Why DIY? Now More Than Ever, Underground Venues Are Crucial
Last Friday night (December 2), dozens upon dozens of music fans packed into Ghost Ship, an Oakland warehouse-turned-artist-commune, for an evening of dancing and revelry presented by the L.A.-based electronic label 100% Silk. Sometime during the party, a fire broke out, sparking what the New York Times would later call “one of the deadliest structure fires in the United States in the past decade.” By the time firefighters arrived on the scene, the inferno had obliterated the massive two-story building, which had a single pair of exits and lacked a sprinkler system and operable smoke alarms. Thirty-six attendees lost their lives in the blaze, many of them underage.
As investigators, the media and the world at large hustle to piece together the exact cause and timeline of last week’s tragedy, the list of questions — and points of outrage — keeps growing. According to several media reports, Ghost Ship manager Derick Almena lacked many of the permits and safety certifications required of both music venues and places of residence; in other words, the space was illegal. If the city had had its way, there would be no Ghost Ship — and the same can be argued for DIY spaces across the country, many of which occupy similar industrial spaces.
It’s easy — and tempting — to point fingers in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire. Ask anyone who’s ever been involved with or attended a DIY show, however, and you’ll find that the road to establishing a “legitimate” venue is often ridden with financial and bureaucratic obstacles that can frequently render the task unfeasible. More importantly, placing all the blame on the artistic communities who have suffered this loss distracts from their importance as cultural safe havens — not just for musicians and fans, but for young people, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups, especially with gentrification on the rise. Now is the time to cherish DIY communities, not chastise them. Only by working together can we prevent another tragedy from occurring.
This week, CLRVYNT reached out to a group of DIY and “professional" organizers to reflect on the Ghost Ship tragedy, its implications for independent artistic communities as a whole, and where we go from here. Regardless of their background or location, all parties agreed on one thing: Our music, our cities — our very culture — would be nothing without the DIY community.
Amongst the names we spoke to are Todd Patrick, who booked DIY and makeshift spaces for decades, and currently has a legal space with Market Hotel; Ric Leichtung, former booker at 285 Kent and straddler of both worlds for years; Tyler Kane, booker of Aviv and current talent buyer for Brooklyn Bazaar; and Carlos Salas, manager at Market Hotel and DIY booker.
What are the main reasons why you would book something in a DIY venue, as opposed to regular venue?
Ric Leichtung: Well, I think a lot of the best talent in art goes unappreciated for a very long time, so for some bands, legality is a luxury. Which means, if you bring a show to a proper club, there’s financial expectations there; whereas, a DIY venue, it’s more about the music. It doesn’t matter how many people come. It really is about money, unfortunately.
Along those same lines, why is it important to do shows that have access to everyone, and not just those who might frequent bars or are of age?
RL: The live music circuit really relies heavily on bar sales. Meanwhile, I think everyone can agree [that] the time people [are] most excited about music is when they’re not really of legal age to drink. You’re 16, 20, in your shitty town of conservative fucks that vote for Trump, and you wanna go out. All-ages initiatives are incredibly important.
Tyler Kane: The only reason I see for legal venues to abstain from all-ages shows would be liability, and bar sales. Legit shows with talent and guarantees are expensive. No one really gets the reality of, like, "Yeah, you have 300 people in a space for four hours and how much the bar makes in comparison to the rent, paying the staff.” You don't have much money after that. That's not even counting paying the band.
When you were growing up, did you attend all-ages shows? If so, what kind of impact did that have on you?
RL: Tremendous impact on me. I think I was 15 or 16, and my brother took me to see Xiu Xiu at a DIY venue in San Francisco called the Tender Loft. I’d never seen anything like it. Before, I’d only gone to concerts where security guards grope you at the door and everyone is kind of old. Honestly, going to that, looking around, seeing people my age who are there for the music and in a welcoming, unpretentious atmosphere, made a tremendous impact on me. I don’t know why anyone would want to go to any other kind of show.
Carlos Salas: At least for me, coming out of DIY punk, these spaces acted as a community resource for myself and my peers, and artists who may be navigating on the outside of society due to personality, lifestyle choices, or by just being born a certain way. I feel like having these spaces available for those people allows for a subculture that is representative of those people who don't have another space, or who feel less safe in other places.
What are your thoughts on the idea that music is, for a lot of people, a young person's game?
Todd Patrick: The first thing I want to address is the absurdity of the idea that you have to be 21 years old to see music. It seems crazy. I mean, that's about alcohol; it's not about music. And then the other issue is: Why are music spots singled out as a particularly dangerous place for young people to be? Last I checked, they sell alcohol at Yankees games and Mets games, and even at the [Brooklyn] Cyclones [games]. Small sporting events have alcohol, and young people, and grown-ups, and nobody assumes something awful. Last time I checked, baseball, football and basketball games go late into the night sometimes, so it's not just about being after dark. We don't perceive that to be an unsafe situation for our children. The same can be said for Broadway: I just saw a Broadway play two weeks ago, and guess what? They were serving hard liquor, and there were kids there, and the show went to 12:30 that night. There had to be at least 600 people there. Another example: restaurants. Restaurants are open all night; many of them serve alcohol, and all of them have children. It seems odd that we have to protect the purity of our youth in this one environment, but not every other environment they're ever in. We're protective to the point that we're willing to sacrifice the culture altogether.
I think that that's an outgrowth of the culture that's come from this prohibition. A few years ago, I did some shows at this big Chinese buffet in Ridgewood, Queens. I discovered it because I saw some flyers there, and wandered in to see this Ecuadorian Cumbayá event one day. It was truly all-ages. There were people there who were 40 years old, there were people there who were four years old, there were people there who were 90 years old, and they were all enjoying the music together, because it was an expression of who they were as Ecuadorian expats in New York City. The notion that only young people go to concerts — that is an American invention. In my opinion, it's a result of the Spartan-style workload to which most Americans subject themselves, with no time off, no vacations, no personal life. We've created this cultural separation between what young people like and old people like; we argue that it's "inappropriate" for somebody over 40 to even want to see a live band, unless it's something stuffy. That's not the way it is elsewhere: You go to Europe, you see old people at events and it's not creepy. You see young people at events and you aren't like, "Somebody should call their moms." Our culture doesn't have to operate like this. This is a construct that's unhealthy.
What do you gain by doing all-ages shows?
TP: Getting back to exactly why it's important that young people are welcome to that party. Otherwise, you have an entire generation of young people where all they consume is mass culture. All they ever get to do is see Beyoncé (at best) at Madison Square Garden, without having the opportunity to see an artist who's not so different from themselves, just a few years older, performing on a stage. Without that experience, you don't believe that you yourself can express yourself, that you yourself can be a creative person like the performer onstage. Instead, all you ever see is this impossible production of something that's not even a live performance, to be honest with you. I would equate a live performance on a massive arena stage to watching a film about a concert — it's not really being there. It's not really expressing it.
The ancient Greeks didn't have amplification — when people went to see these classic plays, they were in open amphitheaters where people were sitting very far back who couldn't hear the dialogue that well, who couldn't see the actors' interactions with each other. So, what did the Greeks do? They accepted that it wasn't truly reality being represented, and they wore crazy masks on their heads, like bobbleheads, which could be seen from anywhere in the arena. Being in a concert arena is the same thing: When you take a performance held in a small venue and blow it up to a huge size, it becomes a different thing. To deny our young people the opportunity to see music — possibly the most visceral art form we have — in an intimate setting is to abandon our cultural heritage.
There is an intimacy level at a DIY show because there’s no such thing as a green room a lot of times, and a lot of these spaces are one big common area. Do you feel like that’s one of the more formative things as far as understanding art?
RL: Absolutely. I think the space sets the context for the audience, and the artist as well. If you’re seeing an artist where the stage is five, 10 feet high, automatically and structurally, there’s a gap between you, or a rift. I don’t really know how people are able to connect with artists outside of the DIY venue, honestly.
As someone who bridges both worlds, what determines when you turn left and go one way versus the other way?
RL: We basically just ask what the artist wants. When I say "DIY venue," I don’t necessarily mean illegal or dangerous. I mean a place with a community-minded ethos, rather than a club that might be run by music lovers, but they’re like, “Hey, as long as people come in, do whatever you want.” Clubs above the board aren’t all that evil. We always advocate for DIY venues over other ones.
You’ve done a lot of booking of spaces that have since closed. I’m sure you’ve had experienced more than your share of DIY venues that had safety concerns. What are your thoughts on those versus some place you might’ve felt more safe?
RL: I mean, a lot of it is whether it seems safe or doable at all, but making sure you have a lot of the basics. Let’s say you’re in a situation as an organizer with an event you feel is important, and it happens at a DIY space, or it doesn’t. I think you have a responsibility of making sure everything is safe or, to some degree … going to backpedal a little: I think there’s basic things you can do to make sure people are safe. One of those things is fire alarms. Really easy to set them up, every home has them, they cost not a lot of money. Exits, fire exits, fire extinguishers — even if a building isn’t totally up to code, this is all basic stuff. And it’s problematic because it’s unfortunate, because these things feel like major asks of community organizers, because they do cost money. And a lot of these organizers are benevolent folks — they just want to get people together. They don’t want to spend money beyond a fire exit sign or whatever, which I get. Yeah, unfortunately things like Oakland happened, and it's a reminder that we have to stay safe.
To be clear, these things are not limited to DIY spaces. There was a similar fire in Rhode Island not long ago. Have you ever felt more concerned about your safety in a DIY club versus a regular club?
TP: Yes, but only because I've gone to a ton more DIY events. That said, I wouldn't say that DIY venues are necessarily the worst offenders where safety is concerned. I've seen people over-crammed into spaces that are fully legal. I can think of one very well-known club in New York City that regularly exceeds its capacity three or four times over, which ostensibly has all of its licenses, which is within earshot of law enforcement at all times, and yet doesn't seem to have a problem operating in a way that's deeply unsafe. That's what I'd point out to anyone arguing we need to shut all these warehouses down: You have a lot more to shut down than just the warehouses.
I think we need to start looking at what we can do to encourage people to follow common-sense safety procedures. One would be educating people, and the other would be getting rid of this fucking zero-tolerance bullshit. Stop thinking that a place can't exist if they have anything that the city might have a problem with. The city has regulations on how high your toilet can be, the height and placement of the handles on your doors — pathetic bullshit that weighs it down and makes it difficult for people to operate a business.
That's not to say that these regulations don't stem from good intentions, or that they don't have good results at times; the enforcement, unfortunately, is passed down to self-motivated inspectors who are dealing with a vast palette of ways to give people a hard time, instead of a common-sense reassessment of what the burden is, how we're presenting ourselves, what our goal is. If the goal is to have more places that are safe, then we should look back at the whole thing and stop thinking about this as, "Let's just throw things at the wall and see what sticks, and hope people get scared," which is the approach most cities take, including New York City. The idea being that, if everyone's scared, they'll follow the rules. Actually, that's not what's going on: Some people appear to be following more of them, but you've got a situation where a complete state of compliance is actually prohibitive to almost everybody.
RL: Yes, yes I have. I think the element of danger is often used by people and organizers or whatever because — this sounds very privileged, I guess, but it’s very exciting to go to an illegal warehouse party where it looks like the building is going to fall down. And even though we have to confront that feeling and deem it as something unacceptable, I think people have been focusing on what it takes to make a safe space, in regards to gender and sexuality. But in this case, all the time these DIY venues are just unsafe, and this is the worst possible thing that could’ve happened.
Do you have any other suggestions for promoters or organizers as they move forward, who might be new to dealing with these types of issues?
TP: I remember listening to Townes Van Zandt's Live at the Old Quarter, one of my favorite live records. One of the first things you hear on the recording is them telling you where the venue's soda machines, the cigarette machines and exits are. That's an important thing to tell people. Everybody should know. We're all gathered in a room together, we're all confined — let's know how to get out if we have to for safety.
That's the kind of stuff that could actually save lives. We've got people shutting clubs down because their ice wasn't properly boxed, or some bullshit; people are getting shut down because of horseshit that has nothing to do with safety. Let's actually prioritize it, and use some smart triage to think about what actually constitutes an offense that justifies shuttering a venue.
After all it’s said and done, what nobody wants to hear is that you can follow every sort of rule and people can still die. That's the sad fact — we can't create perfectly safe spaces. That doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make them safer, but we need to move away from just thinking about how every time there's a disaster that somebody was to blame. I'm not saying somebody didn't do something wrong here; only that that line of reasoning exists mainly to satiate our desire for justice — and being draconian, and throwing the book at every space that tries to operate — is not going to be able to prevent this from ever happening again.
What are some things that people might not understand about DIY spaces in regards to safety?
CS: Outside from having the capital to be able to invest money into the infrastructure of a building to meet certain requirements, there's also the whole process of getting the permits approved by the city to even start doing any of that work — which also costs money. So, right from the start, you have to either have access to investors, or other people who have more money than most folks in DIY to contribute in some way or another, or just have it yourself to be able to start putting money into the renovations of your building in order to meet a lot of requirements that come into play even before being able to put a sprinkler system in place.
Also, the resources aren't available for people to learn how to go about following this process. Even after you follow the process and you try to do everything according to the law of a given city, you can just not pass your inspection and then have it all go to waste, and have to start from scratch all over again. That's really difficult in itself, too. It's thousands of dollars for all of this stuff, which goes back to the idea that you need to have some sort of startup capital.
TK: I've had people try to get into sold-out shows, asking, "Hey, can you just let a couple more people in?" And I'd have to bring them outside and explain that I wasn't doing it to be a dick; I'm literally doing it because I'm concerned about safety. I know that this seems like a warehouse you're just hanging out at and nobody gives a shit, but my job's to make sure that everyone's safe in there — that everyone knows where the exits are, that we have fire extinguishers in plain sight.
I think, as a patron, being aware of what's safe and unsafe and speaking up about it is important. If you speak up about it, it will get changed. We have the internet, so everyone has a voice, and as soon as you say it, everyone will fucking see it. It'd be nice if there was more funding for creative spaces and DIY spaces in the city; instead of shutting things down, maybe helping out. I feel like DIY can be a legal venue, as long as you're doing it yourself.
Do you think urban governments' resistance to DIY spaces stems from gentrification and the housing boom, a pushback against arts communities as a whole (for whatever reason), or both?
CS: I definitely think it's a combination of both. This is actually a conversation I was having recently, on how it's such an American thing to not value the arts or musicianship as much as other places. There are all these grants that are available to artists in other countries — Canada, many places in Europe — where governments come in and help open up arts spaces. Just from my experiences touring there, too. You play places over there, and there are above-ground venues almost set up as sanctuaries, which use arts grants issued by a country's government, or the cities themselves.
I do think that gentrification plays a big role. Gentrification also goes hand-in-hand with affordability, and another big issue to think about and discuss is the fact that, as more people move into cities and open their own businesses, they're often set up in a certain way to appeal only to people who can afford those things. Then the neighborhood becomes more unaffordable due to buildings, and so you realize that getting something like a temporary place of assembly permit, which allows you to have people in your building for a period of time that they [the government] grant, is thousands of dollars. And then, to file for this permit, you have to do it through an architecture firm, or contact someone who has the expertise to do that — because you have to submit architecture plans. You have to submit plans for the neighborhood around you, among other things you have to consider that are super complicated. It ends up being a lot easier if you have the money to just to hire an architect who can file the request and help with fees — because it can cost you up to $1,000 just to have a permit. A lot of times, it's kids starting these spaces that are very, very underground, because not a lot of those people have the ability to even consider finding $10,000 to spend on something as simple as the legal right to allow people inside the building.
How will DIY venues manage in the coming weeks, as police departments (ostensibly) devote more time to looking for spaces that are breaking the law?
CS: I would emphasize the fact that DIY is already a very community-based scene, that we can just rely on each other to find the expertise from people who may have the experience — myself, for example, or other people who've tried to work within the confines of all the city limitations and stuff like that. I mean, that's the main reason I wanted to do this interview: to be able to share some of my experiences, so that others can learn about it. One of our greatest strengths as members of the DIY community is that we're able to organize and come together. We care about each other and these spaces.