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 were in no way qualified or capable of running legally and responsibly. After a couple of years [of] getting away with it, we managed to get a later-hours licence and it finally took off.”
The business aspect of the licensed bar and venue was new to the group, but Raine feels that learning this has been key to gradually developing new facilities over the years, such as the recent expansion to a second floor. The overarching aim remains the same: striving to be an accessible, affordable and inclusive space that benefits and fosters communities, projects and groups not necessarily catered for by the face of the Leeds. “With cuts, austerity, Brexit and the continuing rise of right-wing politics in general, the need for somewhere like Wharf seems greater than ever.”
Chunk is another Leeds-based co-operative that has established itself in the local music scene. Originally starting out as a rehearsal space and studio for bands, Chunk switched to a bigger venue, resulting in an expansion of the collective itself as well as their horizons. “The current location means Chunk is better able to facilitate some really ace, community-nurturing things like workshops, recordings and shows,” says co-op member Sarah Statham, who also plays in the band Esper Scout. “The sorts of activity which aim to form and strengthen bonds, not only in Leeds but with people from all over. Essentially, we’re a practice space with an outward-facing perspective which wants to create positive things for the music community amongst our caring and passionate, root-level unit of local musicians and friends.”
Cattle’s Steve Myles, also of the Chunk collective, emphasizes the cross-cultural and interdisciplinary exchange of music at the space: “For me, the community aspect is massive. It’s promoted open-mindedness and an appreciation of things outside of each member’s immediate social circles. There is more to it than just the music though – there are artists, recording engineers, printers, web folks, people with practical skills and people with an in-depth understanding of social and political matters. Each one has their part to play in keeping the spot and its bands, nights and members afloat.”
DIY spaces aren’t always in venues, however. Ellis Jones suggests that both social as well as residential spaces are crucial; his 2016 Trust Fund album We Have Always Lived In The Harolds was titled in tribute to the roads of Hyde Park, Leeds. As a city with a huge, transient student population, Leeds sees many middle-class white students set up camp in the Hyde Park area, never really developing a relationship with the substantial South Asian community there – just putting on gigs next door. But a different strain of DIY has been bred in this area too: party culture. The Hessle streets that birthed Hessle Audio are just around the corner from the Harolds, with the Midland roads nearby. It’s a precarious set of circumstances, not least for the truly local, also knackering the area’s houses themselves. But this party culture looks set to sustain itself regardless, as the city maintains its running joke that “everyone in Leeds is a DJ” with regular bedroom sessions, basement bashes and open decks events.
“The community aspect is massive. It’s promoted open-mindedness and an appreciation of things outside of each member’s immediate social circles”Steve Myles, Chunk
Across these scenes, everyone at shows and performances is also involved in music and its surrounding community in some way. As writer Rob Hayler explains in his essay on the “no-audience underground”, no one is solely a punter and attending events is involvement in itself. Scenes are sustained by the continual, cultural exchange within their community. Dance, hardcore, indie and noise/psychedelic music is thriving in Leeds, and it’s likely that people are part of multiple communities. As such, there’s still a vital need for the exchange of resources and culture between different scenes and wider communities themselves – regardless of whether they’re even part of the music underground.
Over in Bristol, Roll for the Soul is another venue that grew into supporting DIY music. General manager Rob Wall tells me they expanded beyond their bike cafe origins early on, but soon discovered that they didn’t have the time to properly promote their own shows. “We realized that we had a good space, but we should let other people promote the shows and sort lineups etc. Straight away we felt a good connection with DIY musicians, ‘cos that’s very much how we approach what we’re doing as well. Shoestring budget; stay in control of your own thing; do it because you love it, not because you want to make money from it; treat people right and expect the same in return. There are lots of little DIY scenes in Bristol: indie pop, pop-punk, crust punk, post-rock, electronica, stuff that defies labeling altogether. It’s been a real treat to meet people from all these different scenes, and also to see how much crossover there is and how people help each other out.”
Wall says that transformation within the city has had an impact on the venue. Moving into an “unloved” area before redevelopment started there has resulted in noise complaints from residents who have arrived more recently. This has meant Roll for the Soul has had to take more care in which events to host now. “No more hardcore shows! Which is a shame, because there are plenty of small DIY venues where you can do the less noisy stuff, but very few where you can have someone really giving the drums a proper beating.” Wall remains pragmatic: “We’re trying to find ways to stay involved with DIY music without getting ourselves into trouble or having really antagonistic relationships with our neighbors.”
Meanwhile, DIY Space for London has been open for a year-and-a-half, seeking to provide a community-minded, multi-functional resource for a conflicted capital city since its initial fundraising phase in 2012. “We are certainly a lot further on than any of us imagined we would be before we found a space and started building inside it to make it what it is today. But that work never stops,” a member of several collectives at DIY Space for London tells me, wishing to remain unnamed. “The aim was always around the idea of bringing music and other forms of art and activism together within one space so that they could mutually support each other and see what possibilities emerged from that. The hard, but incredibly important and rewarding part, is diversifying beyond [putting on gigs], both within music and all the other types of creativity, culture, politics and activism that we can provide space for.” This includes accessibility and demystification in music, and creating space for activists and local organizers outside of music. “Given that we have over 5,000 members now there’s a great deal of potential for disparate communities to interact with each other and come together to find shared purposes, skills and struggles,” the member says.
“Communities, homes and people’s lives being destroyed by gentrification should be at the forefront of our minds”DIY Space For London member
They also emphasize the need to be aware of the role cultural institutions play in areas undergoing change such as gentrification. Resisting an active role in this while still accepting one’s passive role may well be inevitable. “Communities, homes and people’s lives being destroyed by gentrification should be at the forefront of our minds when we are thinking about how cultural institutions are impacted,” says the DIY Space member, suggesting the discourse around the decline in London’s nightlife and venues misses the more important issue of wider social cleansing. “I’d hope that by trying to be a space that is open for organizing between and across communities, we can be a space to help meaningful opposition to these currents of social cleansing thrive. It’s easier said than done, though, and simply talking about it while resting on our laurels is, for me, effectively complicity. Our work should just be starting on this.”
Each venue, each area and each city is different, unique to their own peculiar environments, yet they share similar stories and circumstances. Interviewing those involved, there wasn’t really a concern that national policies were affecting their day-to-day existence. While wider arts organisations might feel the force of funding cuts, for example, these DIY places have sought communal self-reliance, to be autonomous in their city’s shadow. There are common traits needed to run the spaces: huge amounts of work, very tight budgets and a creative dedication that sees them adapt to survive and grow. These communities are in a perpetual state of needing of support, yet they do not compromise their ideals, examining themselves to become better, more inclusive and more supportive spaces. Being a part of counterculture within, in opposition to and in symbiosis with a wider oppressive, capitalist society is constant friction. One way to sustain that resistance is to give and support the communities that give and support so much already.
Tayyab Amin is on Twitter