D.I.Y. or Die: How to Survive as an Independent Artist (2002)

I had an unusually difficult time pinning down the intended purpose of the early-aughts punk culture documentary D.I.Y. or Die, despite its multiple subtitles’ attempts to provide context.  The DVD copy of the film I picked up at my neighborhood thrift store was titled D.I.Y. or Die: Burn This DVD, proposing that this low-budget, low-effort documentary was intended to function as a kind of motion-picture zine, to be shared freely among aspiring punk artists who would benefit from its scene-specific insights & inspiration.  The more official subtitle on its IMDb & Wikipedia pages is D.I.Y. or Die: How to Survive as an Independent Artist, which proposes that it’s more of a how-to guide for those sure-to-be-struggling punk artists, desperate for pointers on how to keep their half-shaved heads above water.  The third, most robust title that populates under heavy pixelations and antiqued digital film grain effects in the movie proper is D.I.Y. or Die: “A documentary by Michael W. Dean on the means, modes, and methods on independent American artists in different genres & mediums.”  That last one at least hints at the college-essay structuring of the piece, which includes an intro thesis paragraph delivered by Director Dean before he asks generic, rigidly segmented “What inspires you?” questions to an admittedly impressive collection of artists he’s roped in as talking heads.  It’s the bragging rights of assembling those interviewees that gives the film its true sense of purpose, as evidenced by its DVD cover art attempting to squeeze each of their faces into a gargantuan Brady Bunch grid.  D.I.Y. or Die is not the only place you can hear always-welcome punk proselytizers like Ian MacKaye, Richard Kern, and Lydia Lunch pontificate about the virtues of maintaining a D.I.Y. ethos in your outsider art, but it is a convenient check-in on how they were all holding up in the early aughts. 

None of the writers, painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, or software developers interviewed here actually provide useful tips on how to survive as an independent artist.  The closest the film comes to achieving that stated goal is in a DVD extra where longtime punk grumpa Steve Albini explains that it’s naive to expect a large enough audience will want or need your Art that you won’t have to maintain a day job to sustain yourself.  The practicality of that sentiment is directly opposed to the vague anti-corporate rhetoric of the interviews that made it into the final edit, which mostly consist of artists wistfully explaining why they create, not how they eat or pay rent.  For an actually useful guide on how to survive as an independent artist in the internet age, there’s no better resource than Matt Farley’s auto-fictional Local Legends, which sketches out a practical roadmap of how artists can have fun strategically “selling out” in minor, playful ways that keep the lights on.  For its part, D.I.Y. or Die is a time capsule of the last possible minute when the countercultural betrayal of “selling out” meant something about your integrity, back when the internet was mostly made of fan pages & message boards and hadn’t yet turned the users ourselves into product via social media.  There’s a tipping point between physical zine culture and intangible online ephemera incidentally documented here, both in how the DVD extras include “weblinks” to long dead URLs and how the founder of Craigslist is included alongside Ian MacKaye’s self-operated Dischord record label as if both companies were born of the same punk ethos.  A more honest integration of what self-distributed art looked like in the early internet age would have included amateur pornographers instead, who are not represented here (unless you want to squint at Lunch & Kern from the most reductive angle possible).  At the very least, I can’t imagine it would’ve been hard to track down Annie Sprinkle for a quick Q&A, considering how many of the contributors were filmed in NYC.  Whether it’s because Dean didn’t think through why he was grouping together these exact interview subjects beyond how cool they’d be to talk to or it’s because D.I.Y. culture itself was in a confused, liminal stasis at the time, D.I.Y. or Die is unclear on what it wants to say about the state of punk culture in the early 2000s beyond “Fuck yeah.”

I don’t relish being a cynic here, two entire decades after this hour-long tribute to art-for-art’s sake creativity last meant something to anyone.  If anything, I’m likely a little touchy about its intellectual laziness because it’s so similar to my own for-its-own-sake hobby of running this film blog & podcast.  As an independent artistic project, Swampflix is equally confused about how to carry over zine culture ethos & aesthetics into the digital age, and I do sometimes worry that my casual, Xeroxed blogging stye comes across as the same kind of performative laziness that’s passed off as “punk” here.  There’s something about the director presenting himself in wrinkled t-shirts and presenting his interviewees in unflattering, unconsidered angles & lighting that really bothers me.  It’s often charming when an artist leaves noticeable fingerprints on a rough-around-the-edges work, leaving in mistakes and glimpses of the tools of production.  It’s annoying when “punk” is misinterpreted as “no effort”, though, and I’m always looking for artists to use their available resources—no matter how limited—in the most passionate, effective ways possible.  D.I.Y. or Die is from an earlier, easier era in online culture when self-distributed art like this motion-zine DVD could actually reach a wide, excited audience, because the digital landscape wasn’t so constantly flooded with #content — independent, corporate, or otherwise.  I cut a lot of corners running this website, most notably in how often I’ll recycle the same Sharpie doodle illustrations over & over again instead of drafting new ones every post.  For example, the little mohawked icon at the top of this review is a slightly doctored illustration I drew when reviewing Bulletproof Monk eight years ago, hastily edited in MS Paint.  I’m not using the tools available to me to make the most effective, passionate #content I can, but I’m also a sell-out with a full-time desk job who does this stuff on the side for fun, so I don’t think I should be held to the same standards of artistic integrity.  Steve Albini may have been sidelined to the DVD extras, but he still inevitably won the “debate.”

All that said, there was one aspect of D.I.Y. or Die that I did find genuinely inspiring: the inclusion of punk-scene cellist Madigan Shive.  Shive enjoyed some brief notoriety in the 1990s when her band Tattle Tale was picked up by the tastemaker label Kill Rock Stars and landed a single on the foundational CD soundtrack for But, I’m a Cheerleader.  Around the time D.I.Y. or Die was released in the early 2000s, her mostly-solo musical act Bonfire Madigan was an even more niche interest, which I can confirm anecdotally from having attended a concert of hers in a mostly empty Zeitgeist art gallery within a year of this documentary’s release, when my high school era obsession with her music was at its most intense.  Shive is adorably earnest in her interviews here, and genuinely seems like a cool, intelligent person.  What most inspired me, though, was following up after the film was over to see that she still regularly plays concerts (mostly in the Bay Area, where most of these interviews were filmed) and stays engaged with dedicated fans online, two decades since I last heard anyone say “Bonfire Madigan” out loud (besides when asking me about my now-ratty Bonfire Madigan t-shirt, purchased at that sparsely attended concert).  I have no intel on whether Shive had to take the Albini advice on maintaining a day job to keep herself afloat, but I also don’t think that distinction matters.  She’s continued to make passionate, independent art for decades now, regardless of the ebbs & flows of audience interest & commercial appeal, which is genuinely inspiring to me as a writer with no clear incentives left to keep writing.  Maybe D.I.Y. or Die didn’t include any practical tips on how to survive as an independent artist because the only real tip you need is to “Just keep doing the work” and let momentum take care of the rest.  That doesn’t mean the work shouldn’t have integrity in its artistic standards beyond the punk street cred of its production, though, which is where most of my cynicism is coming from here.

-Brandon Ledet

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