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Why DIY Venues Are Vital to the Health of the Entire Music Scene

Dangerous Nonsense performs at Glob in 2013.
Dangerous Nonsense performs at Glob in 2013.
Tom Murphy.

The first time I saw Lucky Dragons perform in a "legitimate" venue, it was with No Age on Halloween in 2010 at the Bluebird Theater; prior to that, I had only witnessed Luke Fishbeck and Sara Rara's project perform on the floor of DIY spots like Silent Barn in New York City and here in Denver at Rhinoceropolis. Not so much a band as an interactive performance experience -- the audience is invited to collaborate with Lucky Dragons using its own music and visual art-driven technology -- the L.A.-based duo chose not to use the stage, setting up on the floor of the theater and still inviting the crowd to be a part of the show. Playing a set on the floor is not the norm in terms of performances for a theater venue -- but it is business as usual for warehouse shows.

Last week, I learned that a row of Denver warehouses that formerly served as show spaces was being torn down. However temporary most DIY spots are meant to be, it is still frustrating to think that as Denver grows, it is inevitable that venues like these may be harder and harder to find. But they shouldn't be -- because in order for music and art scenes to thrive, it is imperative for venues of all sizes, shapes, philosophies and varying levels of legitimacy to exist, very much including non-traditional, often stage-free DIY venues.

See also: DIY or die: Why Denver needs under-the-radar, all-ages arts spaces

Rainbow Sugar performing at notorious Denver DIY venue, Monkey Mania, in 2001.
Rainbow Sugar performing at notorious Denver DIY venue, Monkey Mania, in 2001.
Tom Murphy

When looking at the function of warehouses spaces (Note that for the sake of this conversation, when I say warehouses or DIY spaces, I mean any place that operates outside the usual live music venue industry, be it a warehouse, store front, garage, art gallery, house, etc.) within the scope of a local music community, it is important to see them for what they are -- places for often non-traditional entertainment events to unfold and safe spaces for people to practice, create and perform their art.

Because they are often unlicensed and essentially under-the-radar, there is a certain creative freedom that comes along with a warehouse show. Things get broken, climbed on and lit on fire; miniature parades and puppet shows might go down the same night that a grindcore band plays. There are generally no rules -- other than "don't be a dick" -- at these kinds of spaces, lending to the notion that artists can take their art to a level a traditional venue wouldn't allow.

Fissure Mystic at Monkey Mania.
Fissure Mystic at Monkey Mania.
Monkey Mania Facebook page.

Warehouses also serve as springboards for acts as they grow -- a band like No Age came out of the DIY scene in L.A. and toured at that level for quite a while before becoming big enough for a booking agent who could place the band at larger venues the Bluebird. At the warehouse show level, bands are still booking themselves by making connections with other bands and people in other cities who run DIY spots.

That's where the community aspect of warehouses is key -- there are no promoters in these situations. There are no venue operators or booking agents. There are bands and artists who live or play at their "home" warehouse venue, as well as other people in the DIY community who act as bookers but usually don't make any money doing it. Then, once a band surpasses that DIY level -- whether because it has been signed to a larger label or moved to a level where it can afford a manager or booking agent or whatever the case may be -- the band moves on to playing "legitimate" venues.

Cougarpants playing at the Dikeou Collection, 2011.
Cougarpants playing at the Dikeou Collection, 2011.
Tom Murphy.

But is important to see that it was the warehouse venues across the country that gave these bands a place to play first. It's almost as if warehouses are the ones "taking chances" on unknown bands initially, before larger venues choose to take a financial risk. That works because the economics of warehouse shows are different -- there are no guarantees or pre-sale tickets. What is made at the door the night of a show generally goes directly to the touring bands and depending on how much was made, some may go to the opening local bands or the venue. This also means that bands may not make enough for a tank of gas to the next town, or they may make several hundred bucks.

Door prices at DIY spaces are suggested donations, which is a way to collect money at the door for bands and offer the community a sliding scale price (based on the idea that someone who can pay $10 will and someone who can't pay anything can still see the same show.) It is also the way DIY shows stay legal, because they are not a business taking in money, only at-will donations.

These spaces help the entire music scene -- bands get a chance to build an audience in their city or on the road through their own relationships with the people and bands who help them book at a DIY venue. Then, larger venues use this complimenting relationship as a feeder to find underground bands or figure out what size venue is best to book a band that may be new to them.

Bianca Mikahn performs with Lady Wu-Tang at Glob in 2012.
Bianca Mikahn performs with Lady Wu-Tang at Glob in 2012.
Titwrench Facebook page.

Don't get me wrong -- there can be downsides to that cycle, for sure. Personally, I hate when a band makes a transition out of the DIY circuit and into the legitimate circuit and is then booked at a 21-and-up venue, cutting off certain fans. Younger bands need alternatives to bars so they can play somewhere their underage friends can also go to.

There is often a misconception that warehouse spaces are just unsupervised places where kids go to party and get fucked up. But kids will get fucked up when and if they want to, regardless of the venue. This is not something that warehouse spaces openly condone. And from personal experience, I've seen twice as many teenage girls throwing up in the bathroom at the Ogden Theatre at a Girl Talk show than I have at any show at Rhinoceropolis, ever. The culture of the party and its relationship to art and music do not discriminate based on the legality of a venue.

Sonic Youth at Monkey Mania.
Sonic Youth at Monkey Mania.
Monkey Mania Facebook page.

I also often see young kids being thrown out of shows at larger, legitimate venues when this kind of behavior escalates. At a DIY venue, yes, you may be get asked to leave if you are being an obnoxious jerk, but if you've consumed too much alcohol or molly or whatever, chances are you can crash on a couch somewhere at the space and get yourself together. I'd much rather see a kid who has partied a little too hard getting some R&R on a couch in a warehouse than slumped over on the curb outside of a venue. This is not to say it is at all the venue's responsibility, nor do DIY venues invite this kind of rescuing; I'm just saying the environments can be very different.

Warehouses can also act as places for bands to stay -- a key challenge facing newer bands or those on the DIY circuit. If you're lucky, you know people in the cities you are playing on your self-booked tour. But sometimes that's not the case, and if you don't happen to meet a trustworthy-seeming individual at the show you've played, the venue is your next best bet. I am grateful to have slept on many a stranger's floor on tour and the stage at places like the now-defunct Danger Danger Gallery in Philadelphia. Warehouses provide much more than a show space -- they provide a place to connect with people and get rest. Legitimate venues don't do that.

And on the actual art front, warehouses provide the limitless opportunities for musicians, artists and their audiences to get weird, weirder than they might at a traditional venue. I have noticed in talking to people who don't usually go to DIY shows that their trepidation lies in the lack of official-ness of a space. Because there is no sign on the door that says "So-And-So Venue," they might feel uncomfortable about entering. There's also no actual ticket to be purchased, no bar and no conventional stage set-up or seating.

But that might be the best part about warehouse spaces -- you don't know what you are going to get. You are not going to walk into a show and know exactly what is going to happen or know how you are supposed to act. You might actually be made to feel uncomfortable -- in a good way. You might see a band you've never heard of before and fall in love. You might meet someone you would never cross paths with otherwise. You might be inspired to start a band because you met someone to play music with, or the band you came to see sucked and you wanted to make better music. Ultimately, this is what experiencing art is all about, right? Being inspired to do something yourself.

So next time someone invites you to a show at a not-legit spot you've never been to before, go. Who knows, you might even be inspired enough by what you see to start your own warehouse space and provide a place for people of all ages to see, hear or take part in something they've never experienced before.

Former spot of the Unit B and Fallen Skate warehouses in downtown Denver.
Former spot of the Unit B and Fallen Skate warehouses in downtown Denver.
Mike Schleipfer

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