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DIY Music: How Musicians Did It For Themselves

The notion of DIY music stretches back to 19th-century flutes made from bird bone, through punk anarchy and the digital revolution.

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DIY Music Feature

From cave tunes to thrash punk, cotton-field blues to the early days of hip-hop, the urge to make music, using whatever is at hand, is a constant in human behaviour. Percussion instruments created from stones, sticks, rocks and logs – cut in different shapes and designs to change the quality and pitch of sound – were being made more than 165,000 years ago. And if you look around today, you’ll find DIY music everywhere.

The first early Europeans in caves sought to make decent DIY music. In 2012, scientists used carbon dating to reveal that innovative 19cm-long flutes, made 43,000 years ago from bird bone and mammoth ivory, were designed with three finger holes to evoke complex melodies. These flutes, found in caves in southern Germany, are perhaps the oldest sophisticated musical instruments in the world.

The same resourcefulness shown by Mesolithic humans was part of the reason why the blues explosion of the 19th Century was able to bring such vibrant, earthy music to the farming communities of the American Deep South. Musically-minded African slaves built their own flutes, banjos and fiddles and began adding instrumentation to the work songs, spirituals and “field hollers” of their fellow field workers.

Dockery Farms Photo

Dockery Farms was established in 1895 and is now considered the birthplace of the blues. Charlie Patton lived, worked and performed here, influencing Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.

Many of the original instruments of the American blues – the jug, washboard, washtub, bass, balafon (xylophone), drums, fife (like a flute), lute, fiddles and one-stringer zither – were derived from African prototypes. Stringed instruments were favoured by enslaved peoples from the Muslim regions of Africa, where there was a long tradition of musical storytelling.

Fashioned at little cost

Rudimentary banjos, popular slave instruments for playing the blues, could be fashioned, at little cost, from calfskin, brass and iron, with four strings stretched across a body of home-carved local hardwood. In the 1850s, Baltimore manufacturer William Boucher Jr began standardising the way banjos were made and helped turn them into a mass-market product.

However, the story of DIY music is not just about instruments. It is about creativity and the desire to push boundaries. A good example is the humble harmonica, whose roots date to the Chinese sheng, a mouth-blown bamboo instrument found in the Han dynasty era of circa 200 BC.

Busker Image

A busker plays the Chinese sheng by the Thames River, London

The German inventor Matthias Hohner created the modern harmonica in the 19th Century. It was a cheap and portable instrument and became hugely popular in America. Key to its importance in blues (and some modern rock) was that African-American musicians worked out that they could bend a harmonica’s notes. By playing the harmonica backwards – sucking in air in what is called a “cross harp” position – they could force notes down a pitch or two.

These farm-worker amateur musicians paved the way for future masters of the instrument such as Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson and Sonny Terry. The harmonica later became a popular instrument for white musicians across folk, country and rock, including Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison.

In the early 20th Century, the acoustic guitar became the principle instrument of the blues, and street performers such as Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson gained nationwide reputations for their prowess. The hours spent mastering their craft would eventually pay off for later electric guitar maestros such as Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, BB King, T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker.

Robert Johnson Image

Robert Johnson was a street performer in the early 20th Century, paving the way for later blues artists

Even though the blues was becoming more professional and expert in the 20s, as musicians began to use better instruments and have their sounds preserved on ever more sophisticated recording equipment, elements of the early DIY attitude remained in the jug-band movement.

Jug bands originated in Louisville, Kentucky, in the late 19th Century, when instruments were made out of common household items, including jugs, combs, stovepipes, washboards, spoons and even old whiskey bottles. Instruments were made of out of a cheap fruit called a gourd. Some of the earliest basses were made from chests of drawers.

This desire to create DIY music out of handy raw materials was not restricted to America, with variations of the tea-chest bass springing up around the world at this time, including the Cuban tingotalango, the Italian tulòn and the Australian bush bass.

Jug bands made their first recordings in the 20s and remained hugely popular for the next decade. Even today, there are jug-band festivals throughout the United States, and some noted musicians made their start this way, including Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir of Grateful Dead, who were both in the band Mother McCree’s Uptown Jug Champions in 1964.

Preserving a legacy

In the 30s and 40s, when jazz and blues had become the dominant forms of popular music, folklorist Alan Lomax helped preserve the legacy of some of the finest DIY music ever created. Lomax was hailed by Bob Dylan as “a missionary” for his musicology work. Lomax drove around America in his Ford Sedan, transporting a 315-pound acetate disc recorder that effectively made his car a prototype mobile studio.

When he died in 2002, aged 87, Lomax left behind a personal archive of 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 2,450 videotapes and countless documents, many now held by The Library Of Congress. This collection includes recordings of Jelly Roll Morton and Muddy Waters, plus Lead Belly playing the 12-string guitar in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Lomax and other folklorists helped preserve an era of DIY music for fans to enjoy forever.

The 50s was an era of massive change for music. New technology led to mass sales of the 33rpm and 45rpm records; television began to supplant radio as the dominant mass media; and rock’n’roll evolved out of rhythm’n’blues. Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, where Elvis Presley started, was an independent label in the 50s. Phillips took on A&R and production duties as well as overseeing the manufacturing and distribution process for records that he had engineered in the studio. Berry Gordy did much the same thing with Motown a decade later.

As rock’n’roll started to shake the world in the 50s, an offshoot called skiffle took hold in Europe. DIY music in essence, it had originated in America in the 20s and was particularly popular in Britain. Lonnie Donegan’s version of Lead Belly’s ‘Rock Island Line’ was a worldwide hit in 1954 and the skiffle movement in the community was based around a craze for homemade instruments.

All it took for amateur musicians to create their own version of ‘Rock Island Line’ was a guitar, a rudimentary bass – made from a tea chest, a broom handle and a length of wire – a zinc washboard and a set of metal thimbles. Singer Billy Bragg, who wrote a book called Roots, Radicals And Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, believes this DIY music phenomenon was revolutionary. As Bragg put it: “Skiffle was a back-to-basics movement that was about the roots of African-American music. Skiffle was grassroots. It came from below. It surprised everyone.”

It has been estimated that 250,000 guitars were imported into the UK in 1957 – compared with only 6,000 in 1950. Singer Adam Faith later recalled, “Skiffle shot up overnight – like mushrooms in a cellar.”

Using the studio as an instrument

As skiffle began to fade and The Beatles and The Rolling Stones set the world alight, the studio became a creative space – almost an instrument in itself. Musicians and engineers began manipulating sound in the studio in ways that had never been done before, using advanced electronic circuits and multi-track tape recorders to create unique records.

One landmark was The Beach Boys’ 1966 album Pet Sounds. When Capitol Records released the album in the UK, the label ran an advert calling it “the most progressive pop album ever made”. Using overdubbing and stereo effects, songwriter Brian Wilson created remarkable multi-layered musical tracks, such as ‘Good Vibrations’.

Wilson’s imaginative use of technology was also reflected in his ability to find a dazzling smörgåsbord of percussion instruments. Wilson used instruments that had never been associated with rock’n’roll – including bicycle bells, Hawaiian string instruments, Electro-Theremin and the glockenspiel – and blended them with the banjos and kazoos that would have been familiar to the blues pioneers.

For the Latin-infused instrumental title track, Wilson persuaded drummer Ritchie Frost to tap two empty Coca-Cola cans for a distinctive percussive beat. On another track, drummer Hal Blaine taped together plastic orange-drink bottles and played them with a vibraphone mallet. The record even features the barking of Wilson’s dogs, Banana and Louie. This was experimental DIY music at its original best.

According to Paul McCartney, Pet Sounds was “the single biggest influence” on The Beatles’ 1967 masterpiece, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The album, which was recorded at Abbey Road over 129 painstaking days, remains a unique adventure in sound, songwriting, use of technology and cover art. This superb example of experimental studio work changed the face of popular music, putting the recording studio at the centre of creative innovation. Producer George Martin was so key to the music of McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr that he was dubbed “the fifth Beatle”.

In the 60s, technology helped musicians to push creative frontiers. Jean Eichelberger Ivey, who founded the Peabody Electronic Music Studio, in 1967, created a piece of music called ‘Pinball’, where the music was entirely made up of the sounds from pinball machines. It was also a time when the cheaply produced compact tape cassette started to have a massive effect on the creation and marketing of music. Dutch manufacturer Philips took a giant step in 1964 with the launch of the battery-powered lightweight cassette player.

As blank tapes became cheaper, musicians were able to record themselves more easily. In this pre-digital era, it also became easier for fans to share music by sending out cassettes in the mail. Hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash sold customised “party tapes” for wealthier fans. Punk bands sold their DIY music via an active mail-order culture for cassettes.

Any available means

Hip-hop, forged by African-Americans and Puerto Ricans from the South Bronx in New York City during the 70s, epitomises DIY music and the continuing ways in which musicians used any available means to express their creativity. The Ghetto Brothers, a Puerto Rican gang that doubled as a musical collective, used to plug amplifiers and PA speakers into the lampposts on 163rd Street and Prospect Avenue to power their own music.

Just like the original jug bands, the hip-hop pioneers established new ways of making music with their own homespun techniques. DJ Kool Herc, who was born Clive Campbell, in Jamaica, was the DJ at his first block party in 1973. He is celebrated for his groundbreaking use of two turntables. With these, he would meld percussive fragments from older music with popular dance songs to create a continuous flow of music. All these ad-hoc and localised experiments ultimately helped create a rap industry that is one of the most successful and lucrative genres in popular music.

In the decade that hip-hop began, punk rock also swept the world. In many ways, punk is the epitome of DIY music, spawning thousands of local bands, full of youngsters who sometimes lacked any real skill. The punk fanzine Sideburns infamously printed the diagrams of three guitar chords with the instruction, “This is a chord. This is another. This is a third. Now form a band.”

Buzzcocks SpiralAs well as shaking up society, punk left a significant musical legacy by helping to foster small independent record labels, which grew from a desire for punk musicians to navigate the mainstream music industry. In the wake of Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned there came Buzzcocks. Their Spiral Scratch EP is regarded as the first British homemade record.

Buzzcocks borrowed £500 from family and friends to record and self-release an EP. On 28 December 1976, they laid down four tracks at a studio in Manchester. Guitarist Steve Diggle recalled, “At that time we didn’t think we’d get a record deal, so we came up with the idea of making our own. It seems obvious now, but the thought that we could phone a record plant and get them to make some was an amazing feeling.”

Punk’s DIY ideology also laid the groundwork for the rise of the amateur music fanzine. The New York-based fanzine Punk was followed by Sniffin’ Glue in the UK. Though the production qualities were primitive (the publications consisted of photocopied pages), Sniffin’ Glue And Other Rock’n’Roll Habits (as it fully termed itself) became a cult hit and grew to a circulation of 15,000.

Founder Mark Perry, a bank clerk, closed the magazine in 1977 when he left to concentrate on his own punk band, Alternative TV. The influence of the magazine remained, however, and hundreds of punkzines followed (including one devoted to The Stranglers called Strangled) that offered a new form of music criticism and an alternative voice to the mass-market music press.

A sense of danger

In 1977, 27-year-old Daniel Miller decided to make a record that captured the “attitude, energy and sense of danger” the do-it-yourself punk revolution had ignited. The former film-school student bought a Korg 700 synthesiser from a music shop in London. Under the nom de plume Normal, Miller recorded a single called ‘Warm Leatherette’. The song, later covered by Grace Jones for her album of the same name, was recorded in his London flat, using a basic four-track tape recorder.

Miller solved the problems of distributing his single by releasing it under his own record label, Mute Records, and selling it through the recently opened Rough Trade records shop on London’s Ladbroke Grove. Such was the record’s popularity that hundreds of DIY music cassettes from aspiring bands soon began arriving at his flat. His label was a success and Miller became one of the most important figures British electronic music. Mute Records went on to provide a platform for Depeche Mode, Yazoo, Erasure, Renegade Soundwave and Goldfrapp.

Miller anticipated the rise of the indie scene in the 80s, when thousands of youngsters put the idea of participatory music into practice. Hole-in-the-wall venues, alternative record stores and small independent record labels – including Mute, Factory and Rough Trade – incubated a subculture that had influential supporters. BBC Radio 1 presenter John Peel would often give the first platform of publicity to groups who would later achieve renown.

Sam Knee, who wrote a book about DIY music and the UK indie scene, said, “1981-1988 was a golden age for the UK’s indie guitar scene – a moment in which 60s folk garage rock combined with late 70s punk rock in an unlikely sonic alliance that signified a brief return to DIY culture. Punk’s last gasp, if you like.”

The talented Minneapolis musician Prince shared punk’s resolve to make music on his own terms. This son of a jazz pianist experimented with a number of album-release strategies over his glittering career. He was a pioneer in using the internet, releasing his 1998 record Crystal Ball via the then infant web and through direct pre-orders by telephone. It was crowd-funding ahead of its time. Almost a decade years after his Crystal Ball experiment, Prince decided to give his album Planet Earth away free with a British newspaper, describing the ploy as “direct marketing that cut out the speculation business of the record industry”.

Prince released 12 albums under his own name in the 90s (and a good deal more though side projects), a decade which saw another underground revolution in the music business. It was a time when grassroots local bands could grow and transform themselves into global stars. A good example is Pearl Jam, who started as part of the Seattle grunge scene and went on to sell more than 60 million records while maintaining their own independence.

The lo-fi revolution

The 90s also saw the explosion of underground and house music, and the overarching trend of middle-of-the-road music listeners being nudged towards exploring what was once considered the domain of indie-music fans. Bands such as Sonic Youth, Pixies and R.E.M., who were respected among “underground” music devotees, suddenly grew their fanbases, alongside like-minded newcomers such as Beck and Elliott Smith.

Some of the music in the 90s was dubbed “lo-fi” – a term popularised by a Jersey City DJ called William Berger – yet that tradition has roots in the 50s, in the work of ad hoc music creators such as producer Rudy Van Gelder.

Van Gelder, who was still working as an optometrist in the 50s, built a studio in his parents’ living room. Using astute microphone placement and working cleverly with the sound effects from the “nooks and crannies” of the small room, he recorded some jazz masterpieces for Prestige and Blue Note Records, including seminal music with saxophonist Zoot Sims and pianist Lennie Tristano. “I was examining eyes on Monday and recording Miles Davis on Wednesday,” Van Gelder recalled.

This desire to literally create homespun music has featured in the careers of luminaries such as Bob Dylan and The Band (The Basement Tapes, Music From Big Pink), Nick Drake, Bruce Springsteen, Foo Fighters, James Blake, Joan Armatrading, Neil Young and Iron And Wine. Nick Drake cut some of his first songs on a basic four-track machine in a Hampstead bedsit.

Half a century after OKeh Records pioneered “location recording” with their mobile recording trucks (a process fraught with problems resulting from recording on to thick beeswax discs), The Rolling Stones forged their own on-location methods. The 1972 album Exile On Main St was partly recorded at a villa in France using their own mobile recording studio – a DAF truck equipped with the latest 16-track technology – that had first been devised when Mick Jagger and his band had grown tired of the nine-to-five limitations of a regular studio.

Creative freedom

LA musician Beck is firmly rooted in the tradition of independent DIY music. Some of his early songs were recorded on an eight-track with a $30 RadioShack microphone and a $60 guitar. His 1996 masterpiece, Odelay, was created in the tiny spare bedroom at the LA home of production duo Mike Simpson and John King, aka The Dust Brothers.

Recording and producing your own music in small settings can allow for a remarkable amount of creative freedom. Beck said that the trio used an early version of Pro Tools, which took 30 minutes to compile the data from every song take. “It was great to make a record with nobody looking over our shoulders, nobody anticipating what we were going to do, so we were freed up,” says Simpson.

When Odelay was released, the internet was in its earliest stages – less than two per cent of the world was using the world wide web – but its potential power and reach was clear to some musicians. In 1997, neo-progressive rock band Marillion contacted fans through email, asking for donations to finance a North American tour. Marillion fans, who call themselves The Freaks, raised £39,000 and, in the process, laid a business model for future internet crowdfunding appeals.

Increasing decentralisation

Fan-funded music has been a feature of the 21st-century music business and something that has grown more ambitious and imaginative over the years. Country music singer Ellis Paul set up a tiered donation system for his 2010 album, The Day After Everything Changed. Possible contributions ranged from the $15 “Street Busker” level, up to the $10,000 “Woody Guthrie” level. Guthrie, who funded the recording of his Dust Bowl Ballads album through appearances on commercial radio in the 30s, would surely have given a wry smile of approval.

The web has also changed the way music is distributed and promoted. In 2007, Radiohead caught the world by surprise when they released the album In Rainbows via their own website, allowing fans to pay as much or as little as they wished.

The past two decades have seen the increasing decentralisation of the music industry. MySpace was hailed as part of a modern DIY music revolution for musicians, because it was simultaneously an audio player, a blog, a gallery for photographs, a video player, a sales window and a community platform, where the users were also the creators.

Rudy Van Gelder could hardly have been able to imagine the sophisticated laptop equipment and smartphone technology available for recording nowadays. In 2018, everybody effectively has the ability to own a recording studio that fits in the palm of their hand. These devices allow musicians to record professional-standard multi-track audio in any location.

The speed of delivery has also changed the face of music. Bessie Smith’s “music video” of 1929, for which she was filmed singing WC Handy’s ‘St Louis Blues’, took six months to reach the screen. Now musicians can live stream performances on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Nevertheless, music fans remain as important to the modern DIY music scene as they were to the street busker of the 19th Century. If an artist delivers a good show, fans will spread the word and support them.

Grassroots followings

The ways of reaching an audience have certainly changed dramatically. Members of The Beatles’ fan club used to receive a flexi disc each Christmas. Now musicians build a grassroots following through online companies such as Bandcamp and fan communities on social media.

Canadian teenage singer-songwriter Johnny Orlando, who has amassed more than 16 million followers across his social media channels, signed a record deal in May 2018 with Universal Music Group. But a modern record deal is likely to involve artist marketing, publicity and video production, plus support with social media, radio promotion, tour support and worldwide physical and digital distribution.

The changing musical landscape is highlighted by the themes of the lectures at the 2018 DIY Musician Conference: the importance of networking, digital marketing, home recording techniques and getting on streaming playlists.

According to the 2018 report by the International Federation Of The Phonographic Industry (IFPI), total streaming revenues increased by 41.1 per cent in 2017 and, for the first time, became the single largest revenue source. By the end of 2017, there were 176 million users of paid subscription accounts globally. Getting on a popular Spotify streaming playlist is now one of the keys to the success for any musician, whether that’s Drake or Kendrick Lamar, or a local folk singer publicising a debut EP.

No matter how rapidly the music industry evolves, the desire to make music – whether that’s on a flute carved out of prehistoric remains or on a smartphone app – will never cease. But the successful gizmo-wielding DIY musician of the next decade will have to be a multi-tasking performer.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Alex Carroll

    August 19, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    Great article. Naturally, not every DIY creative band can be included but on the topic of multitasking from recording to distribution, I’m surprised no mention is made of Vulfpeck and Vulf Records who DIY everything from typograohy, sound processing algorythms, video communication and croundfunding – with a level of mastery that vitually makes their musical genius secondary.

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