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What Shaped Chicago's DIY Music Scene?

By Kord Staley and Nick Toppel

Posted: Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016

Bob Vila showing homeowners how to rip out their kitchen cabinets and install new ones for themselves might be the first image in some peoples mind of Do-it-Yourself.

But the DIY music has its roots in the punk rock scene of the 1970s.


DIY is “Do-It-Yourself” music. It embraces working collectively and doing everything yourself, which highlights the artist's autonomy.

In the late 70s, faced with a market that made it extremely difficult to get radio play. DIY came about as a way for artist to not have to conform to the mainstream music industry.

Relying on their own ingenuity and embracing a punk ideology, bands such as Death and Riot Grrrl took over and did everything for themselves. Every step of the process from recording, production and merchandising to distribution and promotion as well as producing ‘zines to reach out to their audience.

The DIY punk ideology rejects consumerism and the use of existing systems and process that would forever tie the artist to the established order, believing an artist can express themselves in moving and serious ways without a lot of money or equipment. DIY goes so far as to not even rely on established venues to have their concerts. Instead choosing to perform at people's homes, in underground venues that you may not even realize are in your neighborhood.

Ian Jackson, a member of Chicago-based band Bleeding Gums said, “DIY was and currently is the only outlet and, let's say, production of music and art and media that makes sense to me. It's an utter representation of one's ideals, motives, dreams, wins & losses. It's raw, it's honest, it's blood and sweat and tears, it's struggle, it's fortune.”

Chicago DIY

For Chicago, DIY exploded in the ‘90s. Jesus Lizard, Tortoise, Urge Overkill and Eleventh Dream Day, venues such as Lounge Ax and HotHouse and labels Touch and Go and Bloodlust are all credited as examples of what made Chicago a repository of musical adventurousness. Punk, free jazz, indie rock and house music were typical fair at the bars.

After the explosion of Nirvana in ’91 and their album Nevermind label representatives were on the hunt for the next “it” thing. Which led to Chicago, according to Steve Albini, guitarist for Shellac and producer of Nirvana’s In Utero and advocate for DIY, the scouts would show up with suitable indie credit of their own and their influence morphed the scene and brought to it a predatory layer that changed everything in the scene.

Albini has been an outspoken critic of the music industry going so far as to call it a 2004 presentation at Middle State University “human exploitation.”

Where is the scene today?

The local DIY scene in Chicago is one that seems to fluctuates almost constantly with houses coming and going along with bands and the people attending. However, the past few years have seen a dedicated scene open up and grow with a community that has stuck it out thus far.

With bands like Bleeding Gums, The Bug, and Tigress and venues such as Rancho Heuevos, Weenie Hut Jr’s, and ChiTown Futbol, the rise in community has seen a significant increase over the past few years. With venues popping up all over the city, the scene continues to expand in the amount of venues, people, and bands that regularly play and host shows almost every weekend.

Black Nail photo

Jack Mazurek, member of the band Tigress,  said that he "mainly got into doing stuff DIY through radical politics. I don’t like the idea of appealing to others to do something for you. DIY seemed in line with my own values and so I gravitated toward the DIY community rather than the more mainstream music crowd.

Photo: Ghost of a Dead Hummingbird. (Photo/Nick Toppel)

“A big part of why I wanted to do shows in the first place was to get more connected to the DIY scene. I think we really just want to have a place of our own to book shows, let our friends book shows, and do cool benefits for stuff we believe in. It can be stressful at times but it’s also really rewarding when bands can make some money, people get a place to hang out, and we can raise funds for rad stuff we believe in."

Minnie Scully, a member of the Chicago DIY scene, said, “DIY can be a place where people who are disenchanted with the music industry, the bar and club scene, and society in general can go to socialize and create new culture.”

DIY also has become a place where people can go to express themselves both physically and do speak out against things in society that they feel are wrong or underrepresented. “I feel DIY is a way to listen to music made by marginalized people with experiences you might otherwise be sheltered from,” Scully said. “My favorite DIY spaces are ones that cater to black, brown, queer, and trans people.”

Some interviewed said that the DIY scene can not always be as welcoming to those that are new.

“To be real, the DIY scene can be super cliquey and not always very welcoming to outsiders," Mazurek said, "especially if you’re not in a band or making a zine or running a venue, it can be hard to feel part of it.” 

Scully echoed similar thoughts, adding that “it can be hard for many of those same groups to feel safe despite these intentions. In many ways, the problems of DIY reflect our society as a whole; it can be easy for those venues to project an image of safety and community rather than be actually safe for those they are supposed to cater to.”

Mazurek, Scully, Jackson, and their fellow colleagues in the scene work to address these issues among the community where they see fit so that all can feel safe and involved in the scene.

“DIY means independence,”Jackson said. “Oftentimes it’s one of the only real outlets and expressions for people in that community and it’s beautiful in every shape it takes.”

Red pin map iconMap: DIY locations around the city 

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