Op-Ed: Too Much Love for DIY Spaces

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DIY venues are the heart of most underground music scenes. Basement shows become safe havens, empty warehouses become a place to let loose, and dive bar side rooms become a meeting of the minds.

Places like these bring artists of all sorts together and create a sense of community.

However, running a DIY space can be quite the catch-22–at least in New York City. You open the business hoping it becomes popular; however, once it does, NYC makes it impossible to stay open. I’m not trying to sound pessimistic–I’m just going off the facts and what I’ve witnessed.

Take the DIY venues Death By Audio (DBA) and Glasslands. These places were some of the main arteries feeding into the heart of the NYC underground music scene. Some musicians who’ve played there or even got their start there include Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, Future Islands, Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, TV on The Radio, Kimya Dawson, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bon Iver, Dirty Projectors, MGMT, and Vampire Weekend, to name a few. The impressive name-dropping could go on and on, and that’s from only two out of the main fallen DIY venues!

Sadly, these iconic places were bought out by the supposedly “hip” media company, Vice. I found that rather ironic, since Vice tries to convey an attitude that they are a part of the movement or even spearheading the underground/indie lifestyle. Maybe they didn’t realize, but when they bought out Glasslands and DBA, they ended a very important era to the NYC music scene–making them more like the death of this movement…but that’s neither here nor there. It’s not only Vice, it’s New York in general.

“Running a DIY space can be quite the catch-22—at least in New York City. You open the business hoping it becomes popular; however, once it does, NYC makes it impossible to stay open.”

Art communities are extremely desirable–you can see this throughout history. People witness the art that is being produced from a certain area and they want to be a part of it. Who can blame them? An example of this can be found with the “Lost Generation” of the 1920s. Artists like Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalì, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein all moved to Paris, France. Once people started to experience what these people were producing from there, they too started to move to France.

This is not a new phenomena, and definitely not new to NYC. However, when this happens, things begin to change, and not always for the good.

Usually, the first thing to change is rent. Currently rent prices in NYC are exceedingly unrealistic for struggling artists and musicians to afford. The scene has already mostly been pushed out of Manhattan due to affordability, and keeps getting pushed further and further away. That’s why you hear about Brooklyn blowing up in population and desirability.

Said artists and musicians are usually the ones to put these DIY venues on, thus they do not have a lot of money. So it’s only natural for them to choose a neighborhood that provides cheap rent.

Neighborhoods like Bushwick in Brooklyn used to be wildly cheap–so, of course, artists flocked to it. Though you can still find some cheap gems in the area, it’s growing and growing and now rent prices are soaring.

Let’s take, for instance, the venue Palisades. It was located on the border of Bushwick and Bed-Stuy in, Brooklyn off of the Mrtyle-Broadway J and M train stop (also where DIY venue Market Hotel is located–and we’ll talk about that venue later on). It was a huge staple in the NYC music scene, and was even the inspiration for a New Yorker cover.

Sadly, Palisades had to close its doors just this past summer due to building code violations. The management didn’t comment on the closure other than they were grateful for the outreach of the community, so the entire story isn’t quiet clear.

What is clear is that this is not the first time DIY venues have been slapped by the law and had to shut down.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Now, let’s talk about one of my favorite DIY venues, Market Hotel.

Located under the track of the J/M/Z, it gives this grungy vibe and even grittier look while the trains pass by through the window behind the stage while the bands are up their giving it their all. It first opened in the late 2000s, but had to shut its doors due to liquor license issues. However, it was recently resurrected and has already had sold out and packed shows with musicians like Jeff the Brotherhood, Parquet Courts, Shannon & The Clams, and Deerhoof, to name a few.

One of their main goals is to be extremely involved with their community and make it a better place—they have held council meetings, local market events, and have daytime community events. Even with all their community services, the cops have still come after them. Just because they’ve been through the ropes once, doesn’t mean it’s going to be any easier for this DIY space.

Just last month the police sprung a raid on them that the Observer called a “gotcha” raid.

The owner of Market Hotel, Todd Patrick, talked to the Observer and conveyed an appreciation for the police and did not want to paint them in a bad light, even though the venue’s loyal underground music community was up in arms about the ordeal.

Long story short, the venue was denied their temporary liquor license for the night, and only an hour or two after being notified of the denial, the cops showed up and shut them down for having booze without a license—basically, they hardly gave them time to even remove the alcohol. Then, to add salt to the wound, the police involved tweeted about the raid.

“That might be an elephant in the room—it certainly seems designed to send a very strong message to us, or possibly to influence how we are perceived…” Patrick told the Observer about the raid. Though the raid may have put a damper on Market Hotel, they haven’t given up and are planning on reopening soon.

There are also DIY venues like Shea Stadium, Alphaville, The Gateway, and The Glove that are still going strong. However, I’m nervous for even mentioning their names, because I don’t want to lose them too. What I’ve learned from observing the ups and downs of a DIY venue is that there has to be a certain level of popularity kept—it should be just popular enough to attract a crowd and help develop the scene, but not so popular that it catches the city’s attention.