Before I wandered unwittingly into the (so-called) professional world of advertising and became a copywriter, I was a punk. Well, not strictly a punk in the common sense. I was a little too young for tartan and safety pins.
But one element of punk that thrived in the ‘post-punk’ era I found myself in was the DIY ethic. Driven by record labels like Dischord in the US and fanzines such as Fracture in the UK, the mentality was if no one else is going to do it for you…do it yourself.
Growing up in a small town – literally at the end of a train line in the north east of England – suggested impossible isolation. But working together with a positive DIY punk mentality, my friends and I brought some of the biggest underground bands of the time to our small town and had a bloody good laugh in the process.
Making some posters for a talk I’m doing in the local area got me thinking how much those early years organising and playing DIY gigs informed my approach in today’s world of advertising. So, I came up with 37-ish things you could learn from my DIY upbringing. I hope you find them useful (even if you were a mod!):
1. You can’t lose anything reaching out to people. Before the Internet, I once called a music magazine to ask for a contact for the band on the front cover. I got it. I called the band. They came to play my tiny town. Mission accomplished. Always reach out. The worst anyone can say is ‘no’.
2. Enjoy the process. Advertising was tough when you had to go out with a bucket of wallpaper paste and fly post walls, but you did it anyway because it was fun. Figuring the best place to post, mixing up the paste, designing the fliers. Take pleasure in the process: the result is a bonus.
3. Focus on what YOU are doing. There were hundreds of DIY gigs going on in cities all around the country. Sometimes there’d even be two in my small town. But I never worried about how people were promoting their gigs; I worried about promoting my own.
4. Find a niche. I don’t like Ed Sheeran’s music. I don’t buy his records. I don’t go to his gigs. He doesn’t mind. He’s focusing on his niche. I do like the band Tortoise. I buy their records. I go to their gigs. That’s my niche.
5. Share things. Sharing amps was a given at a DIY gig. It allowed the young band with small amps to play louder. If you’ve got a big following, it’s good to share it with the new guys.
6. You can learn more from Ian Mackaye about building a loyal following than you can from Charles Saatchi. So, go find out who Ian Mackaye is.
7. Ian Mackaye is also cool. Saatchi…not so much anymore.
8. People seek out good stuff. We’d drive all the way to record shops in cities miles away to find good, new music we didn’t know about. Mass availability hasn’t changed that…you just don’t need to drive. People still seek quality in the quantity. Provide it for them.
9. Identify your end game. For local gigs we wanted lots of people to come out so we’d sell more booze for the pub and get the room for free. So, we made tickets cheap. But we made our money selling the t-shirts and records with a higher mark up.
10. Be resourceful. I’m not suggesting you should steal, but I’d often run a few prints of posters from the photocopier of the office job I was working at the time.
11. Don’t steal. OK. Just to clarify: don’t steal. Maybe hire a professional printer if you need posters. But, er, it’s your call.
12. Use other people’s knowledge. If you’ve got a friend who knows how to do something you don’t, speak to them and get them involved if you can. Don’t try to do it all yourself.
13. Ignore people who judge you. We dressed weird. We listened to weird music. We were different. Others didn’t like that. Screw them. Do you own thing. Always.
14. Don’t judge others. Do unto others yada, yada…you know how it works.
15. Spare time is your time. I’d play gigs in a town three hours outside of our town and get back at 2am in morning. But I’d be at my desk on time at the office job I had that day. Make the most of the time you’re not working for someone else to work for yourself.
16. Being different is cool. It just is.
17. Play to your own strengths. I was always good at calling up bands and convincing them to play our small town. My friend was good at designing posters. We found our strengths and stuck to them.
18. Tweak things. Geoff Farina of the great Chicago band Karate got his unique, smooth guitar sound modifying the amplifiers he used. What existing idea can you tweak and make your own?
19. Hipsters are silly. DIY punk gig or creative brainstorming session...hipsters always look silly.
20. Networking is one of the most powerful tools. At each gig we’d meet new people. By meeting those new people, we’d be get more gigs. And on and on and on...
21. Traveling to Norwich is a bugger. But it’s really nice when you get there.
22. Scarcity works universally. Limited edition yellow vinyl? Only 500 copies? Yes, please! But Glenn, you have it on CD and iTunes? Ruth, it’s yellow and it’s a limited edition!!!
23. When you’re starting out, reciprocity is key. You put my band on in your town and I’ll put your band on in my town. Two gigs. Two happy bands. You run my ad and I’ll run your ad. Both ads get seen by more people. Two happy advertisers.
24. When you’re established, reciprocity is key. Just because you’re a bit more popular now and can start picking and choosing gigs doesn’t mean you should stop returning the favour. Help people and they’ll help you.
25. Personal, handwritten notes work. A friend of mine has a scrappy letter I wrote decades ago asking a band to play a gig. I can’t remember sending it, but apparently it worked.
26. You always remember things being better in your day. Bands. Advertising. Get over it.
27. Headliners/Headlines. It’s what everyone’s there to see. But when people connect with something further down the bill/copy, it makes for a much stronger and longer lasting connection.
28. Queues are great adverts. When you’d get to a gig and there’s a big queue it’d ratchet up the anticipation. The social proof of seeing others wanting to consume the same thing as you is a powerful tool.
29. Converse sneakers are comfortable. Wore them then. Wear them now. How’d you get sponsored for this type of thing? Seriously. Help me out here.
30. The 40% rule. Invariably only 40% of people who say they’re coming to a gig/event actually come to the event. Oversell accordingly.
31. No one ever thinks about postage costs. Sending interesting things in the mail always costs more than you think.
32. Read whenever you can. Waiting to sound check. Stuck in a van on the way to a gig. Waiting for your ad copy to be reviewed. When you can’t find the inspiration to write. While your client murders what you did write. Just read as often as you can.
33. Read some more. Seriously. It’s really good for you. In fact, pre-order and read this when it’s published.
34. Platforms change, the customer doesn’t. I remember fanzines. I remember chat rooms. I remember Friendster. I remember MySpace. I remember Facebook. I remember Twitter. I remember Instagram. I’ve continued to buy Fugazi records through them all.
35. Create stuff you want to share. I never had a problem promoting DIY gigs because I believed in them. These days, I don’t have a problem promoting the businesses I write for because I believe in them too. It’s a noisy world already; don’t create stuff you don’t want to share.
36. Have fun. You make your own rules to live by, so make sure you allow for some fun.
37. Authenticity is everything. Bands in the DIY scene always tended to be somewhat flawed on a technical musicianship level, but when they played with emotion and the delivery was genuine, the gig would always go off with a bang. Good advertising is the same.
And there you have it…37 (kind of) life lessons from my DIY punk youth. I hope you found them useful and please do take the advice of point No.5 and share this post if you did.
Also, if you enjoyed this piece, you’re sure to enjoy my book about copywriting, which is called The Art of the Click. It’s published by Harriman House and you can pre-order a copy on Amazon here.