September 2005

Eryn Loeb

nonfiction

DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture by Amy Spencer

It’s always kind of surreal to read about the particular culture or scene you’re a part of. On one hand, there’s the thrill of recognition, the feeling of validation that comes from your story being told. On the other may be a desire to keep things exclusive. In the case of “alternative” or DIY culture, obscurity is an important trait and a point of pride. With DIY types notoriously defensive (and rightly so), representation of the scenes and projects that fall under the DIY umbrella is particularly complicated. Amy Spencer’s new book DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture is the latest in a relatively small field to attempt to document the history of independent music and self-publishing. The author herself is a former record label founder and zine writer, currently a member of promotions collective The Bakery. Focusing on the ideals of authenticity and empowerment as central tenants of DIY (or more specifically, the “lo-fi ideals of do-it-yourself culture”), Spencer outlines the way that numerous bands, record labels, and publishing ventures have opposed professionalism, rejected the mainstream, and taken cultural production into their own hands. Her book stands as a fairly comprehensive guide to the evolution of DIY culture as we know it today.

Since zines and records are in some ways their own documents, DIY is a kind of index to a certain category of subcultures. The book departs from the few others that cover similar subjects (like Cinderella’s Big Score: Women of the Punk and Indie Underground or The Book of Zines: Readings from the Fringe) by being neither an anthology nor a narrowly focused investigation, instead focusing on “underground movements where DIY and lo-fi ideals are translated into words and music.” Since independent publishing has fed off of underground music (and vice versa, though arguably to a lesser extent) this seems like a logical way to limit the scope of an otherwise huge subject.

The history of all this is just plain interesting, at least to me and my happily punk rock-addled brain. For the most part, information is presented chronologically. Spencer succeeds admirably in linking the rise of DIY culture with subcultures and social movements, from riot grrrl and queercore to science fiction fans and Vietnam war vets. It’s also refreshing that she highlights some early examples of DIY that are largely unknown. But for such juicy material, the reading is surprisingly dry. While the book’s tone is accessible, it’s a disappointment to find it generally lacking energy, capturing little of the spirit of the culture it painstakingly documents. Still, it’s a treat to read interviews with people like Ayun Halliday (The East Village Inky), John Hodge (SCHEnews) and GB Jones (JD’s, queercore band Fifth Column), even if the formality that often results from e-mail interviews is evident.

It is not always clear why Spencer has chosen to include certain examples in her book, and the historical approach she takes means that lots of questions are left unexplored. Is Adbusters, for example, a lo-fi publication, or “just” an alternative or independent one? If the lo-fi ethic means rejecting professionalism, how do you categorize a record or magazine that looks professional but was produced by so-called amateurs? What are the effects of the increasingly corporatized state of alternative newspapers like The Village Voice (a publication Spencer praises)? Although Spencer’s book mainly functions as a history, it could have benefited from more analysis of issues like these. Steven Duncombe’s Notes from Underground: Zines and the Politics of Alternative Culture, in contrast, explored one phenomenon in depth and really interrogated it. As one of only a few books dedicated to exploring the roots and rationale of a subcultural form, it is an obvious point of comparison to DIY.

DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture is ultimately an informative, if not particularly rousing, read. The more deeply we understand the history that it lovingly details, the better equipped we’ll be to apply its lessons to our own projects and rebellions.

DIY: The Rise of Lo-Fi Culture by Amy Spencer
Marion Boyars Publishers
ISBN: 0714531057
256 Pages