy:
1) Pre-existing and non-commercially driven infrastructure allows both scaling and support for those just starting out.
2) Subsidy that allows a living to be made out of things non-commercially driven allows more people to make art, for more people.
3) It means you don’t have to rely on your audience.
4) It means money begins to seem the only way to start doing things.
A mate of mine told me that a member of the Leicester music community who attended a performance event recently said ‘theatre people never seem to do something unless they can get some money for it’, and though the suggestion made me grumpy to begin with, I’d argue that is true for mid-late career companies or theatre artists. But the thing is, there are a lot more of these in the theatre world than in music. Because the stuff that infrastructure and public subsidy offers is the ability for everyone to stick with making for longer. People over 30, women, non-affluent people, are all either more likely to have caring responsibilities/family priorities, or be lacking the tools/pathways/knowhow to access the world of theatre/music, than those under 30, male, affluent. It’s the difference between scraping by, and breaking even, which makes things possible for people to live and provide by.
Theatre also has industry bodies and members’ organisations like Equity, the ITC, a-n, that actually work for their members’ interests; set living wages and suggested contracts. The kind of support that I have yet to see from majors’ sockpuppets like the MU and their pathetic finger-in-the-hole-of-the-digital-dam obsession. The theatre world is framed art-first. There is a commercial sector that resembles the majors of music, but they occupy completely different territories. Subsidy allows the non-commercial sector to exist without eventually destroying the artists who give their lives to make it.
But music can replicate some of this infrastructure without subsidy. Bandcamp, and before it myspace, has been revolutionary in terms of replacing the distribution functions of the music industry. Why couldn’t we find some form of umbrella organisation for DIY music communities which could easily begin to rival the MU; some kind of mutual or collective/s that drive standards and expectations higher, fight for transparency from Spotify, or better margins from iTunes, whilst also sharing experience/resources? A wiki-infrastructure. For example I know Leicester has the Leicester Music Collective, but how many others are there in other cities, and do they talk? Hold councils accountable for the cultural landscapes they oversee? Could donations help pay a bit of money to allow some people to put in the time to get them to run properly? (That’s another thing subsidy offers; administrators. The jobs that people won’t walk through fire to do, but that are still pretty indispensable in providing scalable infrastructure.)
There’s a criticism of both these theatre and music DIY spaces; that they can be unscalable, insignificant*, hard to find, and incredibly cliquey. The way you solve this is you invite everyone to build their own alternative, and you legitimise alternatives in the first place. What does that mean, in practice? Think about how people find you. Think about how you share skills and spaces. Think about who’s not in the room, and why they might not feel able to be. Like it or not, the fact that those who take public money are required to show how it serves the public makes theatre ask the question (though it’s rarely answered perfectly).
*sub point, fuck ‘significance’ if it always has to mean impactful on a large scale. Give me 50 people whose lives are changed over 500 whose time is filled, any day.
In turn, theatre can learn from DIY music. Theatre is live, or lived, almost by definition. The only way for most theatre to make a living is touring. Although live shows are incredibly important to music, bandcamp, soundcloud, digital downloads in general, have revolutionised audio distribution. Theatre still operates, for the most part, on a distribution system that is hundreds of years old. Big, old, dedicated buildings, weighed down by running and staffing costs. It’s time to leave these, or use them differently (the homeless and brilliant National Theatre of Wales case in point).
Theatre can also learn from the DIY music world that if something isn’t happening where you are, make it happen wherever. Don’t think money-first if you can afford the time. Ask favours of the big fish as well as the little, and pay them back. It could also work together more, share rehearsal space, kit, know-how, contacts, much more widely, efficiently, and regionally. Put theatre in non-theatre buildings, leave behind these palaces, these cathedrals to art. Put it where people are.
They can also learn from the relationship bands have with their audiences. I never heard of anyone getting a theatre company logo tattoo, or proudly, identity define-ingly sticking up show posters in their bedroom. If merch, and sales of records that people can get for free, are the main way you make any money (touring, in the experience of internationally travelled bands I know, rarely breaks even on tickets/fees vs. travel/accomm/expenses) then you have to really drive at your relationship with your fans. Theatre fails at most social media/online/audience stuff because the price of failure is not the end of their existence.
Both of these industries could also work together to show the qualitative value they bring to a community to councils, and show councils there’s more ways to support them than money; all those empty shops, all those empty buildings.
Mostly I would love to see the end of the venue apartheid. Venues where performance, music, installations, craft, libraries, kids’ groups, dance classes, poetry, print making, film screenings, food and drink all happen under one roof. Places like the (recently incredibly fucked over) Forest in Edinburgh, or STK in London.
Because quite frankly, fuck genres. Fuck art form divisions. Let’s talk to, and learn from one another. Let’s work together to fill spaces, places and people with that same burning, beautiful, winded feeling that had me in tears in a music venue last September, and does so frequently in performances. Music and theatre should belong to nobody, everybody.
Hannah Nicklin is a DIY theatre maker and punk/rock/hardcore fan from just outside Leicester in the UK. Aside from Making Things, she is also doing a PhD in how video games are changing theatre. Fun fact: she once declared digital warfare on the government when an otherwise quite rational rant about Torrents was selectively quoted in a Proper Paper. hannahnicklin.com and @hannahnicklin on Twitter.
“Everything else stems from that - teaching yourself skills and applying them more and more…” John Helps of Maybeshewill examines what being “DIY” means to him.
(Andy’s note: This is my friend, John. I used to work with him on the best club nights Leicester has ever seen. He’s good people, so be nice.)
(Photo by John Helps)
I’ve been wanting to write this piece for a very long time, but finding both the time and an appropriate place to put it have always escaped me, so I was delighted when Andy offered me the opportunity to write something for I Live Sweat. This article is about DIY and, whether you agree with the ethics of it or not, why I think it’s a better approach for bands to take. It’s also about whether you can still be, or consider yourself to be, ‘DIY’ as you outgrow your own skills and abilities, or the time and space thats available to you. I’m writing this from my point of view, so there are many references to my experiences as guitarist-come-manager in the band Maybeshewill. You can read more about what we do and why on http://www.maybeshewill.net.
I’d imagine more has been written online regarding being ‘DIY’ in the music world than most other subjects, as the medium has done a lot to enable DIY approaches, but nevertheless I’m going to start at the beginning - at least as I see it. A lot of this is drawn from my own experiences, some of it will be obvious and some of it will be ridiculous, but hopefully some of it will also be correct.
DIY is something I’m passionate about, and an approach I’ve used in all of the music and events I’ve made, put on, put out, or helped make. It’s a methodology and ethic that I believe in, and that has taken me half way around the world.
If you’re coming to this completely dry, DIY (as I’m going to be talking about here) is the practice of being a musician, band, record label, zine, venue etc., that is as self sufficient as humanly possible. In this case I’m talking about DIY in the context of what is ostensibly known as ‘The Music Industry’ as it’s what I know, but it’s been applied to most of the arts and creative industries.
The various projects I’ve been involved in over the last eight years (be it bands, shows, club nights or ‘zines) all started out with an element of DIY to them, even before I knew that it was an ethos that others followed. From the off I learnt to use Logic and Photoshop and to code HTML, so we could record, distribute, and advertise music without having to involve any outside parties in the process. For shows we could make decent posters and get them out around the city ourselves - which is pretty much day zero of promoting. Everything else stems from that - teaching yourself skills and applying them more and more as you get better at using them, whether that be recording an album for under £100 with borrowed mics and a vague idea of where you should put them, starting a club night that your mates DJ and help promote, or producing a zine (online or in print) that informs a wider audience that somethings going on around them that you think they should be getting involved in. You just keep building up until you’ve got something you’re proud of.
To start with, as a band, why would you not put on your own shows in your home town? Hiring a venue is pretty cheap - if not free - and you know your audience better than anyone else. Through doing that you can bring in bands from other cities who might be able to help you out when you head over to their neck of the woods. Help out other bands wherever and whenever you can - from an altruistic point of view it enriches the culture of your city; from an un-altruistic one, it means people often offer favours in return. The more people that want to help you, the better, right? Swap contacts, share information - but always make sure you’re giving something in return. If you start building a community on a national scale, as well as a local one, touring will become easier, and for the most part that’s why you’re doing this, right?
But after the initial set up, why would you want to remain a DIY band rather than become part of the mainstream music industry, especially when it promises so much? Well, read this article written by Steve Albini in the early 90’s entitled ‘The Problem With Music’ and be appalled, or just observe what countless large bands are doing as they get to the end of their contracts with major labels. It’s a lottery; for every one winner, there are millions of losers. But being a self-reliant band is a viable alternative to the music industry lottery; a world where you either become massive, or get forgotten forever - often even legally prevented from releasing your own music. DIY allows you to manage your own success - to grow slowly and manageably at your own pace and not get sucked in to the circle of boom and bust. If you’ve got a good ‘product’ (I physically winced as I typed that) people will be in to what you’re doing, and if you do things right word will spread. It’ll be slower and harder work perhaps, but you’ll be in a stronger position for it, even if you decide to take the mainstream route at a later date. If you’ve gotten yourself there through your own blood sweat and tears, a label will have to offer you much more to justify their involvement with you than if they were taking you on dry. You’ll also be more aware of the processes that are going on once you do sign a contract and will be better able to see when you’re being taken advantage of and spot money being wasted.
On the flip side being ‘DIY’ is totally reliant on your own drive and determination and is limited by the time and money you have to commit to it. You can expect little to no support from creative bodies like the Arts Council (principally because ‘pop music’ is perceived to be in a weird grey area between business and art) or the government - especially as so-called austerity measures dry up any existing funding. DIY labels have virtually no budget beyond that which allows them to press up CDs. You will find fewer opportunities for tour supports, and you will have to operate largely without legal or financial protection.
At the end of the day, though, It’s really fucking rewarding to make your own luck.
It’s worth understanding that DIY isn’t black and white, and even within a band people will have different aspirations and motivations, and compromises will almost always be made. Potentially there are parts of this article that even my band mates will disagree with, and this is where we begin to touch on some of the difficulties in remaining self sufficient; you have to be growing in order to stay motivated and as soon as you feel like you’ve taken a step back people will lose heart. But equally we have been criticised for our attempts to grow. Critics have tended to be those in DIY bands content to remain at a certain level and while I won’t criticise that decision - it’s perfectly valid - I do believe that if you want to be heard by a wider audience and get your music or message across to them, you have to grow.
It’s this scaling up where things get tricky. Once you exist outside of your circuit of home town shows you need to tour and make people aware of you in the wider world. You have to learn to interact with promoters and the press - both of which are part of a notoriously inward looking industry that more often than not refuse to engage with bands who aren’t represented by someone within a small circle of booking and press agents. Small bands will, for the most part, get less attention if they aren’t connected to an agent who represents larger acts that the booker or editor wants to work with. There are exceptions to this - both whole organisations and individuals within organisations that will take a punt on something they like, - but it’s increasingly rare. Persistence and hard work will get you somewhere though - we’ve made it out to Japan, Russia, across most of mainland Europe and around the UK a good few times without any outside help - but getting beyond small shows is where the challenge really starts.
When we were booking shows ourselves they were (for the most part) pretty strong - and they kept getting better. But after a while, and the further up the food chain we got, we started hitting more and more brick walls. This is when you start to consider whether you need help, and it’s this decision which can compromise a DIY band. Can you still be considered to be ‘Doing Things Yourself’ when you’re employing people to do part of your work for you? I’d argue that if you make the right choices, you can.
Principally It’s about picking the right person and making sure they’re working with your interests at heart. A good agent (for example) will continue to work with the best of the promoters that you worked with before, while opening doors to others who can help you grow in their cites. They won’t send you on a 200 mile drive to a worse show because the fee (of which they get a percentage) is fifty quid more. They will take into consideration the aims that YOU have for your band, rather than the ones that will make them the most money in the short term, and they’ll give you advice on which other promoters to work with to get a little closer to achieving your own goals.
The flip side of the world of agencies is that as a small band you end up being the small fish in a big pond. If it’s tough for them to get you shows and any real fees they’ll book you jack shit and focus on their acts that do well with less effort. Eventually you get forgotten about and you’re still tied in with someone who couldn’t give a fuck. I can think of three bands I know personally that this has happened to off hand; it’s not uncommon.
In January we finally took the leap of working with a booking agent outside of our immediate circle of band members. Haydn works for an indie booking agent called NMC Live, but we met him years before through Brainwash Festival in Leeds, which he still promotes. Had we not known him from this past life as a completely independent promoter we perhaps would have thought twice about committing to working with him, but as it is we knew he knew where we were coming from, and the ‘scene’ we were part of. He’s not perfect, no one is, but he does a fucking tough job well. Without him we wouldn’t have toured half as much over the past 10 months, we wouldn’t have been touring at the right times, and we’d be out of pocket by a good few hundred quid from several promoters stiffing us on fees. He is the point of contact when we’re not able to answer emails and phone calls, and can be focussed on booking the next tour whilst we’re away on the current one. He is also the buffer between my myriad questions at 2am and promoters who would be less tolerant of late night phone calls and emails, and that is not a fun place to be I’m sure.
A perfect example of why having someone between us (well, specifically me) and promoters is this: a couple of years back we were stranded in Greece after a show. We’d missed our flight home through no fault of our own and had to sleep at the airport until Easyjet could squeeze some of us on another flight and the remainder of us could pay to get back. At the time we were unbelievably pissed off that we’d lost hundreds of pounds in flights and had to spend a night on an airport floor, and when we got home we told the promoter as much. Sadly a band with no agent and no lawyer has no power in that situation and we fucked our chances of going back to the country by destroying a relationship with a decent, if slightly careless, promoter. Had there been someone slightly calmer in between the two parties, then not only would we have probably gotten some of that money back, but we might have worked with that promoter again.
So, can we still consider ourselves to be DIY? I certainly do. We still manage ourselves, record our own material and work with a label run by one man in a spare bedroom. We still work with promoters that we’ve been working with from day one, and we still interact with fans directly and ship merch ourselves - all of which are areas I could write as much about again. Will we still be able to consider ourselves DIY if the band is still going in five years and has continued to grow at the rate it has over the last five? I hope so. Being DIY has been an incredible tool, and will continue to be so. It will leave us in the strongest possible position as a band at any given point in our career. As much as I aspire to stick to the ethos as rigidly as we can, there are aspirations and needs within the band that may eventually outweigh the desire to be as directly involved with every element of what we do as possible. That said, when we are no longer aware of or in control of the decisions attached to every element of what we do, I won’t be involved any more.
DIY shouldn’t mean that you’re tied to existing solely at a local level or within a niche ‘scene’. It should be more than just a way of getting you on your feet. Sticking with DIY principles (helping each other out, doing as much as you can yourself and working with a small circle of people you trust) doesn’t and shouldn’t preclude growth. Nor should doing everything yourself come at the detriment of what you’re trying to do. If as a community we allow it to scale, DIY, enabled by modern distribution and communication platforms, is a solution to a broken mainstream music industry. As I see it, fewer people making millions at the top is a fair price to pay for loads more awesome stuff happening in the middle.