In 2017, DIY venues across Britain continue to offer exciting, safe spaces for boundary-pushing music, despite a growing set of challenges threatening their futures. Tayyab Amin speaks to members of the Leeds DIY community and beyond to find out what internal and external obstacles UK scenes need to overcome to not just survive, but thrive.
The UK is rich with independent scenes and countercultures that sustain themselves just beneath the surface. In Leeds alone, various venue co-operatives, punk and hardcore communities and DJ collectives have provided a backbone for the underground, surviving and mutating over the past decade of economic crisis and austerity. They’re powered by a DIY attitude that prioritizes communal support, autonomy and self-sufficiency over metrics such as popularity and capital.
Beneath the surface, however, there are multiple ideological dualities – most notably in the way the musical underground both reacts to and relies on mainstream culture. Sometimes, the humble grind of DIY scenes keeps them out of the spotlight, but they’re often romanticized for that same approach. There’s a certain cool factor to DIY, and those who are marginalized due to their race, gender, sexuality, age or ability find themselves caught between the status quo that their communities exist in spite of, and those who are simply there for the aesthetic. These communities strive for inclusivity through safer space practices, though it’s philosophically impossible to truly achieve such goals within a colonial, capitalist society. Participating in these scenes is constantly jarring, and the push and pull of these tensions are tangible not only in Leeds, but throughout the UK.
These continuous frictions boiled over in a heated discussion online between members of Leeds’ independent music communities around a year-and-a-half ago. That debate inevitably turned to what DIY in today’s age actually is – specifically, why so much focus on guitar-centric music when we talk about what constitutes DIY when dance music has so much heritage here too? In Chapeltown last August, residents converted their front yards into makeshift food stalls and their soundsystems lined the streets for Leeds’ 49th annual West Indian Carnival. That’s more of a DIY operation than many bands eager to claim that label.
Ellis Jones has lived in Leeds, produces music as Trust Fund and has researched the implications of DIY counterculture in the age of social media, making him well-placed to explore the topic. “The thing that’s taken me a long time to realize is just how fragile the things that constitute DIY are. It’s a critique of mass culture that is simultaneously trying to impersonate that culture,” Jones explains. He suggests that the lineage of DIY that directly stems from the punk movement is built on the same ideas of authenticity and self-expression – but simultaneously attempts to counteract mass culture through different economics, aesthetics and ideas about music’s role in society.
Jones posits that social media’s impact on cultural production means that the DIY approach is the route to success in “a landscape where individual competitive entrepreneurialism is the new ideal form of work” – in other words, the same self-management logic that drives companies such as Uber and Airbnb. Jones’s research explores how this move away from an emphasis on self-realization and community and towards quantifiable growth (“likes”, “plays” and so on) affects musicians’ satisfaction with their own work. Counterculture has internalized the same logic that powers the status quo.
This isn’t wholly surprising. People of color in the West are already aware how wider oppressive social constructs are replicated within counter-cultural spaces. The riot grrrl movement prioritized middle-class white women at the expense of women of color; the rock canon erased its black blues influences. Both actively and subconsciously, current DIY communities channel and replicate aspects of previous movements that have influenced them – including these harmful tendencies. So it’s no shock that white bands are given plenty of leeway for their underground credibility – but autonomous, community-minded artists who do not embody the white, male, cis guitar-playing ideal to some degree are rarely celebrated for their DIY ethic.
“The thing that’s taken me a long time to realize is just how fragile the things that constitute DIY are”Trust Fund
In the wake of that heated discussion with people across Leeds’ scenes, Wharf Chambers – one of the city’s co-operatively run multi-purpose venues I’m thankful to regularly visit – invited me to facilitate a members’ meeting on inclusivity and the sheer whiteness of the space. This tapped into how jarring existing on the fringes can really be: acting on progressive ideologies calls for co-operative, painful self-examination, demanding even more of those who are already hurt and marginalized. Still, this resetting of the bone is necessary for a better tomorrow, and this determination to improve is just one of many things it takes to survive as a DIY space in the UK today.
Wharf Chambers rose from the ashes of the Common Place, which existed from the mid-2000s until April 2011 before closing due to factors including an unsustainable operation model. These days, the former Victorian pie factory operates as a workers’ co-operative in partnership with a members’ club, hosting activist meet-ups, gigs, club nights, interest groups and all sorts. “We decided from the outset to pay ourselves for working at Wharf,” the co-op’s Andrew Raine says, with reference to the Common Place’s over-reliance on volunteers. “If profit-making venues could survive, then why couldn’t we make a non-profit workers’ co-op venue work? Most of us were unemployed at the time, too, so creating a job for ourselves out of a project we were enthused about seemed like a great plan.” Inspired by ethically-run DIY venues and squats, the workers’ co-op all held stakes in the project. They have now managed to sustain Wharf Chambers for five years. “We got given a really restrictive licence the first time we applied for one. The council wanted us to prove to them that we weren’t a load of lefty chancers trying to start a project we Keep Reading