When things get so big, I don't trust them at all
You want some control — you've got to keep it small
— Peter Gabriel, "DIY" (1978)
What you see in the photo below left is the camera that took the cover photo (above) of Deerhoof's excellent new album, Breakup Song. The camera also happens to be Deerhoof singer-bassist Satomi Matsuzaki's cellphone. She took the picture one night this summer on her street in Greenpoint. On the face of it, it's kind of not a big deal. But really, it's a definitive expression of a DIY movement that began with punk rock, and traces back before that by more than a century.
The whole idea of punk rock wasn't to make snarly, abrasive music. It was to be able to make music that the mainstream media would never allow. And to do that, there had to be a lot of stuff besides musicians. People had to build a parallel music industry: radio, retail, distribution, recording studios, venues, and print media. Punk was about seizing the means of production.
"That is so punk rock!" In the most interesting sense, that doesn't mean someone is wearing a black leather jacket and a mohawk, it means that they've taken matters into their own hands and made a nervy and resourceful end-run around the usual way things are done. The beautiful thing is, anyone can do that, and in just about any field of endeavor.
In the early days of indie rock, advances in technology were beginning to make possible just such defiant ingenuity: the photocopier became accessible to just about anyone, which wrought an explosion of fanzines. Quarter-inch eight-track tape machines enabled more economical recording; soon, four-track cassette recorders appeared, letting anyone easily make multi-track recordings and thereby ushering in the lo-fi movement.
Along with rejecting high-budget production values, indie rock analogously rejected the cult of technique, which enabled and emboldened a whole new type of musician — people who realized they could make soul-changing music even if they didn't have the chops of Emerson, Lake and Palmer or the studio budget of Steely Dan.
Now, digital technology has advanced DIY exponentially further, to a virtually global reach and a virtually unlimited scale. Photoshop, Protools, MP3s, blogs, podcasting, etc. have empowered the music underground beyond the wildest dreams of the '80s indie community. It's now possible to record music, and distribute and promote it around the planet without prohibitively expensive equipment or the meddling of pricey professionals. Musicians can be more truly independent than ever before. Now an inspired indie musician can use her cellphone to take the lo-fi but undeniably artful photograph for her band's album cover. The future is here.