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Black Sky Thinking

DIY Is Dead - Long Live DIY: Hey Colossus On The Underground In 2017
The Quietus , August 22nd, 2017 09:06

Hey Colossus are stalwarts of the UK underground, a scene that has changed beyond recognition since they formed. Ahead of their set on our stage at Sea Change this weekend, bassist Joe Thompson looks at the rapidly changing world of DIY and asks, does the concept still exist? Photo by Julie R Kane.

When Hüsker Dü signed to Warners in 1987, noted puritan Ian MacKaye of Fugazi observed that once-DIY bands signing major meant they were no longer "confederates in the same conspiracy". To talk about the term DIY in relation to how one acts with one's music is both personal - and a minefield. Once you step out of your bedroom shouting about your music you're arguably already one step away from being PURE DIY. 

When Hey Colossus started our own label in the late 90s we relied on bands doing shows to sell the records. Some did, and they sold well. Some didn't, and they didn't sell as well. The 90s doesn't feel long ago but it's an age in the music world: we weren't streaming albums back then, and social media didn't exist. People were just beginning to enjoy the benefits of mail order! After one night of heavy John Peel play (we had five bands doing a live session on one night, arguably the high point of all our musical lives) I turned up to work the next day faced with having to sneak over 50 orders through the office franking machine.

Considering the costs of recording and the ease of getting people to hear your music nowadays, I wonder if 'being DIY' now is so common its meaning has changed. The days of selling 500 LPs out the boot of your car Sun Ra-style and surviving on it are fading. 'DIY' is a flag being waved by so many artists that the original 'against the grain' standing has gone. 

It surprises many people that members of bands considered successful are also in full-time work, which personally I love - no one has a god-given right to make money from entertainment and, arguably, to make money you have to sell a crucial part of what you do down the river.

Yet the structure of our world is so based around wealth. When I'm at work as a postman one of the first questions I get asked the morning after a Hey Colossus gig is: "What money did you get?/How much were you paid?/Did you lose money?/MONEYMONEYMONEY!" It's how most people judge success and failure. The band I do, with five friends, makes no money. For 14 years we have made no money. Every single penny goes into recording and rehearsing and new strings and mending broken things. We all have jobs. We write and record music because it's fun, we're lucky enough to play shows throughout Europe and we're over the moon to drive to shows and play to 30 people... or more if the weather is right/no other bands are in town/there's nothing on telly (these are the top three Promoter Excuses, straight from the handbook). Kind people will put the show on and feed us and let us stay in their houses or put us up in the venue. We've stayed in squats with no toilets or showers and we've stayed in surprisingly swanky hotels (spending the night pinching ourselves and taking photos like tourists), but both are greeted with open arms. More often than not the squat sticks in your mind for a longer time, often for positive reasons. This network, a spider's web, holds us up. It's built over time, handed down through the generations. Money is nothing to do with what we do, and the minute it has anything to do with what you create you're done for, you're a spent force. I look at big labels run by people I vaguely know. I know they have splendidly underground/interesting music tastes but they can't get away with releasing what they want because it won't sell in the number required to keep their mortgages paid. It must crush them. It must be like working in a footwear factory and not being allowed to make those platform shoes with the goldfish in the soles that we all secretly want.

I have two sons, aged 14 and 17, and they both love music yet neither of them has bought a single piece of music in his life. They don't need to. Music is seen as free, pouring out the internet geyser like Old Faithful, spurting a new mixtape or hurling up a 20-year-old Weezer album as regular as clockwork. I'm not sure I even knew they liked music till the older one (Stan) came downstairs one day and said: "Did you know Dave Mustaine was once in Metallica?" Time stood still, and looking at him was like looking in a mirror 25 years ago. New music fans are buried in their rooms with headphones on, houses are becoming silent as the family unit is spread over separate rooms all digging different sounds quietly. The generation that is growing up purely on the internet is getting older, the TV is becoming redundant and it won't be too long before stereos take their place next to the dusty Breville in the garage. The much-hyped vinyl revival is just so much hot air.

The flipside, of course, is belligerence and progress. In the UK labels like La Vida Es Mus still fly the flag for the punk-rock DIY route, and it's totally working. Bad Breeding, The Lowest Form (not on La Vida, but the drummer runs the label, the band moves in the same circles), Anxiety - all three are prime examples of UK bands who are spreading their wings, travelling the seas, meeting people, playing shows and doing it the old-school way. They are using the tools available - streaming, Bandcamp, vinyl prices are kept low. It's possible. UK hip hop acts like 67 can get millions of YouTube streams with no physical product and seemingly no backing. Grime artists have re-defined ideas of DIY in recent years, creating their own world, building new systems. Acts like Stormzy have broken through with a solid foundation of making money from way more channels than the old model of flogging records and tickets. Check the first 12 seconds of Wiley's 2017 'Speaker Box' - “there's no money that record labels can offer us no more...” He's right. Once upon a time record labels ran the industry, you signed to them and couldn't escape. It still amuses me when you read that so-and-so has appeared on a certain record 'courtesy of Geffen' or whoever. Those days are almost over, thankfully. The industry is trying to climb out of a hole that is getting deeper and deeper, and the ladders aren't long enough.

It's inspiring to see groups like Sleaford Mods do it on a label run by a bus driver (Harbinger Sound), it's inspiring to see little labels run by music lovers who aren't tied up in the trad world and can release what they love, not caring too much as long as it comes close to breaking even.

On a personal level, in a band where all the members have jobs, in a world where family and life is on a level with music, the occasional victories that we achieve are all reasons to be doing it - playing a decent show, getting home without breaking down, releasing a new record, coming up with a new tune, meeting excellent people, getting a nice review (or even a well-aimed terrible review), fluking a 6 Music play, getting to the M&S on the A303 before they shut and picking up a reduced three-bean wrap, whatever. This shit is social, it's a shared experience. It's sitting round chatting about the state of the nation till 4am with the promoter in whatever town you're in. It's being in total control. I have absolute and total faith that the Sun Ra, press-your-own-records, fuck-em-all route to enlightenment will find a way in whatever future fashion. It's releasing records as frequently as you like without being told you have to tour for three years to promote it. It's keeping the ball moving onwards, it's changing the way you do things and learning better ways. It's not being worried about keeping to the same sound to make sure the label and fanbase are comfortable. It's about improving yourself as a person and keeping your mind moving. It's about letting it seep into your normal life and letting the knowledge you pick up inform your everyday choices. If you have the utter conviction in what you're doing you can do very well. DIY as was is dead... but long live DIY.

Hey Colossus play The Quietus stage at the amazing Sea Change Festival in Totnes this weekend alongside Ill, Grumbling Fur, Sex Swing, Jane Weaver and many more - for tickets and further information visit the Sea Change website