Last year at South by Southwest, former Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl gave a speech about his beginnings that should resonate with any maker:
As much as I wanted to be in a band, I was there, alone in my bedroom, day in day out with my records and my guitar, playing with myself for hours. I would set up pillows in the formation of a drum set on my bed and play along to records until there was literally sweat dripping down the Rush posters on my walls. Eventually I figured out how to be a one-man band. I took my crappy old handheld tape recorder, hit record and laid down a guitar track. I would then take that cassette, place it in the home stereo, take another cassette, place THAT into the handheld recorder, hit play on the stereo, record on the handheld, and play drums along to the sound of my guitar. Voila! Multi-tracking! At 12 years old!
This was the experience of an entire generation, the indie/punk scene of the early ’80s. And in that underground music revolution you can see the roots of today’s Maker Movement. What Grohl and his contemporaries were doing was democratizing the tools of production in a way that is now echoed in everything from desktop manufacturing to crowdfunding.
I learned this firsthand as a teenager in Washington, D.C., in the early 1980s, when it was one of the hot spots of the American punk rock movement. Bands such as Minor Threat and the Teen Idles were being formed by suburban kids and playing in church basements. Despite not knowing how to play an instrument and having limited talent, I got caught up in the excitement of the moment and played in some of the lesser bands in the scene. It didn’t lead to music stardom, but it did instill a DIY spirit that largely informed the rest of my career.
What was new about the 1980s punk phenomenon was that the bands did more than just play; they also started to publish. Photocopiers were becoming common (Kinko’s copy shops went national in the early ’80s), and from them started a “zine” culture of DIY magazines that were distributed at stores, shows, and by mail. Cheap four-track tape recorders such as the TEAC Portastudio ($1,200 when it was introduced in 1981) hit that market, allowing bands to record and mix their own music without a professional studio. And a growing industry of small vinyl pressing plants let them make small-batch singles and EPs, which they sold via mail order and local shops.
This was the start of the DIY music industry. The tools of the major labels — recording, manufacturing, and marketing music — were now in the hands of individuals. Eventually, some of these bands, led by Minor Threat and then Fugazi, started their own indie label, Dischord Records, which produced hundred of albums and is still running today. They didn’t need to compromise their music to get published and they didn’t need to sell in big numbers or get radio play. They could find their own fans; indeed, the fans found them via word-of-mouth, and postcards poured into micro-labels to order music that couldn’t be found in most stores. The relative obscurity conferred authenticity and contributed to the rise to the global underground that defines web culture today.
My bands did all of this, from the photocopied fliers to the zines to the four-track tapes to the indie-label albums. We never got very big, but that wasn’t the point. We still had day jobs, but we were doing what we thought was genuinely innovative and getting people at our shows.
Where the DIY punk movement co-opted the means of production, in the web age people used desktop publishing, then websites, then blogs, and now social media. Indie-pressed vinyl became YouTube music videos. Four-track tape records became Pro Tools and iPad music apps. Garage bands became Apple’s GarageBand.
Yesterday’s garage bands are today’s garage hardware startups and Kickstarter is the new indie launch pad. Punk’s not dead — it’s just traded electric guitars for soldering irons.