Defining the D.I.Y Scene
A Snapshot of Underground Music in New York City
I’m a social journalism student at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, working with the Do It Yourself music scene in the greater New York area. While “D.I.Y” has been used to describe the underground music scene for years, it’s hard to describe what D.I.Y is to someone who is unfamiliar with the community. I asked a couple of people what they think alongside what I’ve gathered from reporting on the scene for a year.
The term “Do It Yourself” in the context of music is closely related to the underground punk scene. At its bones, D.I.Y encompasses an ethos that shies away from mainstream influences and acts as a safe haven for people who feel marginalized like women, people of color and the LGBTQ community. They are willing to collaborate, have the ability to self-organize and are typically passionate about social justice issues. Local artists and grassroots movements are what binds them together and separates them from other kinds of independent artists like YouTubers and buskers.
“I think one of the things I always found attractive about punk was this idea that it was something that never had to happen under any particular conditions and if you didn’t have the conditions that were favorable to you, it was a punk thing to do to set up a show or start a band that was, I guess, working with whatever was at hand,” said G’Ra Asim, guitarist and lead singer for Baby Got Back Talk.
In the 1970’s and 80’s referred to as the “golden era” of New York City punk, the Bowery and the Lower East Side of Manhattan was where the scene once thrived. Many know CBGB with artists like the Ramones, Blondie and Patti Smith who helped carve the venue as the “undisputed birthplace of punk.”
Landmarks of the music scene in Manhattan have since been replaced with bourgeois hipster clothing stores, Starbucks or Whole Foods. When it costs up to $5 million to open up a 1,000 person venue, it’s difficult for anyone to put up that kind of money.
Like most countercultures, the D.I.Y scene was born out of necessity. According to the City of New York, in the past 15 years, 20 percent of New York City’s smaller venues like Shea Stadium and Death by Audio have closed.
Despite the hurdles of affordability and safety issues, the scene is still thriving in underground spaces like basements and warehouses in neighborhoods like Williamsburg and Bushwick. Places like Silent Barn and the Swamp are still going strong. These venues, especially house shows, are more intimate than attending a show at Webster Hall or even your favorite bar.
“The way I kind of think about it is — going to a show at a venue versus a D.I.Y space — it’s similar to the difference of going out with your friends to a restaurant versus inviting your friends over for dinner,” said Gayla Escoda Brooks, drummer in Fat Heaven and Scarboro.
Brooks also organizes Punx of Color, a series of shows that aims to reflect the scene’s diversity by bringing together bands that “includes members from across the spectrum of color and identity.” Money from the last Punx of Color show was donated to the Young Center, an advocacy organization for young immigrants rights. Wherein mainstream music marginalized people are underrepresented, with the D.I.Y ethos, having a voice starts with creating a zine, a band or helping out at a local venue or show.
While the punk ethos is all about inclusion and collaboration, no community is perfect. Despite writing on these issues from the perspective of the greater New York area, since venues are closing down around the country problems with affordability are shared nationwide. Even though the scene has come a long way, representation among women, people of color and the LGBTQ community can still be improved.
“You’ll hear companies saying, ‘The bands just don’t exist! We’d book them if they did,’ Sadie Dupuis of Speedy Ortiz told Mic. But they do. That’s a realm that I don’t really care about musically — the more commercial punk stuff. But maybe I would if the bands weren’t all total bros being hyped in the mainstream press.”
Altogether, the scene is complicated. It doesn’t have commercial interests but still needs money. The scene is a space for weirdos but people still need to fight for acceptance. Despite its imperfections, people still think the scene is worth being a part of. Unless that changes, it will always try to get better.