feature: the sacredness of the all ages diy space #soundcheck

September 11, 2014

I was a weird kid. We all were, I suppose. Like most of us, I spent my teenage years trying and failing to fit myself into different slots. I had some friends, but I didn’t really have a group. There wasn’t really a character in The Breakfast Club that I particularly identified with. I was into experimental electronica, chamber music, and science fiction. I did technical theatre, but really wanted to be a playwright. I worshiped Bowie as a god. I carried on me at all times a well-worn copy of The Communist Manifesto that I checked out from the school library and never returned. I liked the Grateful Dead but didn’t like smoking pot and thought their live recordings were interminable. I didn’t like talking about the fact that I was attracted to both boys and girls, so I just called myself straight because if you have a choice, why not pick the one that doesn’t get insults hurled at you? Shockingly, that didn’t stop me from being called a fag throughout highschool. Also college. And 3 weeks ago in Topeka. My nails were fabulous though.

By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor

I was around 16 the first time I went to an All Ages DIY Space. I liked punk rock, but it’s not like I was terribly knowledgeable about it. I distinctly remember having an argument with a friend of mine about whether punk was dead and I cited The Dead Kennedys as proof that it was still alive and well. They’d broken up some 13 years earlier. Wikipedia didn’t exist yet. My knowledge of underground music was from mix tapes, urban legends, and the small smattering of Geocities pages with woeful capitalization and dubious historical accuracy.

Suddenly, I was in a world of freaks and weirdos. Some of the kids had adopted the traditional punk rock uniform, enough to make me feel self-conscious in my corduroys and Grateful Dead T-shirt. But something strange happened: I wasn’t judged. Of course, there were the punker-than-thous, those kids for whom the greatest sin was “selling out,” and issued a new weekly Papal Bull on which bands were officially no longer cool to like. (I usually still liked them.) But it gave me a safe space to explore my identity, both as an artist, and just generally as a person.

Somehow, I managed to never play in a straight-up punk band, but my indie, folk, emo, emocore, post-punk, and new wave bands all existed in the DIY scene. Maybe we were an oddity. I certainly got a lot of “I usually don’t like this kind of music, but you guys are awesome!” Or my favorite: “so what kind of hardcore do you play?” But we were also welcome. I was welcome. I wasn’t weird in the exact same way as the other freaks and wierdos, but we were all freaks and weirdos together, and that was good enough. No. That was fucking awesome.

When I turned 21, and could finally play in bars, the All Ages DIY Space lost its appeal for a little while. I didn’t want to hang out with kids. I was a Man now. My brief dalliance with straightedge was interrupted by the allure of free beer for the band. Eventually, I came to cynically view the All Ages DIY Space more as just an opportunity to play for kids with disposable income. There’s a reason that music has been marketed to teenagers for the past 60 years: it works. It’s cynical and terrible and also true. For a little while, I gave into the temptation to exploit that fact. I think most DIY musicians have at one point or another, though that doesn’t mean we’re not assholes for doing it. I regret a lot about those years.

I started touring again as a solo artist when I was 26, and decided to return to the All Ages DIY Spaces that I’d shunned in my cool years. The prodigal punk. I found myself often the oldest person in the room, watching high school kids awkwardly go through the same patterns of experimentation. Developing an identity through trial and error. Learning about those same ideals of self-determination, co-operation, community, activism that I discovered through song lyrics and zines in these same spaces. I remember being there. I remember looking up to the older bands that came through our little space, obsessively decoding and living through their burned $5 CDs. And something clicked for me. Those of us who still travel in this community long past the age where the All Ages DIY Space is our only option for entertainment: we are the elder statesmen of the DIY scene.

As such, we have obligations far above and beyond being some band that plays in a bar. Whether deservedly or not, we’re role models, and the All Ages DIY Space is a sacred space. It’s up to us to show kids how to live an intentional life. It’s up to us to put the quasi-anarcho ideals they’re discovering into practice. We have to respect the fact that these kids are going to learn how to act in bands from us, and emulate our behavior. If we’re assholes who don’t respect the community, all we’re doing is raising a new generation of assholes who don’t respect the community. Who wants to live in that world?

I like to drink as much as the next ex-straightedge, but a dry space is a dry space, and it’s important to respect that. If you can’t play without drinking, you have no business performing in an All Ages DIY Space. I don’t mean that judgmentally either. For a lot of bands over 25 or so, playing music is less about a career trajectory than it is about hanging out with their friends, drinking a couple beers, and playing some songs on the weekend. That’s awesome, and totally legitimate. It also doesn’t belong in a DIY Space though.

A DIY space is about building community. As the bands that merely perform in the space (as opposed to the bands that rise up out of the community), we have to remember that this is someone’s house. To the 15 year old kid with the wrong kind of sneakers and the wrong band t-shirt, this is the one place where they feel safe and accepted. Being in this space, and watching these bands is the reward for having made it through another week of feeling isolated and confused. We have an obligation to act accordingly. We have to stay from the opening band through the headliner. It doesn’t matter how many mediocre bands playing the same 4 chords you’ve seen on this tour. Watching the other bands in a DIY space, even just part of their set, is about making yourself a part of the community for the night. Rock stars need not apply.

When I hear bands complain about the money from the door, or merch sales at a DIY show; or on the other side, when I hear artists conspire about how playing DIY spaces is a great way to make money on the road, because the kids have disposable income, I die a little. Not because it isn’t true. Not because touring isn’t expensive, and keeping the car on the road and getting from venue to venue doesn’t require actual cash. (It turns out gas stations don’t accept vague concepts like “community” as payment. Weird.) But because if you’re operating in this world without respect for the fact that there is so much more going on in this space than getting $5 a head to play a bunch of songs, then someone set a shitty example for you somewhere along the way, and you’re just perpetuating it. And that sucks. That’s how venues die. That’s how scenes dry up.

There are a lot of examples around the country of scenes that have blossomed into vibrant communities because the people who run the spaces respected that the finances are the least important part of it. Communities in Indianapolis, Worcester, Norman, OK, and Johnson City all leap to mind. These venues aren’t run as businesses. They barely break even and run on the blood sweat and tears of the freaks and wierdos who run them. They run on the kids who come out every Friday and Saturday night to hear a bunch of bands they’ve never heard of before. They run on the bands that come through and maybe will never come through again. They are sacred spaces. And they rely on everyone who walks through the door doing their best to keep them sacred.

No-one can be perfect. We all have off nights. We all make mistakes. We all get distracted by old friends who want to catch up outside the venue where it’s quiet. But every time a kid comes up to me at one of my shows and tells me that since the last time I was in town, I’ve inspired them to make their own music, I remember myself at 17 nervously saying the same to the dude from Atom and His Package. That’s why we’re here. That’s why what we do matters. We’re here to let the freaks and weirdos know that it’s OK to be a weirdo. That they’re not alone. We’re here so that one day, they’ll pass that on to someone else. And so on. And so on. Until one day, we’re all cool with not fitting in together.