By Samantha Cornwell
Being a weird music fan in this day and age can be a pretty solitary experience. There may be a strong network of people out there who share your tastes, but it’s likely that a lot of your music consumption takes place in front of the computer. That's where DIY venues come in. If you’re lucky enough to live in or around a large urban center, you probably know at least a handful of these semi-legal concert spaces, ranging from houses that host the occasional live show to brick-and-mortar art galleries that regularly program evenings of “out there” sounds. Unlike more profit-oriented venues, these spaces are usually willing to book acts that are unknown, or just absurd. For a suggested donation that usually falls between zero and ten dollars, you can hear some incredible music and have face-to-face contact with other weird music fans in your town.
In a city like Los Angeles, where it's easy to go a day without seeing more than your apartment, car, or place of work, this is not to be taken for granted. Many of the people floating around in these spaces are involved in some sort of creative endeavor, and when they are able to cross paths, collaborations can blossom. For some, iniatiion into LA DIY can amount to moving from consumption to action. Many bands are nurtured by these venues, and many patrons are inspired to embark on their own projects as a result of the creatively open atmosphere.
This year, the DIY music community of Los Angeles has suffered some serious blows. In the Spring, Echo Park artist-run gallery and venue L’KEG closed after a fire. Synchronicity Space-- one of the city's most active music and art spaces-- closed a few months later due to mounting expenses, and has yet to find an adequate new home. But for many Angelinos, the breaking point came early last month, when the LAPD put a stop to live music at Echo Park's Echo Curio, which had been hosting events nearly every night in the past four years. “We were inspired by Grant and Justin at Echo Curio, and that is the main reason we started our own space,” Synchronicity co-founder Katie Vonderheide told Altered Zones. Although Echo Curio was also an art gallery, much of its income came from shows. Unable to proceed, its founders announced their intention to retire the venue by the end of 2010.
There has been much speculation as to why the Vice Squad chose this moment to crack down on Echo Curio. Up until this Summer, promoters were able to host shows virtually without incident. The tide shifted this August, when the police issued them a citation for allowing drinking in the venue. "We never served alcohol, but we did allow patrons to bring in their own and place them in a brown bag if they went outside," said co-founder Justin McInteer. Since most of Echo Curio's shows were all-ages, there may have been some concern over underage drinking. According McInteer, the citation was dismissed out of court, and from that point forward no alcohol consumption was allowed.
There are a few theories floating around as to what lead to that police visit-- and the ones that followed. According to McInteer, “all police action usually starts with complaints; those could have been from neighbors or shop owners.” Although it was situated in a lively pocket of neighborhood nightlife, directly on Sunset Blvd., it’s possible that the crackdown began with an ordinary noise complaint. There is also a rumor that these calls came from the owners of some of the more traditional venues around town. Such suspicions are hard corroborate; but in a city where your favorite taco truck can disappear after complaints from local eateries, it’s easy see why they might gain popularity.
It's also no secret that the State and the City are facing a significant budget crisis right now. McInteer speculated that the shut-down “could be the city catching up on outstanding permits to catch a little extra dough in a time of economic troubles.” And many DIY venues operate on a semi-legal basis. While they don’t set out to oppose the law, many of them open their doors without going through the red tape needed to prevent legal troubles. According to co-founder Grant Capes, Echo Curio's downfall had mainly to do with “the vice division [of the LAPD], and also the permit division," which was recently re-structured. After the police put an end to the live music, Capes and McInteer were told that they needed a Cabaret License in order to host shows. When they went through the steps to obtain the license, they were told that the building was zoned for retail, making them ineligible. There was some talk of re-zoning, but that would have required a considerable amount of construction and money. Rather than go through that process, they decided to call it a day.
Although it’s advisable to take the necessary legal steps to assure the security of any business venture, we must question whether existing laws serve the public. While a city like Los Angeles offers many options for live music, DIY spaces offer patrons a sense of community that is becoming increasingly hard to come by. “Businesses like the Echo Curio that provide an outlet for so many artists, operating on their own time and money while the state slices funding for the arts, should deserve a break,” said Katie Vonderheide. "Maybe that break could be a specific kind of license.”
Echo Curio (img credit= Classical Geek Theater)
“No one is getting into this looking to get rich,” added Sync Space co-founder Chris Gere. When he and Vonderheide started Sync Space, they made sure to buy some insurance, get incorporated, and acquire a business license. These measures gave their business a sense of security that DIY spaces usually don't have. Vonderheide raises an important point in saying that businesses operating out-of-pocket, and on a not-for profit basis, should be treated sympathetically: these places provide quality of life in a sprawling city that is experiencing a tough economy. If the city wishes to maintain a reputation as a place that is hospitable to artists working outside of the mainstream film and music industries, it should acknowledge the importance of these spaces.
To many Angelino DIY-ers, the outlook is pretty grim. But if 2010 spelled a death sentence for many DIY venues, the network of artists, musicians, and impassioned individuals that spawned them remains alive and well. According to Smell founder Jim Smith, who has managed to keep the largely volunteer-run venue afloat for a whopping twelve years, local support is paramount to survival. “We’ve been through periods too where we had issues with the city,” Smith said. “It was really the fact that the community rallied around us and supported us that really helped.” The Smell, arguably the city's most famous DIY venue, is located in a historically desolate stretch of Downtown Los Angeles, and has had a very strict no-alcohol policy for the majority of its tenure. This has largely to do with The Smell's emphasis on all-ages entertainment.
Local musician and Leaving Records head matthewdavid went one step further, seeing the events of this year as a “call to action". “More Folks need to expand upon the idea that ANYWHERE can be a venue”, he told us. And although we have yet to hear of a show in a “donut shop” or a “Laundromat”, as matthewdavid recommended, there has been a surge of house shows recently. A few new venues have also cropped up. The Bacchus, formerly a brothel, is starting to host live music on a regular basis. And this past Sunday, a space called Public Fiction, recently founded by RISD graduate Lauren Mackler, hosted a show with Lucky Dragons and The Urxed. Los Angeles native Matt Kruglinski recalls an era when shows would regularly occur in unconventional locations such as the abandoned zoo in Griffifth Park, and video stores in strip malls. This may not be the best time for LA’s DIY music scene, but the possibilities are endless.