Part four of a series of posts reflecting on almost a decade of DIY culture - focusing this time on doing things for free. For an introduction to this series, click here.
2008: Most things cost money. It’s shit if you haven’t got much. Now, there’s two schools of thought about this. The first is that if you do something for free, then people assume it’s not worth looking at, since nothing that doesn’t cost anything can be worth anything. I prefer the second idea, namely that it’s vaguely subversive not to charge for this zine. I get to give it to people without worrying if I make my costs back because I’m not trying to. It doesn’t reduce my writing and interactions to simple buyer/seller based financial transactions (“Hi buy my shit, yes?”). And hopefully people get entertained for free. And yes I lose money. But less than if I spent all the time writing it doing something else. Plus money isn’t the only way to measure value. Other currencies include enjoyment, satisfaction, creativity and community.
2008: I’m pretty much some kind of semi-Luddite. I’ve a natural suspicion of being sold gadgets that do something I can already do, no matter how convenient they are, and I’m about 5 years behind everyone else with the internet, that great big shopping catalogue that lives in my PC. The internet is, however, great because, if you are really broke and want to contribute to the death of print media, the post service and the music industry, you can publish things for free (blogs), make and download radio shows (podcasts), upload your bands demo for all to hear (Myspace etc) and stalk your ex on Facebook. Then you can make fliers or spam people about your shit and it costs less than actually making physical things! I think download only releases are pretty horrible because I like to actually have something physical to hold. I also like to have the lyrics and artwork to look at and I think this is an important part of the release too. But at the same time, it costs very little to upload mp3 files so that broke punx can download them for free. You can always do both like we did with LIKE GRENADES.
2010: Also check out killyourown.co.uk and ifyoumakeit.com [2017: both sites seem to be dead, though IYMI is still online and worth a look] for a creative way to combine pay-what-you-can-afford downloads with physical releases. Most records on both sites are available physically but you can download them for free or a donation which goes to the bands.
2017: I’ve been thinking about this post perhaps more than I should, because it seems to me there’s a lot to unpack here and lot of it remains controversial in some way. Myspace is long dead – I got around to shutting mine down recently and it was a time capsule from a decade earlier with an overly confusing interface – and all the people who want physical releases buy them and those who don’t, don’t. But the idea that a DIY project can be free is still polarising and much too long to address comprehensively. These are just some thoughts on fragments six and seven.
It seems pathetic to me that you shouldn’t do something for free because if someone doesn’t pay for art, it doesn’t have any value to them. That’s a bleak assumption that the value we as individuals put on something is dictated by how hard it hits our pockets. Are we really arguing that if you give someone a zine rather than sell them it for a quid they’re going to enjoy it less? And if we are going to argue this, is this a good thing? Shouldn’t we be doing more stuff that challenges this logic?
The act of doing something free can feel like throwing shit at a wall and seeing what sticks. Just as when you flyer for an event and a bunch end up on the floor, when I did Bad Apples there were always a few copies discarded. But would those people have bought a zine in the first place (or bought it and drunkenly left it on the bar) and how many people got a copy of Bad Apples and read it who never would have paid for the zine? Rebounding shit vs shit smeared on the brickwork I guess.
“...If I shoplift an album from my local record store, no one else can buy it. But when I download a song, no one loses it and another person gets it....” – Aaron Swartz
However you feel about downloading, there is in this quote a valuable point: if you download (or share electronically) material, it doesn’t disappear, it duplicates. That process costs nothing. If you’re trying to make money, this causes a problem because it’s in your interest to make sure you have a finite resource, either to control the price through supply and demand or to simply make sure you shift all your hard copies to get your money back. But if you don’t care about that then the problem becomes a solution because you don’t have to stump up a ton of money making physical copies that you lose money on. All this is seems so obvious now that it almost becomes invisible again and worth reiterating.
The issue than becomes in an over-saturated internet, how do you let people know your project exists?
The notion of non-financial rewards resonates even clearer a decade on. Perhaps this is sober logic but it remains clear to me that if you measure everything in terms of capital, you focus on the end exchange. Instead, I often think that whilst I may lose money on a project, how much money would I be spending to have the same degree of enjoyment consuming rather than creating? Of course I focus on money spent on alcohol here because I’m trapped to a certain degree in that logic but there are plenty of ways to spend outside of the pub.
There are other forms of exchange outside the financial and Mauss’ The Gift is an interesting starting point. The simplest explanation of what Mauss is exploring is the potlatch (or potluck) where each guest has the obligation to bring a dish to the communal table. If we think of the free DIY project as a potlatch, if the artist brings free art of whatever kind to the table, what does the audience share with the artist and what obligation does this put on the audience? Perhaps an obligation to accept the gift – i.e. actually look/listen/engage - and provide community in return might be one way to understand this trade.
I recently wound up B/W&Red Small Press because my interest in it ended exactly at the point where shifting what I’d helped bring into the world ended. Helping to write, edit or manage a project to completion is something that I loved and take pride in. Selling the fuckers doesn’t interest me at all.
Some of that is to do with the interactions involved. A sizable number of people I sold to were friends and whilst I’m not above spamming my work, it did feel uncomfortable to shift from buddy to sales person face to face. For someone who’d happily buy you a coffee on the basis of what goes around comes around, interjecting some sort of (diluted) market logic into a space that is outside of it wasn’t something that I found pleasant. I just wanted to go “keep your money, I just hope you enjoy reading it”.
I know I wasn’t the only one. One Contested Ground contributor found the response to selling the zine to friends from a wider social circle particularly abrasive for the same reason; one of the contributors to the Say It Right anthology left copies for people to find in public rather than sell the ones received as ‘payment.’ Trying to cover your costs brings new dynamics to social interactions that it’s fair to say aren’t always positive.
Although not technically ‘free’, Pay-As-You-Feel (PAYF) adds another dimension to this dynamic and one that I personally don’t have too much experience of. I can remember doing the door though at punk shows when having a waged/unwaged sliding scale was common place and the confusion that this sometimes created when you ask people how they classify a fair price or to self select - on trust - what they should pay.
Libby from Curb: The Real Junk Food Project explains something similar. Curb redistribute food that would otherwise end up in a landfill and sometimes cater at house shows and other low key DIY events in Southampton.
Often people can seem reluctant to accept PAYF events and ask how much they should pay. When you step back and say “I don’t know how much you should give, it’s up to you”, sometimes it baffles people. When society says “I’ll leave the food for someone poor or homeless”, the distinction between ‘poor’ and ‘not poor’ becomes a divide that is between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Pay As You Feel sets that aside because there's no set criteria to meet to access the food we provide... I think things are changing. At least in my community the practice of trading, lending and PAYF is becoming more commonplace, I think this changes how people value objects and interact with each other.