Punk and Economics

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #8 in May 2009]

As a musician who’s done a fair bit of touring and releasing records in DIY punk bands over the past decade, I have become interested in the various ways that people find to pull off these activities and still live their lives. I asked a few friends from the “scene” to give me their thoughts on DIY music in the context of the current economic climate.

Please give us your name, and mention some bands, record labels, publications, etc with which you are involved.

Kammy Lee (KL) and Douglas Ward (DW): Drummer and bassist for for 97-Shiki, previously played drums and guitar in Fourth Rotor, previously involved with now-defunct Underdog Records and Underdog Zine.

Megan Wells (MW): Plays guitar in Condenada, helps out with Amor Sin Fronteras records, co-wrote Rock Out Zine about booking DIY shows, helped organize Clit fest in 2008 with other rad Chicago ladies.

The recent spike in gasoline prices was pretty hard on touring bands, but other aspects of DIY music have been hit by increased costs. For instance, now that all vinyl pressed in the US has to go through a handful of plants, releasing records has become more expensive. How have you seen and/or experienced the effects of rising prices in your projects?

DW  Well, DIY music has never been a way to make money, as it is practiced along side “real” jobs and lives, for the most part. But as a vital form of expression for the participants, it finds a way to manifest itself regardless of the costs involved. If it was a commercial venture, there might be a point at which is would make sense to ‘get out of the business’ if costs went up, but DIY music has nothing to do with that.

MW  As far as band projects, rising prices have just made it more common that we take on more costs ourselves—the band money we get from playing shows or selling stuff typically pays for gas, recording, supplies for making shirts, pins, CDs but sometimes we need to pitch in to pay for these ourselves. We have found that it’s really necessary to have a ton of merch items to help off-set the higher gas prices….

It’s a rare thing for DIY bands to make enough money to be self- supporting, much less to pay dividends to their members. Do you have a strategy for financing your projects, or is it just a matter of doing things as you can afford them?

KL  It’s mainly a matter of doing things as we can afford them. I don’t ever expect or want this band to bear the burden of supporting me financially.

MW  We usually book a tour and then start gathering resources to make merch as cheaply (and responsibly) as we can and pay ourselves back for materials when we can. Recording is usually the most expensive endeavor. In the case of our last recording, I paid for it as one of the only band members who had a full-time job and then I got paid back with the money that we were paid playing Ladyfest L.A. […] Before it may have been easier for some of my bandmates in the service industry to say “Fuck it! I quit! Let’s tour!” That “free spirit” attitude will probably be affected.

DIY punk and hardcore is increasingly a global phenomenon. Do you find the trend of relatively small bands and labels looking to go to other countries and continents to be speeding up or slowing down, due to the recession in the U.S. and elsewhere? How have recent economic realities affected your plans for the future?

KL  It’s my impression that there are many more small bands (especially from North America and Europe) looking to tour in “exotic” places now than in the past. I’m not sure that there’s a matching increase in the number of bands from elsewhere who are able to tour internationally. […] If anything it’s probably become harder for foreign bands to come to the USA because of the increased security and scrutiny at airports, let alone the recent global economic tailspin.

On our recent tour (November 2008) of IndonesiaSingapore and Malaysia97-shiki were following on the heels of My Disco (Australia) and Conquest For Death (USA, Japan). […] People in bands we met generally said that it would be great to tour the USA but didn’t see it happening any time soon. In addition to the economic disparity between their region and ours making the cost of plane tickets prohibitive, they also mentioned the USA’s attitude towards Muslims as a big barrier to touring.

DW  The rising fuel costs and this airline ticket prices affected our tour that Kammy described. It was expensive to do what we did, and we actually could have gone more places and played more shows, but the costs were getting beyond our means. So, we booked a shorter tour who’s expense we could bear. Our next tour is looking like it will be slightly less exotic—Canada.

MW  … when we toured Mexico we did so because we had a friend in Monterrey… who organized and created a tour plan for three bands from the U.S. […] DIY punk for us is a medium for hanging out, playing music and seeing our friends as far as we’re concerned not a “free ride.” It seems more than a little egoista to expect kids living in Mexico to fund our “first world” asses anyways. We try to keep all of this stuff into perspective. We have been asked by other U.S. bands if it was “worth” touring Mexico, i.e. do you “make any money”? I think with planning we were able to be realistic without expecting some kind of U.S./first world style compensation. We were fed and housed probably better than any other tour we’ve been on in the states, that’s for sure! ◊

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