by Liz Pelly
Facebook claims to bring people closer together. In fact, it’s helping derail and destroy some of the few remaining places that actually do.
The term “DIY” is contested within music communities. But “DIY space” generally refers to a self-organized venue run by artists, often on a formal or informal collective basis, to house non-commercial music, art, and community organizing projects.
These spaces typically aspire towards ideals of accessibility and inclusivity, and are open to all ages. They have low ticket prices, and give most of the money made at the door to the artists. They are places where new bands can play their first shows, and where people can learn how to book and run events collaboratively. Above all, they foster participation. In an increasingly isolated culture, music remains a medium that can still get people into a room together. DIY venues offer real social spaces in an era when the concept of being “social” has been hollowed out by Silicon Valley.
In 2014, I moved into the Silent Barn, a three-story DIY space in Bushwick, Brooklyn. There were art galleries, a recording studio, a barber shop, murals on every surface, and shows every night. On one of my first nights living there, I came home to a kitchen filled with dozens of collective members, sitting on chairs and the floor, holding a meeting. It reminded me of an Occupy general assembly, but with the purpose of running an all-ages music and art venue. For four years, I stayed involved as a resident, collective member, and co-facilitator of programming.
These days, however, DIY spaces like the Silent Barn are under threat. The Silent Barn shut its doors in May 2018, about one year after the shuttering of another local, long-running DIY venue, Shea Stadium. Beloved Brooklyn spaces like Death by Audio and Palisades have also shuttered in recent years.
The closing of DIY spaces is nothing new. Their reliance on volunteer labor makes them vulnerable to collective burnout, while their shoestring finances make them vulnerable to bankruptcy. Moreover, one of their defining characteristics is often their semi-legal status, which exposes them to pressure from the authorities. For these reasons, the announcement of another closure never comes as too much of a surprise. Still, it seems that DIY venues in big cities face more challenges than in previous generations: namely the rising price of urban real estate, and the complex relationship that exists between art spaces and gentrification.
But there’s another factor fueling the crisis of DIY: Facebook. To be involved in a local music community today means maintaining an inextricable reliance on Facebook events, and Facebook-owned Instagram, for promotion. Further, some DIY spaces have become dependent on Facebook groups for everything from connecting with the public to hosting internal organizing conversations. Across the music world, digital platforms are reshaping the ways that community forms around music—and, in the case of Facebook, exacerbating the significant obstacles that DIY spaces already face. A platform that claims to bring people closer together is helping derail and destroy some of the few remaining places that actually do.
The original Silent Barn organizers were wary of underground arts organizing leaning too hard on “gigantic, panoptic” digital platforms, as one of the Barn’s cofounders G. Lucas Crane puts it. But eventually they came to rely on digital tools. As a non-funded arts organization perennially strapped for time and money, Crane explains, digital tools like Facebook offered the perception of convenience, but ultimately proved to be just that: a perception. Starting to use a Facebook group for internal organizing “ate away at the togetherness,” Crane says. “It just kind of makes you lazy. You get subsumed in the thing that Facebook wants you to do, which is to argue a lot with no actual outcome.”
“You think you’re getting something done. You think you’re communicating,” Crane says. “But you’re actually just performing communication. It’s communications theater. It doesn’t actually provide consensus.” Further, he noticed the nature of conversations on Facebook seeping their way into in-person meetings, “rotting away the ancient strategy” of getting people into a room to work things out because everyone had preconceived notions of one another from social media.
In Arcata, California, an all-ages, collective-run DIY venue called Outer Space balances similar concerns about online versus in-person decision making. They rely on a Google Group for communication, but also hold a weekly, recurring meeting. “Sometimes we have long, hard conversations where we don't always agree about how to move forward,” says Alex Norquidst, a member of the core collective that works with a larger volunteer base. “These kinds of conversations are really hard to have via text or email threads because people’s tone, body language, and the ability to take time out and check in with everyone goes away.”
DIY Space for London (DSFL), a venue that opened in 2015, does not use Facebook for internal discussions. “People often need to take a break from social media, or aren’t on it altogether, so if we were to use Facebook to organize, we’d be excluding a lot of people,” explains collective member Amy. Another member, Ben, adds that many members of the space do not use Facebook or Google “due to their power/practices.” Instead, their primary all-collective organizing tool is Loomio, a free app specifically designed for collaboration, which they supplement with a WhatsApp group for emergency communications. DSFL members note Loomio’s usefulness for fair discussions, time polls, and decision-making. Its notifications system also seems to be built to prevent burnout—something Facebook seems to make worse.
On Facebook, there’s a feeling that the platform is actually creating more organizing labor rather than less. During my time at Silent Barn, being part of the booking team involved responding to daily emails and DMs regarding date requests, lineups, follow-ups, announcements, promotion, production needs, and liaising with staff. Other digital labor included making Facebook events, writing promo copy, sourcing artwork, adding listings to our site, and trying to spread the word online without getting algorithmically buried. As a Barn booker, I found promotion on Facebook, something that was supposed to make our jobs easier, actually just created more work—it made our jobs harder.
The rampant reliance on Facebook also complicates the long-held anti-commercial politics of DIY, which exists in opposition to the mainstream music industry. DIY spaces are in theory built on an ethos of valuing art over profit—sliding scale, suggested donation, and “NOTAFLOF” (or “no-one-turned-away-for-lack-of-funds”) shows are common. The use of Facebook weaves corporate infrastructure into the fabric of ethos-driven spaces.
It is a given today that engaging with corporate digital structures is a necessary compromise required to connect to communities. Facebook is a particularly murky environment: it positions itself as a social network, but is actually an advertising platform. Thus the interactions of socially motivated DIY organizers on Facebook are shaped by its advertising mechanisms. Facebook will naturally promote whatever has been paid for, or whatever will generate the most clicks in the attention economy.
This means that the kinds of small shows being pushed by DIY promoters are likely to get algorithmically buried, especially if they don’t pay for sponsored posts. Meanwhile, DIY venues and independent bookers are expected to use the same tactics as more established commercial venues that partner with corporate ticketing platforms like Eventbrite and Ticketfly, which in turn have deals to integrate more seamlessly with Facebook.
It’s hard to publicize unpopular artists on platforms that prioritize what’s popular. Indeed, the reliance on Facebook means DIY culture is becoming more closely aligned with the platform’s digital monoculture. The logic of social media platforms, of instant gratification and optimized “content,” requires pages (and spaces) to absorb streamlined “brand identities”—a logic that cultivates a more passive, consumerist approach to music that is inimical to scrappy, under-resourced DIY spaces.
While different DIY spaces have different approaches to navigating Facebook, generally the lack of resources means that DIY venues have difficulty maintaining a constant social media presence due to a shortage of volunteers. This in turn makes Facebook less likely to surface their content—for instance, by promoting their events with automated notifications that say, “We found concerts and other music events happening near you.”
The first time I received such a notification, I couldn’t help but think that “music events” sounded like something an undercover cop might say. Relatedly, there is a history of undercover police using Facebook to snoop on DIY shows. In 2013, when Boston police officers busted up popular DIY show spaces, they bragged about the fake Facebook accounts they used to find addresses for gigs. Here is another ongoing complication of social media and DIY: the way it makes spaces vulnerable to surveillance from authorities that see these spaces as nuisances and shut them down.
Digital tools haven’t always played such a destructive role for DIY. In fact, the early social web facilitated interactions that hugely benefited self-organized music culture. Think message boards, the sprawling landscape of independently run MP3 blogs, and even Tumblr communities where weird micro-genres and home-recorders could thrive. The MySpace era in particular is widely seen as a golden age for DIY: much has been written about how MySpace offered the ideal music site, perhaps for the simplicity of its interface or the highly customizable quality of its pages.
By contrast, the consolidated social web embodied by Facebook is damaging DIY by providing an illusion of convenience that reshapes communities in the image of Facebook’s preferred norms. Criticism of platforms is essential as they continue to take a stronger hold on the ways that we form community. There is still much to be thought through by DIY organizers when it comes to examining how platforms play into building DIY spaces.
We need to fight against the trappings of convenience, and make sure that it’s us using the digital tools and not the digital tools using us. Perhaps there is something to be gleaned from what DIY spaces are already learning about Facebook: as an advertising platform, it may have some utility, but as a tool for building community, it’s probably best to go somewhere else.
Liz Pelly writes about music, culture, streaming, and the internet. She is a contributing editor at The Baffler, where she writes a column about how the world of music is being reshaped by the platform economy.