How to Be a Successful DIY Artist: In one easy step

By Guest Blogger: Kim Boekbinder

Step One: Don’t be DIY.

The Myth of “DIY”

We see “DIY” a lot these days, it is a hot marketing term that is added to headlines like a bad seasoning. Successful musicians are being described as “DIY” all the time.

Let’s get one thing straight: There is no such thing as a professional “DIY” artist.

What we usually call “DIY artists” are actually successful professional musicians without traditional labels (often they have started their own labels) who have hired many people to help them.

“DIY” stands for “Do It Yourself” and someone who has hired a company’s worth of people to manage their day-to-day business is not actually doing anything themselves. Well, except for their art, which we’ll just assume they do themselves, but that’s just called “being an artist.”

The term “DIY” came out of punk culture, it meant eschewing the socially accepted standard of success and forging your own path. DIY meant making music on your own terms, recording yourself, making your own posters, t-shirts, everything. It meant never charging more than you had to, profit was stigmatized. This was a socio-political art movement about intensely connected, small communities of self-reliant people who did not use professional services.

“DIY” actually meant Do-It-Yourself, not do-it-yourself-but-also-with-some-hired-professionals-who-run-your-label-while-you-strum-your-guitar.

When the internet paved the way for more musicians to go it on their own without a record label and traditional management the term got more and more usage.

But today the term “DIY” is a lie.


Don’t call me “DIY”

As a professional musician I’m about as “DIY” as it gets, I book my own shows, do my own graphic design, make many of my own videos, code my own websites, ship my own merchandise, drive myself to shows, set up my own gear… you get the picture.

But I am not “DIY.” I am(drumroll, please) an artist. AND a business person. …who is helped by legions of fans, friends, volunteers, family, fellow musicians, and hired help.

I don’t call myself “DIY.” I am an artist, making art, and doing whatever I need to do to reach my fans. I do a lot of things myself, but my fans help me, my friends help me, and the people I hire help me a lot.


DIY is for spice racks

Perhaps you like to make things. And you call this “DIY.” In this way what you mean is that you, a non-professional, are doing something without professional help.

You are not a carpenter, but you are making a spice rack. You are not a plumber, but you are fixing your own plumbing.

You are not a mechanic, but you can change your own oil.

You are not a chef, but you just made yourself dinner. (Totally DIY’ed this mac n’ cheese.)

I heartily endorse being fully engaged in your life and taking a physical role in it. Make things! Do things! Yes! Things!

The Maker culture and true DIY enthusiasts are great. I certainly don’t want to knock the wonderful world of learning and creating and making. It’s when we conflate “DIY” with professional independent artists that the term starts to lose meaning.

The persistent use of “DIY” as it refers to musicians and artists is offensive and infantilizing, because “DIY” means “non-professional.”

When an artist has made a career for themselves they should be recognized for their astute business savvy as well as their talent. (Béyonce is so “DIY.”)

No business is built by one person alone, and that stands for creative ventures the same as it does for any financial endeavor, whether it be a multi-national company with thousands of employees or a sole-proprietorship. Everyone gets help.

I don’t want a new web app sold to me as “the perfect tool for DIY.” I’m not making a spice rack, I’m running a business.


The DIY Aesthetic

When people say that things have a real “DIY Aesthetic” what they really mean is: it looks or sounds a bit rough.

Like buying a new piece of furniture and faux-aging it, musicians and artists now attempt to do things badly so they look and sound more authentic.

I like rustic things, I love seeing the mark of a craftsperson. Heck, I love DIY driftwood spice racks.

What I don’t like is professional artists putting out haphazard crap because it’s the new cool thing to do and a great way to make money, cherry-picking parts of the DIY punk scene to be packaged up and sold as “the real thing.”

What I don’t like is how a badly recorded song now equals authenticity.

Sometimes a badly recorded song is wonderful. Sometimes the demo version is better than the studio version.

But you can’t fake those magic moments just by doing something badly.

Do not cargo-cult authenticity! Recording your own music doesn’t make your music more authentic.

Making your own website doesn’t make your website more authentic.

Doing your own PR doesn’t make your career more authentic.

You can do all those things yourself, but you probably shouldn’t.


When DIY is a Good Option

“DIY” is great for people who are not trying to make a living. If you have a good day job that pays your bills and you just want some internet tools to distribute the songs or art you make in your spare time, then go “DIY.”

If this is your career, stop falling for the hype. There really is no such thing as professional “DIY.” You will need to be talented, driven, and patient. You will need a lot of help, at first from friends, family and fans, and then from people you hire.


The DIY Trap

Now that so many tools are available for producing, distributing, and promoting everything yourself, it is easy to fall into the “DIY” trap. Once you’re good enough at doing something it becomes hard to justify paying someone else to do it.

If you can keep recording your own songs at home why would you pay hundreds or thousands of dollars a day to have someone else do it? I’ll tell you why: because getting good at recording takes time. A lot of time. Like anything else it takes about 10,000 hours to master the art of recording.

You might be able to do a passable job, but someone else could be doing an amazing job. This goes for promotion, distribution, booking… etc…

“Isn’t it just so great that you can do everything yourself!” say people who don’t live the reality of having to do everything themselves.


My Advice to DIY Artists

If you plan to make a career of music or art, don’t be “DIY.” The successful artist that the press is calling “DIY,” is not “DIY”. The once-poignant acronym has become a meaningless marketing term designed to keep you small. Be large.

Seek help, early and often.

Know your strengths.

Do those things. Know your weaknesses.

Don’t do those things.

Help other people by doing the things you are good at doing. When you stop using your energy trying to do things you are bad at you can make the world a better place by helping people with the things you are good at. This is so much winning.

You will always have to be aware and engaged in the business aspects of your career. Don’t believe that someone else will do it all for you — they won’t.

It won’t be any less work with help, but it will be better.

Your art deserves the best and you are not the best at everything, you can’t be.

You may not get a traditional label, or manager, or agent, but you will need someone.

Do-It-Yourself. With lots and lots of help.

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Guest Blogger: Kim Boekbinder // Soothsayer. Iconoclast. Musician. @kimboekbinder