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DIY punk is red, white and blue

Daniel Makagon grew up in basements of punk shows and has decades of experience in the underground world of DIY punk. Makagon is an associate professor in DePaul’s College of Communication where he teaches counterculture, artistic initiative and active engagement with media. (DePaul University/Deanna Williams)
CHICAGO — The year was 1991 and the city was Los Angeles, and Daniel Makagon was broadcasting from KXLU, the student radio station at Loyola Marymount University. Sitting with him in the studio waiting for an interview were Krist Novoselic, Dave Grohl and Kurt Cobain. They were still a burgeoning band in the music scene, and they had brought a cassette with them to promote an upcoming album. Makagon played the tape, and in that pivotal moment became the first person to ever play Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the radio.

“That was an interesting turning point for alternative music, because all around the country, suddenly everyone was looking for the next Nirvana,” said Makagon, but his involvement in the scene goes a lot further back than 1991. A punk devotee since he was 10 years old, Makagon understood at an early age that punk wasn’t just music, but a movement. He brought that expertise with him to DePaul University’s College of Communication when he began teaching in 2005.

ow an associate professor of intercultural communication, Makagon teaches several classes about DIY — do-it-yourself — music culture and production. Makagon draws upon his experience in the music scene and industry, from both the mainstream corporate side and independent underground side, to add practical elements to his lessons.

DIY spirit ingrained in US culture

Makagon believes that DIY is worth studying because of how deeply ingrained in our society it is. “This is a country founded by folks who felt like they were ostracized, and they came here to live a different life. Historically, there’s this sense that we can do these things ourselves,” he said. He compared the sentiment surrounding DIY to those of alternative narratives like Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” which have been almost mythologized in American culture for their inspiring stories of individualism exploration.

“We can look throughout history at various forms of alternative or underground cultural movements, and there’s an attraction to people who want to live outside the mainstream normal bubble,” said Makagon. “We’re attracted to these people, the rebels with or without causes, and we can either live vicariously through them, or we can try to incorporate some of these models shown to us into our own lives. The idea that you can be free in a way, that becomes a very enticing narrative.”

However, you don’t need to be Sal Paradise to benefit from doing things yourself. According to Makagon, DIY is not about any one particular scene or movement. At its core, DIY is about not just living in, but communicating with the culture of one’s society. Makagon hopes that his classes can teach DePaul students about how they can make that kind of self-started exchange.

“I teach a class about underground music, and at the end of it, I’m not necessarily interested in my students being converted to big fans of DIY music,” he said. “I’m interested in them understanding how independent production and consumption of something happens, and what that means for us as consumers and as citizens and as people who can make culture versus strictly consuming culture. It’s about how to take initiative, and why that initiative matters.”

The life of a DIY punk professor

Although exposed to punk music since childhood, it was during high school that Makagon took his first real steps into the scene, managing his friends’ alternative bands and getting them shows in Los Angeles punk venues. Then, at Loyola Marymount University as music director for the campus station, KXLU, he had his famous interview with Nirvana. After graduation, he worked for Thirsty Ear, an independent promotion company and record label in New York City, and later moved back to Los Angeles to work as a talent scout for another label’s artists and repertoire division.

After a year and a half back in Los Angeles, Makagon decided to return to school. He earned a Master of Arts from California State University, Northridge, and then a doctorate in Tampa at the University of South Florida, all while catching as many DIY shows as he could.

Now teaching at DePaul, Makagon is thankful for his prior experience in the industry. The time he spent in those jobs, he said, is invaluable as a teacher, especially one with such a focus on DIY culture. “I have this sense of, through my whole life, what alternative music is and what it means, but I also have a deep understanding of how mainstream music practices work, and how these two different kinds of approaches and partnerships can be good and bad for bands,” said Makagon.

DIY book writing

Makagon’s third book, “Underground: The Subterranean Culture of Punk House Shows,” draws upon ethnography, extensive interviews and first-hand knowledge of how DIY and punk have evolved to create a veritable compendium of the DIY touring network presented with unparalleled journalistic depth.

“There’s a range of academics writing about punk,” says Makagon, “but other folks haven’t written about DIY spaces. I have written about a national touring network that exclusively happens in DIY spaces, so it’s the first book to do that.”

Most people are familiar with how mainstream music works, but Makagon hopes that his book can expand people's conceptions about the alternative scene. And though it provides readers with an in-depth account of DIY punk culture and history, Makagon believes that there is still more to write on DIY music in general. His plans for the future include researching independent record stores as well as music photography.


Daniel Makagon

Media Contact:
Jon Cecero​