Lessons From The Underground: #2


Nobody wants you to have what you want more than you. No one is obligated to give you anything. The hard truth is that, overall, no one gives a fuck. Does that make you feel sad and alone?

Then you’re not ready. You don’t want it bad enough. You don’t love it enough. You’re just getting started on not getting started.

Realizing that you are the only one who cares about your dreams the way that you care about your dreams shouldn’t discourage you. Hell, it shouldn’t even surprise you– when’s the last time you spent a couple hours fantasizing about your neighbor’s dream of opening a one stop shop for quality wigs and video games*? What it should do is put a fire under your ass. In the underground it doesn’t exist until you make it exist.

Want to record some songs? Better go find a 4-track recorder at your local pawn shop. Need cover art? You’ve got markers, don’t you? How about flyers, magazines, or a book of subversive poetry? It you want it, its yours, you just have to work for it. Everything in the underground is based on the idea that anyone can do anything if they want it bad enough. The music is stripped down, fueled by passion, and relatively easy to master. The venues are small, open areas holding nothing but dirty floors and potential. The vinyls are hand-pressed. The artwork is cutouts and Sharpie marker run through a Xerox machine on the sly in someone’s mom’s office.

The result of all this work for what some may consider so little pay-off is amazing. Only the people who love what they do the most make it in front of a crowd. They play with their feet on the floor, level with the people who want to hear their music. No one is better than anyone else and everyone knows they can do it, too—if they want it bad enough.

Have you ever seen a band fit their full kit into the back of a hatchback? You have to want that pretty bad if you’re going to make it happen. I’ve seen shows in people’s living rooms, at dirty, disused rental buildings in forgotten public parks, sports bars, and backyards. I’ve bought albums recorded pay-by-the-hour in someone’s studio, on 4-tracks, and even tape decks.

The DIY culture of the underground taught me to suck it up and make something happen.

This lesson is particularly important for anyone in creative pursuit. These bands aren’t going to win any Grammys, but when their EPs have titles like “Her Ass Tasted Like Shit” it’s safe to assume The Grammys aren’t at the top of their priority list. Being realistic, not every office worker is going to become a CEO, not every lawyer will become President of the United States, and not every writer pounding away on a novel will make as much money as Stephen King. In the end, we don’t put our blood, sweat, and tears into an occupation or hobby because we want money and fame. In today’s world, we have celebrities born from YouTube, girls in South America are landing modeling contracts after auctioning off their virginity, Octo-Mom found (and lost) both money and fame for being bat-shit crazy and a borderline negligent parent. No, we make music, write stories, paint pictures, or whatever it is we do, because we love doing it.

When you look at the DIY model, sometimes it is the only one that makes sense. Imagine the world we would live in if only the people who cared the most about what they were doing “made it”. Imagine the passion that would come with that. Imagine the skill that would develop after years of someone working his or her ass off to get a little recognition. With the advent of social networks like ReverbNation, YouTube, Kindle self-publishing, and others we can sit back and watch the creative industries branch off into a Y. On one side, you have people who just want to be famous; they have the right look, know the right people, and landed the right opportunity at the right time (or in some cases, had the right wealthy parents and released a sex tape at the right time—I’m looking at you Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian). On the other side of the Y, you have people who are willing to work a day job and still force an additional 30-40 hours a week into their day to make music, write books, or make art. They are willing to make less than their famous counterparts in order to do what they love the way they love it.

We get to choose.

A fellow SYW columnist posted a video of Miley Cyrus singing “Jolene” the other day. It was apparent she has the talent to sing real, soul bearing music. But she has spent her life on the Disney Channel or touring in rhinestone studded leather pants, aching for attention and battling against the likes of Britney Spears. She could be singing the folky, deep, acoustic music she was singing in her “Backyard Sessions”, but instead, she’s singing the kind of shit that makes it onto “Kidzbop” albums.

Amanda Palmer funded her latest album on Kickstarter and it’s arguably the best album she’s put out. It was a massive undertaking with a full orchestra, amazing art, and heart crushing lyrics. Her star is on the rise and her rabid fan-base is growing at an exponential rate. Her “publicist” is a Tumblr blog and an app you can get for your iPhone. Amanda Palmer may never make as much money as Miley Cyrus, but Amanda knows something Miley doesn’t.

We get to choose.

Digging around in old boxes, looking at pictures of young punks with six-inch mohawks in hand studded leathers, pulling out old 7-inch vinyls with collage art covers, flipping through Xeroxed, staple bound zines—I was struck by how similar my present is to my past. I spent a lot of Thursday nights with stacks of flyers in my hand, passing them out to whoever looked interested at our town’s weekly street fair. I spent a fair number of Friday and Saturday nights hauling whatever I could carry from a parking lot into the back entrance of a venue to help the bands set up. More time playing reality-Tetris when it was time to load up again, and all that shit had to go back in exactly the way it had come out, or the band was going to have to leave an amp behind.

Today I’m schlepping my friend’s books around, running a low-tech, completely DIY podcast with two friends with the main idea of getting the word out about these amazing indie and self-published authors. I’m working on my own projects and putting the man-hours in, knowing that no one wants me to have this as much as I want it. No one is obligated to do shit for me. I have to do this myself.

The real lesson here, of course, isn’t just about how one person or group can take on the world all alone. We can’t, really. The DIY band needs a DIY promoter. The DIY author needs a place to publish. When you realize that no one is obligated to shit for you—not only do you accept that you have to do it for yourself, but you realize how special the people who reach out and help really are.

A real community is born when a group of people who don’t expect anything from each other, and don’t owe each other anything, get together and make the magic happen. In the underground scene, this is music and it’s accouterment. In writing it is a mish-mash of the new kids, the accomplished authors, and the in-betweeners coming together to support and learn from one another. DIY makes community. Knowing that you’ve got to pick your ass out of the gutter and create what you want builds community. No one does it without help, but no one does it if they wait around hoping to be discovered before they are willing to put some work into their dream, either.

Do-It-Yourself has become ubiquitous in the internet age. Everything from home repair to jewelry making has a webpage or hundred dedicated to telling you how to Do-It-Yourself. Step one is reading the bold print in the title:


*Author’s note: In the town where I grew up, there really was a shop that specialized in wigs and video games.


7 thoughts on “Lessons From The Underground: #2

  1. Pingback: Jobs?, Not In This Country « nebraskaenergyobserver

  2. My life until recently was something of a shit show. This punk, DIY ideal has been in my mind for years. If I, or any one else, want to tell stories, make people laugh no one will give it to me. Thank you. For talking about and doing it. And for mentioning Amanda Palmer. Because she’s awesome.

    • I try to mention Ms. Palmer whenever possible, because yes, she IS awesome. And I get you, this whole “pick yourself up and DO IT” attitude is harder to maintain as an adult, but getting in the mindset and realizing your future is YOUR hands? It’s been priceless for me.

  3. Just love Renee’s words. Brings me right back to thrift store instrument purchases and shitty effects pedals. Bands we all thought would blow up. Bands that did, that we saw before they blew up, and the feeling of ‘I helped make that happen’ and reminds me writers exist to be read.

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