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Big Music Issue

Notes from the Underground

DIY spaces are exploding, but Baltimore still has a venue black hole

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Talking Head


Big Music Issue 2011
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The great Live Entertainment Bill crisis of 2009 seems largely forgotten now—a couple of months of hysteria, public meetings, frequent misunderstandings, and, finally, quiet. A neutered bill minus licensing requirements that many considered oppressive was eventually passed, opening up a couple of key new zoning districts to live entertainment and pleasing, or at least not offending, many, save for some neighborhood associations lobbying for even more power to shut down venues. The restaurant Pazo, now able to host DJs, seemed particularly pleased by the bill.

An interesting detail came out during the debates and seems to have been subsequently forgotten. It concerns the city of Baltimore’s unofficial position regarding DIY spaces, generally operating illegally: The city knows about them, yes, but chooses to leave them be. Anecdotal evidence about DIY spaces getting shut down in recent years would seem to bear that out: The city isn’t hunting for shows to shut down anymore. A city official, who prefered to go unnamed, confirms that the city isn’t particularly interested in busting underground spaces, largely because there’s no revenue. A space selling alcohol, especially on an even semi-regular basis, might be a different story.

Nearly two years after the live entertainment fiasco, Baltimore magazine had its own answer, presented via a marvelously surreal cover featuring Dan Deacon seated next to Rawlings-Blake, both underneath the word POWER in large block letters. Deacon is, of course, Baltimore’s exemplar of DIY, an artist who has grown to the point of sharing bungalows with movie stars on Francis Ford Coppola’s vineyard while still DJing Copycat building parties at home. He’s not the sole reason, but still the core of the reason why Baltimore’s warehouse and basement spaces occupy countless glossy magazine pages and, most recently, cable TV.

And so we have a recognized asset to Baltimore, a thing that brings good attention to the city when it needs all the good attention it can get. A city you might even call desperate for that attention—if the suggestion of building a ferris wheel in the Inner Harbor or tearing up a handful of downtown streets for a new Grand Prix event isn’t precisely that, then nothing is.

The question becomes: How does Baltimore capitalize on an asset that exists off or below the legal radar? That is, above and beyond courteously ignoring it. (To clarify what that “it” is, we are talking about venues in the city that operate without proper city permitting/city approval, for whatever reason.) Another question follows: How do you appease tax-paying legit businesses that have gone through the hassle of getting occupancy and use permits?

DIY spaces are likely less of a concern to the Rams Head Lives of the world, but to small spaces that specialize in local bands, cheap covers, and booze—such as the Sidebar or 8X10—other small spaces circumventing the rules in a way even approaching city-sanctioned, is problematic.

Brian Shupe, owner of the 8X10, summed up the sentiment well in a Daily Record article at the time. “I absolutely welcome any and all . . . competition,” he told the paper, “as long as they have to jump through the same hoops that I do, pay the same taxes, have the same inspections that we do.”

DIY spaces don’t, of course, nor could most—an approved use permit needs signatures from six different city departments, not the least of which is the Fire Department. Having a venue be legitimate pretty much requires it to operate as a full-time business, requiring full-time-business kinds of money and that means selling alcohol, Usually. DIY venues operate without money or profit or staff. Since the venue isn’t paying for much—just bands, generally—it also doesn’t need to collect much: five bucks at the door is the going rate.

The question of why operate outside the venue-as-business system goes deeper, however. Chris Berry, co-owner of Fan Death Records, recently started booking strictly DIY shows in Baltimore. “When I first started going to punk and hardcore shows outside of my hometown in New England, when I was 16 or so, I was struck by how egalitarian everything was,” he writes City Paper in an e-mail. “Instead of being at a big club, you’d go see bands in someone’s basement, or an American Legion hall, or whatever. There wasn’t a barrier between the band and promoter and audience, and it was inspiring to me.

“I wasn’t into straight-edge hardcore or Christian ska-punk, which were the two big things in my local scene,” Berry adds, “so I figured I’d need to take matters into my own hands if I wanted to see the weird small bands that I’d find out about through the internet.”

Jason Urick, an ambient musician who relocated to Oregon last Spring, used to be one of the principles of Baltimore’s Floristree space, which was at least for a time, the city’s indispensable DIY space. “For me personally it was just simply a matter of having a space that was ideal for doing shows,” he writes. “I mean, I moved in to a ‘house’ with a stage that could accommodate hundreds of people, we had energy and a ton of friends with bands locally and nationally that needed a place to play . . . so it just kind of worked out.”

“In general I think that the model we have over here [in the United States] for the arts and music [is that] there need[s] to be house shows to foster new talent/fringe genres,” Urick continues. “[Legal] clubs need to make money to survive, so therefore have no real incentive to open their doors to weirder stuff.”

Indeed, Baltimore’s profile rose in a period of wide-reaching acceptance of more experimental flavors of music, owing in large part to the internet and a vast new channels for getting music information.

Naturally then, listeners turned their attentions to the venues where these sounds were coming from and you have spaces like the Floristree in the pages of everything from Rolling Stone to Paper, to say little of a full-on camera crew from IFC earlier in the year making a hat-trick of visits to the Copycat, Bell Foundry, and Floristree’s home, the H&H Building.

While Urick makes a good point about the business of music not being conducive to emerging music—music that hasn’t reached its marketable level/saturation, put cynically—Baltimore had has tremendous success with spaces that blur the lines between legit and underground by operating legally, but also as non-booze selling, volunteer staffed spaces: the Red Room, the now-defunct Hexagon Space, and Charm City Art Space, which Berry points out has had over 1,000 shows in its lifetime—“a number that completely blows my mind.”

Dan Deacon recalls the old Talking Head on Davis Street as being the sort of space that broke Urick’s rules of what an above-ground space could be. Indeed, there was a time you could find esoteric weirdness at the space ranging from Jackie-O Motherfucker to Nautical Almanac and a great many more noise abusers and fringe awesome. “That space was vital,” Deacon writes via e-mail, “and it not being around is a huge black hole in the scene.”

“I think the main thing the city (gov’t) as a whole could do would be to make it easier for people to open venues/galleries/theaters,” Deacon continues. “And I don’t mean tax breaks, grants, or giving away property. I mean take some of the hoops you have to jump through out. Don’t make it as hard for me to open a small but legal venue as it is for a major developer to build a high rise.

“Baltimore is in a tricky situation where there is a huge abundance of vacant property,” he writes. “But it’s been neglected for so long that it is nearly impossible for someone to occupy it without a huge bankroll behind them. Unless they do it illegally, which happens all the time, but is a problem. This goes hand in hand with part-two: what the city (people living in it) can do is create a new small-sized venue. Baltimore needs the old Davis Street Talking Head/[fomer] Ottobar back, or something that size and location. Baltimore needs the small legal venue. Without its got a huge part of the food chain missing and i think we’ve seen the effects of it absence heavily.

“Illegal venues are awesome,” Deacon concludes, “but they can don’t serve a population that already is in the know which isn’t sustainable. We need legal venues to help bring new people and new ideas into the scene.”

As it stands now, there are five, maybe six, regular venues just in the Copycat building. Down the street, the Bell Foundry is another. Floristree still hosts shows, and the Bank and America add two more spaces in West Baltimore. Punk and metal spaces Barclay House and Ruintown appear to be very much alive. There’s an argument to be made that at least as much, if not more, local music is being performed underground than elsewhere. Deacon’s point about Baltimore’s black hole would appear to be a salient one.

And it isn’t enough to say that DIY spaces can fill that hole in perpetuity. “Some bands eventually grow out of what an underground venue can provide them in terms of space/sound/safety for their fans, etc.,” Urick points out. “Venues have more money coming in, usually better sound. There is a whole wide world of music and people that dig it; for most of them the idea of sitting in a warehouse with a six pack of Natty Boh and a cloud of cigarette smoke isn’t necessarily a good time. [But] for some it’s the only way to experience a show.”

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