BY Dan Fox in Profiles | 01 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 147

Do it Yourself

New York’s energetic community of experimental music and film venues

BY Dan Fox in Profiles | 01 MAY 12

Sewn Leather performing at the Silent Barn, Brooklyn, 2011. Courtesy Nat Roe
In July 2011, Silent Barn was shut down. This DIY performance space in Queens, New York, had – until it was vacated by the police one Friday night for zoning violations – been putting on five gigs a week since the band Skeletons started it eight years earlier. Silent Barn was a live-in space split over two floors; bands played throughout the building, from the ground-floor kitchen to the bedrooms of the four people who lived there, and even the roof. Just weeks before, they had organized Ende Tymes, a three-day festival of noise music in which musicians, their gear perched on kitchen tables and chairs, played to an attentive and friendly crowd who also mingled in the venue’s basement amid vintage arcade games and tables brimming with cassette tapes and records for sale. As if being made homeless by police and Department of Buildings (d.o.b.) officials that Friday wasn’t bad enough, two days later Silent Barn was robbed: us $15,000 worth of audio equipment, personal possessions and the art that decorated the space was loaded into the back of a van by three men who, despite being captured on surveillance camera, were never pursued by the police.

Nine months later, things are looking up. Silent Barn has raised us $40,595 towards a new space through, and they want to become the first legal live-in venue in New York. But the city’s byzantine bureaucracy doesn’t make this easy. As Nat Roe – one of Silent Barn’s core members and resident when it was shut down – explained to me: ‘There is no precedent for legal live-in venues. D.O.B. red tape puts a stranglehold on legit and safe ventures and unless you have resources, illegality is your only option.’ After much soul searching about how best to use the funds – ‘money has raised the levels of responsibility we have to our community,’ says Roe – Silent Barn’s goal is to use their experiences to: ‘set up a tool kit for other venues, to be able answer questions such as “How do you approach a local community board to establish good neighbourly relations?” or “What’s a Certificate of Occupancy?” – information that helps making legality easy to obtain.’

Encouragingly, Silent Barn is not braving it alone. They are among an energetic community of experimental music venues, microscopic in comparison to established ‘new music’ venues such as The Kitchen, bam or museums with performance programmes. Their radar signals are harder to trace than those of smaller but important not-for-profit venues such as issue Project Room, Roulette or The Stone. Almost all based in Brooklyn, the brethren of Silent Barn bear names such as Big Snow Buffalo Lodge, Death By Audio, Mustard Beak or Shea Stadium. Sometimes it’s just a street address, date and list of bands posted on Facebook, on the free Show Paper broadsheet or on promoter Todd P’s website. It is a fragile scene; venues open and close frequently. They operate outside the indie music industry mainframe, working hard promoting young musicians without any kind of funding structure, each venue crucial to the lifeblood of the various micro-scenes that pass through their doors, be it drone, alt-folk, noise, improv or seemingly infinite permutations of rock. They exist squarely in an historical continuum of DIY venues in the city – the 1960s performance art and ’70s punk and loft jazz scenes in particular – yet they also constitute a snub to the ‘downtown’ New York nostalgia industry that likes to harp on endlessly about how much better things were in the early ’80s when you could hear Talking Heads play at the Mudd Club, then get mugged on your way home to the Lower East Side.

Gigs at these small spaces feel intimate but welcoming, as if you have been invited into someone’s home (which was literally the case with the old Silent Barn). Art, video projections or murals generally cover the walls, and the atmosphere is supportive, the music wide-ranging; visiting Big Snow recently I saw a female solo rapper, followed by a math-rock guitar duo then a poppy, post-rock quartet with a harmonium player. Inclusivity and enthusiasm are key motivations for these venues. Following the police shutting their earlier venture, Market Hotel, Shea Stadium – the name a witty steal from the New York Mets’ now-demolished home in Queens – was started by Adam Reich and members of the band The So So Glos. ‘Unfortunately, most places that host live music in New York are for the over-21s, and growing up as punk rock kids we always had trouble seeing the bands we wanted to,’ says Shea Stadium founder and So So Glo member Zach Staggers. ‘The DIY venue circuit, not only in the city but globally, is an inclusive environment that caters to many different people and is a community in terms of inter-venue relationships and bands criss-crossing from one to the other. In terms of “the scene”, what’s great about nyc and these venues is that the bands bond over community as opposed to a certain genre.’

Spectacle Theater, Brooklyn, 2012. Courtesy Shameel Arafin / SignalFive

Shea Stadium’s musical policy is diverse: they put between three to five shows on per week, and maintain an archive of them at Nora Dabdoub, who directs booking for the venue, states: ‘At the moment people are more open to hearing things that aren’t coming from the mainstream because there have been successful artists that came from the “underground” in the last five or six years. There are pros and cons to that, but ultimately it’s better to have an inclusive community rather than an exclusive one.’ Roe shares her opinion: ‘I want bad bands to play in my living room – let things happen rather than control things too impeccably.’ At Silent Barn they would try ‘stunt booking’: stitching wildly diverse acts together to see what happens; for instance, a noise band playing on the same bill as a Tuvan throat singer. In an interview last year for, Silent Barn founder member and musician G. Lucas Crane said: ‘I think if you are an experimental musician nowadays it’s important to collaborate as much as possible and to get out of your comfort zone. I identify with self-taught musicians, people just starting out, people who just decide to play with nothing but passion and an idea […] art is a personal spiritual thing that I think makes you a better person, so the more the merrier.’

Edan Wilber has been involved with Death By Audio since it started in 2007, first working the door, then doing sound and now also booking the venue. Death By Audio stage gigs almost every night, and Wilber runs the space with Matt Conboy and a handful of staff. He feels the attraction of running DIY venues is: ‘There’s no bullshit, there’s no backstage, everyone gets a certain number of guest-list spots, no one is special, every one is equal. I encourage people to play on the floor as often as I can, so as to make no barrier between the performer and the band. For the most part “venues” are just bars that happen to have music in them, and it’s a means to get people into that bar and pay inflated prices for drinks. DIY spaces do it for the love.’ As Roe also points out, for live-in venues such as Silent Barn, ‘rent subsidizes curatorial freedom’.

DIY venues in New York are not confined to music. Micro-cinemas and other dynamic spaces for film and video play an analogous role to their musical counterparts. Their work complements that of the city’s venerable and established art cinemas – Anthology Film Archives or the Maysles Institute, for instance – and relatively young and influential spaces such as Light Industry, UnionDocs and Microscope Gallery. Amongst these is Spectacle Theater, run by unpaid volunteers seven days a week, with one to three screenings per day. The venue is tiny: there are 30 or so seats at most – even fewer if musicians need to be squeezed in to perform a live score to a film. (Spectacle staged one of the most memorable events I saw last year: the band Fat Worm of Error teasing out delicate and unruly voices for films of Arthur Ganson’s kinetic sculptures.) Spectacle say they are ‘fans of hopeful-but-crushed artistic and political movements. We love what we show, even – perhaps especially – when what we show is flawed and imperfect. We show the lost and the forgotten in video art, experimental film, foreign film, documentaries and B-movies. We have live scores to silent films at least twice a month, which no one else does, and we have speakers as often as we can.’ Of the attractions of running such a space, they perhaps also neatly sum up the spirit that drives alternative venues here: ‘It’s more like an obsessive compulsion. We are intimate, personal and uncompromising in our vision.’

Dan Fox is the author of Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2016) and Limbo (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018). He co-directed the film Other, Like Me (2021).