.The Music Underground

In Oakland, unlicensed DIY spaces have quietly exploded into a thriving music scene.

When the legendary Bay Area experimental band Negativland decided to unveil its new project, NegativWobblyland, to its fans in August, it didn’t try to book a show at an established club like Slim’s or Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. Instead, it decided to play at “Zool,” a space that doesn’t advertise, have a cabaret license, or is known to the general population. Located in an industrial section of West Oakland, the live-work warehouse occasionally hosts live music and only advertises its shows via word of mouth, Facebook, an e-mail list, and judiciously distributed fliers.

“It was lower pressure for us,” explained Negativland’s Mark Hosler, reasoning that the new band is an all-improvised instrumental project using homemade electronic noise-makers. “They’re very silly sounding,” he said of the devices. “It was hilarious and fun.”

Only about fifty people ended up attending the show — far less than would have perhaps showed up to an established club that advertises in mainstream channels. But to Hosler, that wasn’t the point. “It’s kinda cool to do something in an unlikely venue,” he said. “It kinda reminded me of warehouse shows we used to do in the early-Eighties — set up in an art gallery or basement with no stage. But now you have social networking.”

Zool is one of at least seventeen underground warehouses and houses in Oakland right now that host live music — some of them in an apparent violation of city law. While Oakland has always had its share of these spaces, what’s happening now seems to be unprecedented. From interviews with those running them, as well as musicians and bookers involved in the scene — many of whom requested to remain anonymous for fear of legal consequences — it appears that a combination of police disinterest, a thriving music scene with a dearth of legal venues, a surplus of unused industrial spaces, and the advent of social networking has created a perfect environment for underground venues to thrive.

In many cases, bands find these spaces more welcoming and with a lower barrier to entry than a traditional club. After all, DIY venues don’t have the overhead of a legal brick-and-mortar nightclub. And every one of the DIY spaces is all-ages, meaning teens aren’t limited to 924 Gilman or the Oakland Metro to see live music. Most charge low cover fees or ask for donations (about $3-$8), some sell alcohol, and there’s a universally accepted BYOB policy. For fans, it’s a chance to see obscure or local bands in an informal setting.

As a result, on just about any weekend night in Oakland, one can see a show that will not be listed in the Express’ clubs calendar. And it’s not just unknown local bands playing. David Halstead, the director of public relations for the Chicago-based indie label Thrill Jockey Records, said: “All the bands I’ve had come through Oakland have been playing DIY spots it seems.”

This phenomenon also extends way beyond Oakland’s borders. Neil Campau, who runs the website DoDIY.org out of Seattle, says the proliferation of DIY venues is an international movement. His site lists venues throughout the United States and in sixteen countries, from Hungary to Vietnam. “People just like creating their own spaces and environment,” he surmised.

While the DIY trend may not be limited to Oakland, for various reasons the city’s underground scene seems to be having a moment. Some in the music industry say the DIY scene also is helping put Oakland on the cultural map. Moreover, underground spaces offer a much-needed platform, especially for up-and-coming and experimental bands. And even with the recent proliferation of nightclubs and bars in the city, many people say there still aren’t enough venues to accommodate demand.

On the surface, DIY spaces might seem like noisy nuisances, safety hazards, or a missed tax opportunity, but there’s also reason to believe that they could help recharge Oakland’s sagging economy.

It’s about 10 p.m. on a Friday night in early September, and we’re hunting for some music. According to a website that lists local shows, there’s supposed to be some bands playing at a house in West Oakland. We have no idea what kind of music it is, but judging by their names, we guess they’re punk rock.

The house is located in a residential neighborhood, but as we roll by, it’s completely quiet. A couple goes inside and shuts the door behind them. Was it canceled? Did we have the right address? Is it a really small show?

We use our smartphones to go online and find the venue’s Facebook page to verify the address. There’s a status update that says the show has been moved to a new venue, but to get the address we have to call a number. We dial the number and a cryptically recorded message tells us where to go. It’s just a five-minute drive away, located on a busy thoroughfare.

This time, there are people hanging out front smoking. The two-story brick building looks like it might have been an office at one point, or maybe used for some kind of industrial purpose. Now its exterior is graffitied, and bars cover the windows. Bikes are locked up two, three deep on every nearby pole.

As we approach, we feel rather buttoned-up, even though we’re only wearing jeans and hoodies. The majority of the people are young and white, in their twenties, and grungy. A cardboard sign taped to a black curtain inside informs us that the show is a benefit and there’s a $10 donation. We pay a young woman, who throws our money into a shoebox of cash, then draws a geometric design with a Sharpie on the tops of our right hands (presumably so we’ll have in-and-out privileges).

Inside the large, dark, warehouse-like room, about sixty people are either milling about, sitting in chairs near bookshelves, or standing around and talking. A dry-erase board on the wall lists upcoming shows, and a bike rack near the entrance holds a ridiculous amount of bikes, giving the impression that the place is sort of a mini commune. Hanging from a makeshift second-story loft is a sparkly homemade banner that reads: “Since the system won’t surrender let us build popular power/Long live those who struggle.” A couple people sell alcohol from behind a makeshift bar in the kitchen area, pots and pans affixed to the wall.

At about 10:40, an emcee gets onstage and announces that tonight’s show is a benefit for a new anarchist space opening up nearby. Then he introduces a local rapper, who gives a shout-out to Lovelle Mixon over prerecorded tracks. He’s followed by a duo, who rap about various effects of being poor. At one point someone shouts, “Fuck the police.” By 11 p.m., the room is getting crowded.

Despite the absence of security, proper lighting, and emergency exits, there’s a relaxed feeling to the whole thing, as well as a sense of community. You could strike up a conversation with a stranger and it’d feel organic. Everyone seems to respect the space because trashing it would be like destroying your own home.

That’s a common feeling at DIY spaces, whether it’s a low-ceilinged basement in a house or a bigger warehouse show. That said, the experience probably isn’t for everyone. Some venues are pretty run-down, reek of stale beer and cigarettes, and have graffiti everywhere, holes in the walls, and squalid bathroom conditions.

But these aren’t clubs, after all. This is about the music, not making money. They’re about giving bands a chance that otherwise might not have a place to perform.

That’s apparently how DIY venues started in the first place. “It basically started in the Seventies with punks wanting to find a place to play,” explained DoDIY’s Neil Campau. “Bars or venues wouldn’t book their band, or maybe their music was anti-capitalist and they didn’t want to play bars where it’s about making money. People created their own spaces and realized they could do that. … It’s expanded a ton since then.”

In the Bay Area, the early punk scene was nurtured by venues like Berkeley’s 924 Gilman and Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. And while Gilman is still around, a lot of the other local venues eventually closed down. Gradually, warehouses began to fill the void.

It has always cost less to live in Oakland than San Francisco, so it’s natural that artists and musicians would move here. And many of them moved into empty warehouses in places like West and East Oakland (an exception was Burnt Ramen in Richmond). And it wasn’t just punks. The rave scene in the Nineties also facilitated the rise of underground warehouse parties, as did the experimental and noise community. Places like 40th Street Warehouse became a vital outlet for local bands.

But, as is the nature of these spaces, warehouses always came and went. Eventually the cops or the fire marshal would get wind of them and shut them down. Or tenants would move out and the new ones wouldn’t want to host shows. Or it just became too hard to have a bunch of people moshing in your living room.

In the last handful of years, however, the number of DIY warehouse and house shows in Oakland appear to have exploded. Depending on whom you ask, the reasons for this vary. Greg Wilkinson, who plays in the Oakland sludge band Brainoil and who runs Earhammer Studios in West Oakland, where he’s recorded many bands who play the DIY scene, says Oakland has become a “cultural hotbed” in the last year or two.

First, he cites San Francisco’s skyrocketing rent costs, plus the closure of the rehearsal space Downtown Rehearsal, for pushing many musicians and bands across the bay. Second, he notes that the reopening of the Oakland Metro, a large-capacity venue catering to metal (and punk), meant that large touring metal bands were suddenly playing in Oakland for the first time, instead of or in addition to playing the City. “During this point, the demand had outgrown its outlet,” Wilkinson wrote in an e-mail. “The newer acts (touring and local) need to start somewhere where 50 people can watch without paying a high door price to stand in a seemingly large and empty room.”

Not only is there increased demand for more spaces for bands to play, but there is also a larger fanbase, as punk and metal converged in the past decade or so, whereas previously those scenes were fairly separate. Wilkinson said there’s one block in West Oakland where punks have taken over, renting as many as ten houses, which host regular shows.

Often, DIY venues are started by artists and musicians who need space to do their own creative work. Kent (who only wanted to go by his first name) initially signed the lease on his West Oakland warehouse four years ago in order to have a workspace for his electrical contracting company and for the installation and performance art he does. Eventually, Kent, who’s also a musician, started hosting occasional experimental noise shows, but demand for his space began to ramp up in the last year or so, in part, he says, because of the growth of the metal scene. His shows are now almost exclusively metal. “Usually black metal [bands] weren’t interested in performing that much, and they seem to have broken out of that in the last year,” he said. “There’s a lot of great bands.”

Like Kent, Lana Voronina also moved into her warehouse, Zool, out of artistic necessity. “It started three years ago when I came to the Bay Area to be a graduate student at Mills,” she said. “I just needed a remote space that could accommodate music rehearsals at any hour, and an art studio.”

Voronina drove around looking for “For Lease” signs in industrial areas and came upon one in West Oakland. With the cooperation of her landlord, she modified the space, which had been a crane repair facility as well as a coffee roasting plant in its former life, into something legally habitable. “It turned into an events space haphazardly,” Voronina explained. “Because of the community I’m involved in and the musicians I met at Mills, we started hosting events and everyone liked it and it just grew from there.”

Now, Zool hosts two monthly events: Katabatik, which Voronina said features “dark dance electronic music,” and Record Label Records Night, which highlights “experimental, new electronic, sometimes dance-oriented, sometimes ambient” music.

The closure of 21 Grand, earlier this year also created a need for venues to host experimental music. Sharkiface, a musician who lives in and runs a mostly experimental noise venue called Life Changing Ministries (so-called because it occupies a former church), said demand for her space increased after 21 Grand went away. That venue closed after receiving a “cease and desist cabaret activity” notice from the City of Oakland for failing to meet building and fire codes, which would have cost $100,000 to fix.

The notice was part of an effort by the city last year to enforce various permit requirements of bars and clubs. Thus, the cost of running a legitimate club went up, at the same time that the economy has made it harder to get people in the door. Tom Chittock, former manager of the Stork Club, said he had to pay thousands of dollars in fees every year to the city, ASCAP, BMI, and the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. “Every one of these licenses is $1,000 and up,” he said a few months ago, pointing to a bunch of framed licenses on the wall above his bar.

“It’s a bitch doing business here,” agreed Jason Herbers, co-owner of Eli’s Mile High Club. “For three years I tried to get this cabaret permit. It took me thousands of dollars. I had to put in new sound-proofing, I had to have a security plan. I had to deal with all this stuff to prove, hey, we’re responsible business owners.” (He says things have gotten better in the city since Arturo Sanchez, an assistant to Mayor Quan, was put in charge of cabaret licenses.)

Promoters and bookers say the amount of legal red tape necessary to open legit venues, along with having to navigate bureaucratic ineptitude, discourages more entertainment from flourishing in Oakland, while spurring the proliferation of underground spaces.

Take the recent example of the Mission Creek Music and Arts Festival. Originally started in San Francisco, the nonprofit indie fest jumped the bay a few years ago in response to the thriving music scene here. The offshoot, Mission Creek Oakland, booked a month’s worth of shows at various venues in September, and wanted to conclude its festival at Mosswood Park’s amphitheater.

Go to that park on any sunny weekend, and you’ll often find a crowd of people dancing to a DJ set up with a makeshift generator. The organizers of Mission Creek Oakland wanted to book the outdoor space legitimately, but when they went through the official city channels, organizer Kiyomi Tanouye said no one could tell her how much it cost to rent it out. “I called for three weeks and I was, like, ‘Could I please just find out how much it costs?’ And they’re, like, ‘We don’t have the piece of paper.'”

DIY spaces may not be a new phenomenon, but some say that a fundamental change has occurred in Oakland, at least among bands not from here.

And that is that the city is becoming known as a destination for touring bands to play, according to Earhammer Studio’s Greg Wilkinson, thanks to the presence of so many DIY venues. Kent says he gets about five to ten requests a month to host shows, far more than he’s able to accommodate. “We’ve had musicians from all over the world who’ve performed there,” said Zool’s Lana Voronina. “China, Australia, Illinois, Berlin, Maine.”

Brooklyn-based duo Mountains, which is signed to Thrill Jockey, chose to play a DIY venue in Oakland for its first outing to the West Coast. Band member Koen Holtkamp said that his band is increasingly playing nontraditional venues. “We might play a DIY space one night and have that sense of community, and then play a venue or gallery,” he said. “There’s not one place that’s ideal — it’s the variety I like.”

When Mountains does play a DIY space, he said more fans attend because shows at those venues happen infrequently and thus are considered “special occasions” when they do. “There’s a purity to it — people tend to be really excited and happy to have you there,” Holtkamp said. “With DIY venues, because it is a special event and a more personal connection to what’s going on, you have consistently better crowds.”

Established clubs, on the other hand, he said are usually more concerned with their bottom line. They generally book bands based on who’ll draw enough people so they can cover their overhead costs, and view bands as just one of many coming through town.

By their nature, DIY spaces have an anything-goes type of atmosphere. They tend to attract more “underground, esoteric music,” said Holtkamp. And they’re “more malleable,” meaning the sound system and the stage aren’t set in stone, whereas at a regular venue: “there’s the venue, there’s the stage.” “So you can get more creative” at a DIY space, he said. Many years ago at a warehouse show, this reporter witnessed an audience member perform spontaneous oral sex on a singer of a band during its final show. Suffice it to say, that wouldn’t have happened at the Uptown.

“What I like about Oakland is it’s so downtrodden, it’s been so disheveled that literally you can walk down the streets and not be bothered by the cops,” explained Sesar Sanchez, a guitarist in the Chico metal band Cold Blue Mountain, about why his band chose to play a warehouse show. “I like it here. It’s awesome, it’s amazing.”

Indeed, DIY venues have an entrepreneurial spirit about them. At one punk venue in the basement of a house in North Oakland, a hand-drawn cardboard sign on the wall advertises: “Ask about cheap prison tattoos.” A table by the door displayed seven-inch records and cassettes for sale.

It may seem counterintuitive, but bands (at least smaller ones) say they also can make more money at DIY shows because they’re all ages. When Brainoil played the punk warehouse Hazmat a while back, Wilkinson said the venue made a total of $1,600 and only kept 30 percent, whereas traditional venues keep a larger percentage. (Wilkinson said he gave most of the money to the out-of-town bands on the bill.) Kent says he gives bands 60 to 75 percent of the door (he charges between $5 and $8). DIY venue operators can make money by selling alcohol, but most do so for very cheaply and no one prevents folks from bringing in their own booze (or weed, for that matter).

On a Friday night at Hazmat, 37-year-old drummer Damian Talmadge was waiting to perform with his band Paranoid Freak Out. He said he plays Hazmat a couple times a month, in addition to venues like the Elbo Room, Oakland Metro, Thee Parkside, and Burnt Ramen. “For the underground scene, warehouse shows make more money,” he said. “Without them there’d be nothing but mainstream bands.”

But with that open-door policy comes some drawbacks. “In some ways, it makes music shittier because people don’t have to try as hard,” Talmadge said. Later, realizing that perhaps that statement sounded a bit harsh, he qualified it, saying, “It also gives people a chance to get started.”

Some say all these underground spaces are actually balkanizing the music scene, since some venues only book certain types of bands that have very specific or niche audiences. “Oakland isn’t really that big of a music scene but it’s so fragmented into all these genres and scenes,” said Fluorescent Grey, who also books acts at Zool. “But a lot of it has so much in common with each other and we think it’s better to mix it up and challenge people a little bit, take them out of their comfort zone.”

For fans, DIY shows offer a casual, cheaper, and more intimate experience. Many believe that they’re also helping the bands more directly. “Most of the money is going back to supporting their art,” said Oakland resident Brooke Sommerfeldt, 31, who attended a metal festival in West Oakland in September. “It’s a different environment. … I think it’s important for the musicians and people in the scene to have more control. I appreciate that.”

In essence, it’s the vibe that bands and fans seem to appreciate most about DIY spaces. It’s a less stressful and more relaxing environment for the bands, more casual and affordable for the fan, and has an altruistic, community-fostering sense of purpose. But is it all too good to be true?

Unless you know where to look, finding a DIY show in Oakland isn’t that easy. They aren’t exclusive, per se, but organizers make it a point to stay off the radar of the general public. Inviting everyone means inviting trouble, and thus inviting cops, which means no more shows. So venue operators walk the line between maintaining secrecy and generating publicity.

The advent of social networking has made that a whole lot easier, allowing promoters and bands to discretely spread the word about their shows to a select group of people. “It seems really generic to say, but social networking and all that kind of stuff, it’s becoming more accessible,” said DoDIY’s Neil Campau. “When it started out, some houses are really secretive, not necessarily because they don’t want to open their space to all kinds of people but more because they’re worried about getting shut down.”

Campau says the best way to avoid getting shut down is for venue operators to “have a relationship with their neighbors” and tell them “what they’re doing and what will be happening and be really clear with that. If cops or city officials get called, it’s usually because of neighbors.” Some venues might choose to only have acoustic shows as to lessen noise complaints.

The decision to sell alcohol raises the risk of a venue getting shut down, says Campau, yet he estimates that about half of the DIY spaces do so. “Obviously there’s gonna be more problems if you have alcohol, if you provide alcohol to minors,” he said. “If you don’t have alcohol it would help you probably. It’s really important to realize that you’re not running a business and so most spaces … [are] taking money at the door or passing around a jar to pay for the performers’ gas. Almost always, it’s a suggested donation, which goes with the vibe of everything that no one’s turned away. Also it helps you get around a loophole as far as laws go.”

Just how illegal are these spaces? According to Oakland city ordinance, a cabaret includes “any place where the general public is admitted, for a fee, entertainment is provided, and alcohol is served. A place that does not charge for admission but where the general public is admitted, alcohol is served, dancing is permitted, and the venue operates past 11:00 p.m. shall also be construed as a cabaret.” In other words, as long as DIY venues don’t charge, sell alcohol, or allow dancing, they could theoretically be considered a house party. Otherwise, they’re subject to fees and regulations.

Fluorescent Grey, who also runs Record Label Records, notes that ex-Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts announced in July 2010 that police would stop responding to noise complaints in the wake of eighty cop layoffs. He believes that announcement may have caused more people to start DIY venues in the belief that they could operate with impunity.

And in most cases, it appears that the police and the fire departments know about these shows and aren’t terribly concerned about them. Kent, who runs the metal warehouse in West Oakland, says police have rolled by when he’s having shows but haven’t bothered him. Sharkiface says she hasn’t had any problems with police or her neighbors, either.

But should the authorities be concerned? Sometimes people get ridiculously drunk, and the occasional fight has been known to break out. Some shows draw crowds of a hundred people or more. But in general, most DIY shows are fairly small, low-key affairs, drawing maybe twenty to fifty people. “In the last five years has anyone heard any problems about crime, violence, or fire issues at any of these places?” asked Jason Herbers of Eli’s Mile High Club. “No, we haven’t, because if we had it would be all over the news. The reason we haven’t heard is because it hasn’t happened. The people running these spaces … generally cover their ass.”

“There’s nothing sketchy going on at these shows,” agreed Zool’s Lana Voronina. “It’s hardworking artists trying to show their work.”

Yet with the proliferation of so many houses and warehouse shows comes the increased possibility that the authorities will crack down on them. That’s why Wilkinson believes the scene may have a limited lifespan. “Although new taxpayers are moving in flocks to embrace this large scene and growing city, Oakland is facing a financial crisis,” he wrote. “In response, the city is trying to grab money where it can and these small business ventures and even houses known for shows sit in the line of fire. New fees, and in some cases weekly inspections by the city, have become commonplace. Some underground warehouses and houses have already thrown in the towel in the past few weeks (in some cases, by force.)”

A recent example: Hazmat, a long-running and fairly well-known punk venue, which was shut down by the Oakland Fire Department in September. How the fire department discovered Hazmat isn’t clear — perhaps someone alerted the authorities. Nonetheless, it was a vital community space for local punks, and an in-demand venue for both local and touring bands.

Most DIY venues start for altruistic reasons, not to make money. But even without having to pay for cabaret or ABC licenses, hosting shows can still be a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. “I backed down from booking shows because I ran out of money,” said Voronina. “But now it’s getting more on track now. It just takes a lot of legwork.”

She said she’s starting a Kickstarter campaign in order to transition Zool away from being a living space and into a legitimate nonprofit music and arts venue and studio.

At first glance, DIY venues also appear to pose a threat to legal bars and clubs. After all, they have the advantage of lower overhead costs and being all-ages. As more music fans choose to go to DIY venues, that means the loss of much-needed tax dollars to the city. “Of course it has an effect on my business,” said the Stork Club’s Tom Chittock.

With more creativity, control, and sense of community, it’s not shocking that local bands would prefer to play a DIY space than an established venue — even if they have a choice. “Last Saturday I had five bands booked and only one showed up,” lamented Chittock a couple months ago. “Then I hear there was a party down the road. They make a lot more money when they do that because it’s all-ages.”

In an ironic twist, some clubs now appear to be taking some cues from the warehouse scene. “I just went to Public Works for the first time, but what struck me is that it’s made to look like a loft space,” said Fluorescent Grey about the San Francisco club. “I don’t know if that’s how it looked when they moved in and took it over but it’s made to look like an Oakland warehouse loft. And I just thought it was funny because it’s the most marketed club in SF right now besides 103 Harriet.”

Ultimately, however, Oakland club owners don’t appear to view the proliferation of DIY venues as a zero-sum game — even if they acknowledge that they do occasionally eat into their customer base. “It’s always good to have music,” said Chittock. “The more music we have out there the better. That means more people are coming out to see more bands.”

“Anything that supports and furthers Oakland’s musical culture and art culture is extremely essentially to keeping money on this side of the bridge, and also sparking interest from outsiders to move and live here,” agreed Herbers. “It gives people a reason to come here and tour here. If anything, the city benefits from it.”


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