It’s a loaded acronym, especially in music. Imagining a D.I.Y. music scene conjures images of unknown, underappreciated musicians, making self-produced music that is likely less polished, and definitely less concerned with mainstream aesthetics or commercial appeal. Conceptually, it has an underdog-type quality. In that way it seems sort of, well, honorable.
D.I.Y. will always play a part in any independent music scene; Utah Valley is no different. But the local scene’s growth — its increased notoriety and local cultural pervasiveness — begs the question: Can D.I.Y. still thrive in Provo? Can it withstand the increased attention that more polished, pop-oriented music has gotten here?
The Herald spoke with a handful of local musicians and venue owners — people who, for various reasons, have a front-row seat in witnessing that struggle. Their comments revealed a music scene that wants to champion a diverse range of music, but in some ways is failing to do so.
When D.I.Y. starts to die
The local D.I.Y. scene has witnessed a considerable shift in recent years. Spaces where these musicians once thrived — house shows, smaller local venues — have either diminished or vanished altogether.
“I’ve noticed there are a lot fewer D.I.Y. spaces that are not venues, for bands to play,” said Landon Young, a multi-instrumentalist who grew up in Provo and plays in a variety of local bands. “Maybe those shows are going on, but as far as I know, there isn’t that sort of D.I.Y./punk presence that used to exist in this town. And as a result, that kind of funnels the bands to the downtown venues.”
Young referenced Black Pyramid and The Compound, two local houses that doubled as D.I.Y. venues. The folks who made those shows happen have gone elsewhere.
“People that are in their 20s in Provo can often do the house show thing,” Young said. “But a lot of times people just move, and they kind of take it with them.”
Corey Fox and his venue, Velour Live Music Gallery in Provo, have fared far better than these defunct concert spaces, consistently drawing max capacity crowds at what has become the music scene’s epicenter. Despite his success, Fox is aware of how fragile the local scene can still be.
“In larger cities there are more venues and more possibilities to find niche scenes,” Fox said in an email. “In a small town like Provo, a venue … closing can drastically affect an entire genre of music.”
Fighting for recognition
Two doors down from Velour, another venue has, almost constantly, struggled to stay open. Debby Phillips and Darcie Roy began running Muse Music Café in 2012. In so doing, they inherited a number of obstacles. Phillips and Roy don’t own the space — the owners don’t want to sell, feeling the space will be more valuable once the Provo City Center Temple is completed. (“If we could purchase this building … it could save us anywhere from $400-$700 dollars a month,” Philips said.) Fox, by contrast, owns the space where Velour resides.
In addition, Muse’s proximity to Velour can be problematic: On Friday and Saturday nights it’s not uncommon to see a line down the street for a Velour show, with only a few people in Muse. Part of that is Muse’s dark, small, somewhat uninviting concert space, tucked away behind a larger café area. Part of it is the acts that are playing. While Velour usually books prominent local acts for weekend shows, Muse books smaller touring bands or more obscure local musicians. It’s an uphill battle.
“If the scene is focused in one direction, that’s great, and those are talented musicians. But there’s also this other stuff that deserves to be heard,” Phillips said. “So the challenge becomes how do we get people to hear that? How do we get people to broaden their horizons and see a band they’ve never seen before? Or do we really have to start classifying genres so people can get a sense of what type of show it’s going to be? And neither Darcie nor I like that idea.”
Another local venue, The Stereo Room, recently opened in Orem. The venue’s November and December concerts feature a wide mix of local musicians, many of whom often headline Velour. It’s a promising start, though it’s still much too early to predict its future impact.
Musician Jared Cisneros, who plays in local band Lake Island, frequently plays shows at Velour and runs sound at Muse. As such, he’s gotten a good glimpse at how things tend to run at both venues.
“I don’t mean this in a negative way, but (Velour is) very specific about what they promote,” he said. “They have a lot of say. I don’t know about Muse.”
Andy Andersen, frontman for local glam-punk outfit The Ladells, has some pretty strong feelings about D.I.Y.’s importance. Watching The Ladells perform is, simply put, a real trip. Andersen's stage persona — a character named Max Punck — is volatile and seemingly manic: He’ll often venture into the crowd with a large hammer, cover his eyes, then start swinging. (Don’t worry, he hasn’t hurt anyone.) The Ladells are subversive, but also tongue-in-cheek, and surprisingly catchy. People who see The Ladells in concert tend to become fans pretty quickly.
Getting traction locally, though, hasn’t been easy. Andersen thinks it isn’t necessarily an issue with the music.
“There’s a lot of ‘big fish in a small pond’ kind of arrogance that I perceive in the scene,” Andersen said calmly. “And our biggest challenge is wanting to collaborate with people, wanting to do things and get our voice out there, and people telling us, ‘No, if you want to do that, you have to do it this, this and this way, and that’s just the way it works.’ Maybe it’s naïve of me, but I refuse to believe that I have to do things the way these people are telling me I have to do them, in order to make music and reach people.
“I’m no stranger to the history of 20th century popular music, and my perception is that people made a lot of noise and reached a lot of people because they thought outside the box,” he continued. “And there’s a lot of thinking inside the box going on in the scene here.”
Andersen said he thinks the scene needs to embrace more “D.I.Y. tactics” — simply because a successful local establishment like Velour, “through no fault of their own; they have to pick and choose,” will inevitably “silence as many voices as they give voice to.”
Since starting his own recording studio in October 2013, Stephen Cope has changed his tune about D.I.Y. music. His production work with Bat Manors, a local D.I.Y.-type band, has gotten national attention on various national music blogs, and one of its songs is scheduled to be on the CBS drama “Elementary.” Cope has also recorded countless artists whose music is more pop-centric.
“I used to hold a certain aesthetic at a higher value than mainstream aesthetics, but realistically, neither has any more intrinsic value,” Cope explained. “And seeing how each artist holds their aesthetic to be the one true aesthetic, it’s all fine with me.”
The D.I.Y. concept itself, he said, may need to be redefined. He considers every local act a D.I.Y. endeavor, since they operate outside of major music labels and are orchestrating every step of the process, from writing to recording to promotion. But he did agree that local musicians tend to embrace rather than reject mainstream aesthetics — because the larger local community has a general “fear of risk” and “tendency towards safety.”
That being said, Cope observed that local artists — specifically ones who take more musical risks — are often their own worst enemy.
“I think it’s a personality thing, too, and a cynicism of being jaded with branding and marketing,” he said. “So maybe there’s an uphill battle that is more internal than external — not wanting to ‘play the game’ in a traditional sense.
“The people change, the names change, and the music changes," he continued, “but in general I think it’ll always have that dichotomy — people embracing a mainstream aesthetic and people rejecting it.”
Provo D.I.Y.'s future
Of course, Provo doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The elements that breed a successful national act aren’t exclusive to a national audience. Those elements still play out on a local level.
“In general, if you are an artist that writes accessible songs with a memorable hook, you will likely appeal to a broader audience than the guy who wears the space helmet and bangs on a pan,” Corey Fox said.
Velour’s prominence, and in many ways its dominance, makes Fox an easy target for artists who aren’t getting ideal exposure. Many of those interviewed, however, defended Fox, saying musicians have unrealistic expectations of him as some kind of all-powerful gatekeeper. Sure, other venues may be struggling or disappearing, but Fox doesn’t intend to satisfy every niche left unfilled by these closures.
“There is a misconception by a lot of people that every venue has to book every type of music. That's not really true anywhere,” he said. “Just like radio stations, venues choose their format and book bands that fit their purposes and vision.”
Will other local music venues stay open? Will D.I.Y. coexist with more traditional, more accessible music? Will it ever thrive here? The answer isn’t very clear.
“I think there is some divisiveness in the scene,” Debby Phillips said. “Provo is a close-knit community, and the music scene is full of socially awkward people. So that makes everything take a little longer than it would in another environment.
“I think that the more genres we can have in the community, the better,” she continued. “Because I think that musicians can get stagnant, especially in a community that’s small in respects to other big cities. I really would like to see it mesh more. That’s my dream for the Provo scene, to have it be more united as a community.”