The DIY Ethos and the Need for Togetherness
For those of us born into the age of the internet, I think it can be hard to build a social life that’s not just an extension of the places we have to be. Outside of school or work, where do people meet each other? So many of us Millennials and Zoomers turn to the internet to find friends or lovers who have the same fascinations, anxieties, and hopes that we do. We need to share something real, something more than the fleeting relationships we often form in the places we have to be. Strong bonds are built around a mutual passion. It doesn’t matter how we come to understand that we share something, or how we discover that we care about each other. What matters is that it happens in the first place. But in our everyday lives, many of our encounters with our fellow human beings still seem transient; our interactions can feel a bit arbitrary. While this is still the norm in our society, the exceptions are more important and becoming less rare. More and more often, people are transforming their formal, superficial relationships at school and work into networks of care, and they are changing the way these places operate. The virtual world is overlapping with the real world in unforeseen ways, creating social movements that will have a lasting effect on our country.
I’d like to talk about the need for togetherness in the context of the Milwaukee DIY music scene, where the stakes are not quite as high. Nevertheless, I think there are a lot of similarities between the way this scene works and the way that social movements form on social media and come to life in the real world. Whether it’s a collective action like a protest, or an underground show in someone’s basement, you often hear of these happenings by “word of mouth”. Admittedly, “word of mouth” is somewhat different in the age of Twitter and Facebook, but the principle is the same: you hear about a happening from someone you know, someone you already share a connection with, even if it’s only virtual. This creates a situation where you’re seeing the same people again and again. It becomes easier to develop friendships and create networks when the people beside you are not anonymous and interchangeable.
I’ve played in bands and played shows in Milwaukee for nearly a decade, but I’ve been involved with our local DIY scene for only the last few years. Before finding my way into that scene, I played in bands who thought of themselves like so many other young bands think of themselves: we wanted to be cool and act just like all our heroes act on TV. The music we made was a lot like their music. The venues we played in were usually bars. Before each performance we would pass around the free drink tickets that the venue provided. After the show we would divvy up the sad sum collected at the door. It was not really about the music, or the people making it. It was like role-playing, like an entertainment to go along with drinking.
If that all sounds a little depressing, that’s because it was. I didn’t start feeling fulfilled as a musician until I started playing in DIY spaces. That might seem counter intuitive, but the atmosphere at these shows is completely different. For instance, I love how the hierarchy between the performers and the audience is abolished. In a DIY show, we’re all standing on the same level, whether it's a damp concrete floor or rickety attic hardwood. After a set, you can walk right up to the performer and tell them what you thought, and they take their place in the audience when the next set begins. Nobody is elevated above anyone else. As I stand with my back pressed against a blanket of fiberglass insulation, I can smell the body odor of the drummer flailing at his cymbals a few feet away from me. I look around, and most of the crowd are artists themselves, people I know and love, poets, weirdos, painters, etc. We’re all crowded together beneath the exposed rafters overhead. This is a part of the experience, part of what makes it real. In places like this, you can make connections that go well beyond the basement or attic.
Punk musicians pioneered the practice of hosting DIY shows in the late 70s and early 80s. Milwaukee’s punk historian, Steven Nodine, has pointed out that punk music played an important role in shaping our city’s character. Our thriving DIY scene is a part of that legacy. These spaces are radically inclusive, because they’re usually populated by people who’ve rejected the mainstream, or been rejected by it. I’ve met people from all walks of life at these places. And punk music has long since ceased to be the only genre you can hear at a DIY show. Before the pandemic, when my roommates and I were regularly hosting shows at our house, we had everything from highly academic jazz, to folk, to indie pop. But to me, what’s most interesting is the experimental music you’ll often hear in these spaces. I think people are more comfortable taking risks and pushing their creativity when there is a level of personal familiarity with the people in the audience. A DIY show is itself an experiment, and I think this scene has propelled the making of experimental music in our city.
It will be interesting to see how Milwaukee’s DIY scene evolves in the age of COVID-19. Because of how integrated it is with social media, I think it will take less of a hit than traditional forms of performance. That would be good, because I think the DIY ethos is more important than ever. In politically tumultuous times such as these, it is crucial to build strong social bonds. Whether it’s called friendship, solidarity, or care, our togetherness is a political act, and no one can build these bonds for you. You have to do it yourself!
About the Author:
Ryan is a writer, musician, and activist living in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee. He is the cofounder of the experimental art and music collective, frenia, and sits on the Organizing Committee for the ongoing union campaign at his place of employment, The Milwaukee Art Museum.