In 2016, Felix Viton Ho showed up at La Vitrola on St. Laurent in Montreal, not sure what to expect. An undergraduate looking to feel involved in something, Ho had Googled “Montreal concerts” and come across the show listing. He climbed three flights of stairs and entered the dimly lit venue to find a crowd of two. It turned out to be a vaporwave show: a hazy, irony-soaked genre of electronic music that originated online. When the performance started, the two other people welcomed Ho into their midst, and together, they all began to sway.
It’s no secret that live music has become increasingly—and often exorbitantly— expensive. Artists and fans have to contend with a market that is effectively monopolized by Live Nation Entertainment (LNE). The 2010 merger of Ticketmaster and Live Nation means that the single company controls 70 percent of the event venues and ticketing market, gouging audiences with unexpected fees and dynamic pricing models. As Soraya Roberts pointed out earlier this year for Defector, just going to see a popular indie act these days often costs upwards of $50. From an artist’s perspective, these concert ticket prices aren’t indefensible: no one really buys records, streamers don’t really pay, and touring costs are only rising. Amidst this bleak landscape, DIY concerts can offer an adjusted model, one that exists not outside of capitalism but, at least, doesn’t require a Ticketmaster account.
After his introduction to Montreal nightlife, Ho started showing up to more local shows, frequently attending a series of small outdoor concerts put on by promoter Josh Spencer under the name KickDrum. “I asked the man at the door, Josh, if this thing was happening more often,” Ho recalls of his first KickDrum show. “He was like ‘yeah, it’s happening every Wednesday.’ So I showed up the next Wednesday, and I showed up the Wednesday after that.” Eventually, Ho asked Spencer what he could do to get involved, and Spencer asked him to hang out at the door and keep him company. “Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two,” he said. Five years later, Ho is one of KickDrum’s two promoters.
For Liz Houle, KickDrum’s other promoter, the goal is to create an artist experience that is “humane-ish…Because it’s not very humane to be an artist right now,” she says. KickDrum is not profit-seeking, which means Ho and Houle can take risks on new artists and program events that feel exciting and unusual. Meanwhile, their low overhead and NOTAFLOF policy—no one turned away for lack of funds—keeps costs down for audiences. They don’t use Ticketmaster, either, instead selling tickets on a platform they built themselves, with no extra fees.
Recent KickDrum events include two shows with PEI post-punks Absolute Losers, a show featuring rising stars Quinton Barnes and Fraud Perry, and a stripped-down folk night at underground venue MAI/SON. When they’re not worried about staying afloat, promoters can dive deeper into their communities, discovering something new—an energizing sound, a strange space—along the way.
DIY music as an ethos is commonly traced back to UK punk and post-punk scenes in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when bands like the Buzzcocks and Scritti Politti began self-releasing their music with a view toward transparency and anti-commercialism. But artists across genres have always innovated with what was on hand, from hip hop’s turntable experiments to the homemade instruments of skiffle. “DIY describes a music culture,” writes popular- music scholar Ellis Jones, “wherein emphasis is placed on forming and maintaining spaces for production and distribution which exist outside of, and are positioned as oppositional to, the commercial music industries.”
DIY music is not separate from processes of commodification—concerts and records still affix a monetary value to creative works. But what DIY can do is interrupt the corporate subsumption of all things artistic. “DIY practitioners,” Jones writes, create “commodities that attempt (successfully or otherwise) to bypass or mitigate consumption’s connotations of passivity, exploitation, and alienation.”
Musician and booker Daniel G. Wilson grew up studying these histories of rock, punk and DIY in Mississauga. “I liked the idea that these people were going against the grain,” Wilson says. He mentions that his earliest exposures to DIY came via his Jamaican background. “Musical culture over there already has a sort of natural DIY spirit,” Wilson says. “People wire up and fix up equipment to make soundsystems.”
As a teen, Wilson was part of a thriving all-ages scene in Mississauga, centred around the Masonic Lodge (where Billy Talent used to play in the ’90s, back when they were called Pezz). When the Lodge became too expensive to book, Wilson started trying to get gigs for his band JONCRO in Toronto. But he found bookers were hesitant to book bands without a following, and that this was even more of a barrier for bands with an aggressive sound and a diverse makeup. He points out that it can be easier for white bands to have a built-in audience and that these bands aren’t always welcoming others into their scenes.
Wilson decided to face the problem head-on. In 2017 he founded a festival for BIPOC-fronted and inclusive rock bands, Lingua Franca. “I’m like, ‘ok, I’m going to prove to everyone in this city that you can have an entire bill stacked with amazing bands that are all diverse,’” he says. The festival ran for one night in 2017, its first year, and in 2018, Wilson expanded it to three. “What made me happy was all these people—people playing and coming to the show—for the first time, they were not in the minority,” Wilson says. “The diversity on stage reflected the diversity in the crowd.” Wilson thought to himself: “I’ve done something magical here.”
Lingua Franca has never had grants or sponsorships. “I wanted to prove that you could do this with very little resources, the resources of your community,” Wilson explains. In removing corporate constraints, DIY can create space for marginalized artists who can find themselves structurally shut out of opportunities.
Removing those constraints can also create scenes in places that are ignored by the music industry. Brett Sanderson and Sophia Tweel put on DIY punk and hardcore shows in Charlottetown, PEI. For them, DIY is a matter of keeping music alive.
PEI’s population is only 150,000, Sanderson points out. “So it’s kind of hard to find people to come to shows. But if you keep at it for a long time—”
“You get a little following,” Tweel jumps in. “It introduces people to a scene that they’ve never really had access to before.”
Under the name Secret Beach, Sanderson and Tweel put on all-ages shows, aiming to provide an inclusive space where young people can get excited about music. “We have posters up at every show: no misogyny, no homophobia, no transphobia, no racism,” Sanderson says. “If you aren’t cool with that then you can leave.” They also hang posters from the harm reduction organization PEERS Alliance and emphasize a “no booze, no drugs, no jerks” policy.
Secret Beach has never put on a ticketed show, dealing instead in cash and giving as much of the proceeds as possible to touring bands. Though it may be hard to maintain a scene in a small place, Sanderson and Tweel are enthusiastic about PEI’s emerging artists. “Since we started doing shows,” Sanderson says, “we’ve definitely seen more kids starting bands.”
Likewise, Houle and Ho have noticed an uptick in underground activity in Montreal. “It’s been really lovely to see the surge of young people putting on things in their apartments or at the park,” Houle says. “People are just really down to experiment and try out new types of events and do underground stuff for just their friends.”
Up until this year, KickDrum was mostly run by Ho and Houle, but in January they started getting younger volunteers who wanted to help out and learn how to put on shows. KickDrum went from being two people to seven or eight, and Houle and Ho are excited to be able to pass on what they’ve learned.
For Ottawa’s Hannah Judge and Michael Watson, knowledge sharing is one of the primary motivators behind their DIY label, Club Records. Watson and Judge realized they were effectively running a label before they started calling it one. Watson had been producing and offering distribution to artists and Judge had been showing artists how to release their music, knowledge she gained through her band Fanclubwallet. “One day I just, like, made a logo as kind of a joke and I was like, ‘what if I made a website?’ Before we knew it I was like, ‘oh, this is a record label.’”
Club Records put out their first official release this year, emmersonHALL’s self-titled record. They are proud of the album’s reception, especially considering they spent $80 on promotion. “It feels like every day I’m getting to make a really cool art project with my friends,” Judge says. Like KickDrum, Club Records exists to uplift artists’ work, rather than extract value from it.
“When you sign with a major label, you’re thinking ‘oh, how much money do I owe them?’” Judge says. “And so nothing feels super satisfying,” Watson adds. If Watson or Judge produced the music, they will take a production royalty, but otherwise, at least for now, Club Records doesn’t take a royalty percentage from artists. Instead, when they invoice for a specific job—like producing, or music videos—they add a Club Records tax, which then goes back into their funds for artists. The DIY model allows practitioners to try out different approaches like this, instead of falling into old, exploitative dynamics.
Transparency is built into the Club Records process: the website features a resources page with how-to guides for touring, pitching music, and dealing with “the scary stuff ” (aka, money). Each of the documents on the page is editable, so users can contribute their own experiences, too. The resource page harkens back to those early UK post-punk releases, which featured itemized costs and how- to explainers printed on their sleeves.
Like Houle and Ho, Judge and Watson emphasize the vibrant DIY ecosystem they belong to, pointing to groups like Debaser and Side By Side Weekend. “It’s just cool to see all your friends in the DIY scene trying to do things to uplift the rest of the DIY scene,” Judge says.
DIY scenes have to uplift themselves, because their underground and non-profit nature makes sustainability a serious challenge. Venues face some of the biggest hurdles. “I often would joke,” Wilson says, “for the first couple of years every venue that I would book for Lingua Franca—except for the more sizable venues—would close the next year.” In 2017, Wilson booked Toronto vegan cafe D-Beatstro. By 2018, it was gone. The same thing happened the next time around with the classic punk venue Faith/Void. La Vitrola, the venue where Ho first fell in love with Montreal shows, closed in 2020, and underground venue La Plante followed soon after.
Longrunning Vancouver DIY venue and arts collective Red Gate Arts Society is currently facing its own existential threat. Active since 2012 (and even earlier, more informally), Red Gate has moved twice already: first after an eviction in 2011, and again in 2018 following a building sale. In their current Mount Pleasant venue, they operate under a licencing program for arts events in “unconventional spaces.” Co-founder Jim Carrico says that the city is now suggesting they apply for a new licence specifically for night clubs and sent a notice to their landlord. He’s not sure what prompted the notice, but in the time that he has been running Red Gate, Carrico says he’s seen more venues shut down than start up. “For there to be a music scene or an arts scene there needs to be a place where people can kind of mess up and make it up and experiment,” Carrico says, “and it has to be cheap.”
The housing and cost of living crises across the country place structural pressures on artists and practitioners to abandon DIY and professionalize. They also make DIY models increasingly necessary. Vinson Ng and Haina Wan of the dance music collective Normie Corp emphasize the importance of keeping events affordable. “The people that we want to cater to,” Ng says, “they’re just feeling it really hard, so there’s a lot of pay what you can, there’s a lot of pay it forward tickets.”
They started throwing events on Zoom during the pandemic and have expanded into in-person parties, mostly in Vancouver, with a focus on highlighting queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, people of colour and women artists. The organizers are especially proud of their Pride and Halloween events. “We can pack the room with like 800 to 900 people,” Wan says. “It’s just such a joy to share.” This year, they also hosted their first music festival, Camp Normie.
The question of whether to grow is a tricky one. Because they don’t prioritize profits, DIY models can lead to burnout, with organizers running out of capacity. Judge and Watson mention that the current structure of Club Records isn’t sustainable and they have still-secret plans to develop the organization.
Wilson would love to have the resources to book classic bands like Fishbone, he says. But he also knows that were he to expand, Lingua Franca would lose something in the process. “I think of the Afropunk festival, where a lot of Black punks are kind of sad because it doesn’t really cater to Black punks anymore,” he says.
For Ho, the question of what happens to KickDrum is almost beside the real point. “KickDrum is a useful resource,” he says. “But if the name KickDrum disappears tomorrow it won’t make a difference. What matters is the people, and the experience they’ve gained.”
Houle appreciates occupying a kind of middle ground between a business and a friend’s living room. “We’re not successful enough to go corporate,” she jokes. But the joke belies what KickDrum offers artists and audiences instead: community, creativity, and a fair deal.