The deliberate nostalgia of DIY

by Mary Kate McGrath / Beacon Correspondent • November 18, 2015

Anyone who has gone to one of BUFU Records’ shows around Boston knows what it feels like to time travel. The independent label is home to some of the city’s most nostalgic acts, boasting bands that play everything from ‘60s-style psychedelic rock to flannel-wearing ‘90s grunge. When these groups play at concerts, the audience takes their cue—donning KISS T-shirts and cutoff jeans. Artists lay out buttons and zines on a table and peddle cloth patches, vinyls, and cassette tapes.

Long obsolete formats live on in the world of DIY music. There is a distinct vibe at these shows, where the community tries to keep the underground scene viable with the antiquated mediums of a simpler, less complicated time. But it goes beyond mere novelty. In a climate that is increasingly difficult for new artists to succeed in, reverting back to older methods of production and consumption allows musicians to find an alternative, self-sustaining way to have a career.

When consumers rely heavily on streaming services for their main source of music, it is easy to see why many artists and fans would want something more tangible. This is perhaps the main cause of the recent upswing in the use of vinyl records, as they bring back a physical connection to music. Small independent labels have embraced this phenomenon, and have become some of the largest producers of new disks. Even with the prevalence of YouTube and Spotify, hardworking DIY acts like Frankie Cosmos or Porches have no trouble selling hundreds of LPs with each release.

There are many other reasons for artists and their labels to invest in a pressing of a new record. Writing and recording an album can be a long and painstaking process for a musician, and putting the result into vinyl form allows them to have a more concrete product. When music feels overly available and disposable in the contemporary age, records allow the work to endure. It also creates the potential for customization—with records, the album art and designs are given special space, making the release a more complete work. It even allows for personal touches; for example, the band Perfect Pussy made a feminist statement by pressing singer Meredith Graves’ period blood into the wax.

Cassette tapes are even more of an anomaly. Though they have much lower sound quality than vinyl, they remain as one of the quintessential products of an independent label. The affordability of cassettes allows labels to take a chance on a new artist without risking a financial deficit. Most of these indie record companies will put an artist’s early releases, say their first EP or single, on a tape as a sort of trial run before putting out a full album. Even though cassette players are rare outside of Goodwill or Craigslist, sometimes the tape itself is enough of a token that fans will buy them anyway.

Releasing music in a more material form validates the hard work of an artist. When the internet is an amorphous sea of Bandcamp pages and Soundcloud profiles, it’s important to have a product that feels more personal. Fans can engage with acts in a more meaningful way, creating a special kind of bond that the do-it-yourself community is trying to dig up from the past. It is difficult for a musician to establish themselves without this connection, and it is the kind of exchange that is at the heart of DIY.

In this way, mediums like vinyl and cassettes are also a key part of how an underground scene functions on a local level. Artists bring their wares to shows, letting fans pay them more directly. Most put their music online for free, so the purchase represents an act of genuine support from the listener. This provides a more reliable source of income, and it lets musicians have the time and resources to keep producing while they establish their career.

There is also a sense of community built around the nostalgia, a small but rebellious movement against the more unfortunate elements of the capitalistic music industry. No matter how silly it may seem to see a band in ‘80s leggings and hair metal t-shirts selling cassettes, there is a method behind the oddity. The sentimentality and spirit of DIY represents a real artistic resilience.