op-ed: glasslands closing – has vice officially declared that they are not a part of the community they cover?

October 24, 2014

Over the last few years, every time I’ve been to a show at Death By Audio or Glasslands, the last great outposts of DIY culture in Williamsburg’s ocean of trust funders and trend chasers, I’ve been struck by the same terrified thought: “How long can this possibly keep going?” Well, now we know the answer: as long as Vice Media says so.
Since 2006, one block on South 2nd St. in Williamsburg has been the home to DIY venues, an underground film house, and art spaces. One by one, over the past year, these spaces have closed their doors. The general assumption has been that the rent finally got higher than their shoestring budgets could afford. But we now know from leaks to Gawker and Billboard that the engine behind these closings was Vice Media taking over the block for its new offices, and engaging in aggressive tactics to get the current occupants out. To many of us in the DIY community, as well as those of us who write about new music, this revelation was shocking. Vice prides itself on breaking new acts. But how can you claim to have a stake in the underground music scene when you’re personally responsible for shutting down 2 of the most important DIY spaces in Brooklyn? Vice has made it clear with their actions that they consider themselves outside of the culture they cover, but how can you document a living breathing scene you’re not part of with any kind of understanding or sincerity? Is it possible to be an entity that covers new music without caring one bit about the scene itself?

By Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor

Amid the reprehensible tactics, childishly offensive language, and muddied messaging, the #GamerGate trolls have forced an interesting conversation on ethics in entertainment journalism. What should be the relationship between the media creators and the writers and companies who cover and promote them? Especially for indie writers, most of us got into this game either because we’re artists ourselves with strong feelings about the work of our colleagues, or because we’re impassioned fans. Or some mixture of both.

So the idea of objectivity is out the window. How can you be objective when you’re documenting a community you care about? I’ve certainly championed bands in my capacity as a writer whose members I consider friends. But I’ve always tried to do so sincerely and honestly. When I sing the praises of BLXPLTN, or Beauty Pill, or Speaker For The Dead, I’m doing so because both because these are people I’ve come to care about, but also because I wholeheartedly admire their work as artists. Even their worst songs are interesting and worth a listen. I don’t pretend to be an objective journalist. I’m a guy with a large music library who is very passionate about DIY culture. And I really think that’s how it should be if you’re covering underground music.

Obviously the story is different when your beat is the great unknowable pop stars like Jay-oncė. Anyone who gets into writing about Top 40 because of the community, man, is at best very misguided. But we’re talking about the underground. We’re talking about people who seek out the new music and art and theatre, and yes #GamerAligators, indie video games. The people who make a point of turning others on to the fresh and sincere, the handmade products of passion that push the boundaries. We’re talking about Vice Media’s supposed beat.

Don’t get me wrong. While I may loathe their 80’s teen comedy developer tactics (if ever there was cause for a dance-off to save the rec center, this is it…), I generally respect a lot of their writing. I read Vice. I find their reporting on international issues to be some of the best in the industry. Their story on John McAfee partially inspired a play I’m developing. They have a new piece on Cambodian sex workers transitioning to working in sweat shops that everyone should check out. And maybe that’s where their brand is headed; less about fresh music and alternative culture, and more trying to operate on the level of someone like Salon. But that’s not what their outward image is. Their graffiti inspired logo declares an investment in the underground. “Music” is the tab right after “News” on their web site. Music is in their blood. But now the blood of underground music is on their hands. Sorry, that metaphor got confusing, but it sounds nice if you don’t think too hard about it, right?

Increasingly, what Vice does best is run stories that focus on the real people who exist in and around the cracks of modern consumer culture abroad. They excel at highlighting those places where the underlying hypocrisies and unspoken crimes are most apparent and detailing the human costs therein. How ironic, then, that in the story of their new offices, they should play the part of gentrification’s Finishing Move.

Colonization is more or less the process of saying “Hey, that’s a cool thing you got there! I want it.” And then taking it. It’s inherent in the almighty Cycle of Gentrification in which we all play a part. The vast majority of people involved in this process are acting in good faith, unaware of the negative repercussions of moving in to a neighborhood previously occupied by a community that’s not their own. The first wave of gentrifiers move in to a neighborhood enticed by cheaper rent, and by and large come to fall in love with the neighborhood. But they open their own businesses that serve the needs of them and their friends, rather than the needs of the extant community.

The second wave sees these businesses and are enticed by the “coolness.” They use words like “edgy” and talk about how “authentic” it is, blind to the fact that their very presence is making it less “authentic,” and that anyone who uses the word “edgy” should be permanently banned from speaking. Very very few people in this process are truly colonizers. They’re ignorant of the damage their actions cause. They’re ignorant that their presence is driving up rent and driving out first the communities that have been there for years, and then finally that first wave of gentrifiers. This doesn’t absolve them from also failing to use their privilege to any positive end on behalf of the extant community, but I think it’s important to draw a line between generally good people whose actions have negative repercussions because of ignorance, and people who really should know better who engage in manipulative tactics to get what they want, consequences be damned.

Vice Media really should know better. They run pieces about gentrification. They run pieces about the human costs of capitalism. But most damningly, they run pieces about the bands that have cut their teeth at DBA and Glasslands.

I’ve written a lot over the years about the value of all ages DIY spaces. But the most important thing they provide is a safe space for bands to experiment; bands whose sounds push the boundaries of what a more traditional venue might feel comfortable booking. Or simply bands who are a little rough around the edges and haven’t quite found themselves yet. If we want music to continue to evolve in new and exciting directions, these spaces are essential because these bands are essential. We need spaces like Death By Audio and Glasslands, who can run at a fraction of the operating cost of a more traditional venue like Pianos, and thus afford to take more risks. Countless bands like TV On The Radio wouldn’t have become who they’ve become without these kinds of spaces letting them figure out their sound. These spaces become community hubs. And for touring acts, these spaces are the only places an out of town band with minimal local draw can have any hope of playing to a decent crowd. Whether you regularly attend shows at DIY spaces or not, if you care about new music, it’s important to recognize that DIY spaces play a crucial role in fostering community and shaping “what’s new.”

As long as Vice Media’s brand is wrapped up in “new music,” their choice to accept a $6.5 million tax break from the city to stay in Brooklyn (according to the Wall Street Journal), and thus take over the lease of the building that once housed Glasslands and DBA smacks of short-sighted hypocrisy. These spaces were some of the most important spaces in New York, in terms of keeping the cutting edge sharp. Yes, more will crop up. More already have. But the communities that surround a specific DIY space take years to build up and make sustainable. Despite being housed on the same block, DBA and Glasslands each had their own community with its own feel. When you played a show at one of those spaces, you weren’t just given a stage and a mic and a pitcher of PBR, you were introduced to a new community.

Vice Media has made it clear that they value the cachet of a cool Williamsburg office near the waterfront over a community they supposedly cover. In 10 years, when this has all blown over, I imagine Vice execs walking their corporate sponsors through the building, touting its history. Because that’s what the worst kind of gentrifiers do. They don’t talk about what’s here. They don’t talk about what could be here. They wax rhapsodic about what used to be here. “This used to be the home of some of Brooklyn’s most adventurous underground venues,” they will say with pride while they sell their brand of Brooklyn cool to advertisers. They won’t point out that the reason they have this space and that those underground venues don’t is because Vice allegedly offered cash buyouts and encouraged the landlord to not renew the venues’ leases to drive them out. They won’t point out that their company, which claims authority on new music, is rumored to have enforced noise transference rules that had been casually ignored by the landlords for years. They won’t point out that their fancy new offices effectively disbanded the communities that had been built up in those spaces over years. They won’t point out that their very presence on that block detracts from the Brooklyn cool they claim to sell. They will probably point out the $70 million investment by conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox.

Admittedly, the specific tactics used by Vice to get Glasslands and Death By Audio out are still only rumors and credited to anonymous sources in Billboard and Gawker stories. I reached out to a representative from Glasslands for confirmation, but have yet to receive a response. This piece will be updated should that happen.

Williamsburg has been gentrifying for years. The days of the early 2000’s when you could rent a vacant warehouse for pennies have been gone since the slightly later early 2000’s. At this point, Williamsburg is just the next chapter in the same book as the Lower East Side, Greenwich Village, and most recently 5 Pointz. Death By Audio and Glasslands were anomalies. It was probably only a matter of time before the jig was up and they were forced out by eager developers. Their disappearance marks one of the last gasps of relevance of Williamsburg as a home for DIY culture. Congratulations, Vice, you’ve officially killed Williamsburg.

If Vice wants to save its soul, the only thing they can do is use their power and influence to prop up a space that embodies the freedom of a DIY space with the access and promotion budget afforded by Vice’s myriad corporate sponsors. (He says with a skeptical eyebrow crocked skyward…) I could imagine a sort of hybrid DIY space that lets bands who have only been around a few weeks open for headliners that came out of the DIY community and have come to be championed by the mid-stream media of Vice and Pitchfork. Maybe it’s possible. Maybe they’ll use their power for good. But somehow, Vice’s utter tone-deafness on this issue makes it clear that they’ve lost sight of their obligation to the arts community they make their income promoting.

This relationship between entertainment journalist and artist is complicated, and always will be. I personally believe that drawing a hard line around what is and isn’t acceptable would stymie creativity on both ends. Music journalists need to think of themselves as documentarians of their communities. We are not outside the communities we cover. We are an integral part of them. That is one of the biggest flaws of #GamerGate’s supposed media critiques. This isn’t news journalism, the rules are different. They’re a lot mushier because we belong to the communities we write about. Not to mention the fact that by simply choosing which stories to tell, a news journalist is practicing their bias. One need look no further than the polarized coverage of the protests in Ferguson versus the Great Pumpkin Riot at Keane State. But though the rules themselves are undefined, though what counts as unacceptable application of bias, or journalistic impropriety is hard to pin down, this much is absolutely true: when we take actions that damage the communities we write about, it only serves to delegitimize us in the eyes of the community, and delegitimize us as a source of credible news about it.

The DIY community will evolve and adapt. We always do. We always have. But Vice has eroded any trust that may have ever existed. By playing a role in closing Death By Audio and Glasslands, Vice has made it clear that their obligation is to appearing cool in their new digs, not being part of what’s legitimately cool. That distinction is damning and will be with them for as long as they lay claim to being at the forefront of what’s new in music and alternative culture. By shutting down these centers of DIY culture, Vice has officially declared that they are not a part of the community they cover, and are now just in the way.

Photo by Christelle de Castro via