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The Brooklyn DIY Scene
and the post college city
by: David Aaron - March 31, 2008

[Here's a more recent article about the Brooklyn DIY Scene]

A few months ago in this article we explored the current condition of the Lower East Side music scene. Unfortunately, the report was not all sunshine and Stratocasters. The last two years have seen a rash of venue closings and a bonanza of high-end commercial development. Gentrification is often cited as the cause for these broad socio-economic changes, but it’s a nebulous nemesis that doesn’t completely explain the evolution of every musical community. This time, we’re going to look at the borough of Brooklyn and the rich DIY culture that first took root at the end of the last century, and has since grown into multi-faceted network of venues, record stores, labels, and most importantly, artists.

“A venue is just a room with a band playing in it”, explains Todd Patrick, better known as Todd P, one of Brooklyn’s most influential DIY show organizers. That being considered, there weren’t many venues operating in Brooklyn during the early and mid 1990’s. “I don’t think a whole lot took off until around 1999”, recalls Casey Block, founder of Greenpoint’s Eat Records, East Village Radio host, and longtime Brooklyn musician. “Kid Millions from Oneida was a guest on my radio show two weeks ago, and they were having their 10 year anniversary. He talked about how back in 1997 there were no places to play in Brooklyn, but he would hear bands on WFMU, love their music, and then find out later that they were from Brooklyn.” So what inspired the rapid growth of the DIY scene? And, perhaps more importantly, what do we even mean when we say DIY?

DIY is more than a simple acronym for “do it yourself”, just as gentrification connotes much more than the increased presence of middle class-white-hipster-looking kids. These two terms, however, are more closely related than their shared slipperiness would imply. Todd P explains, “New York became what I would call a post-college town…a stop on the circuit for people who are done with college but want to stay creative.” This was the result of several influences. “A lot of people all around the country always wanted to live in New York…but the two things that kept them from coming were the rents, because everyone thought you had to live in Manhattan, and the perception that anything else was too dangerous.” A few things happened during the 1990’s to change that perception. First, there was dramatic reduction in crime during Giuliani’s years as Mayor. Whether or not that was due to smart civil policies or Roe v. Wade, as New York Times blogger Stephen Levitt suggests in his bestseller, Freakonomics, is still being debated. But, regardless, people both inside and outside of the city agreed that New York was safer.

But, it was still pretty damned expensive. A new crop of sitcoms like Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex & the City started depicting a New York lifestyle that was creative, exciting, and supposedly middle class. Those images didn’t quite reflect reality, but they did contribute to the rejuvenated, re-branded appeal of the city. Young people that had long harbored a New York bug started to view Brooklyn as an affordable and sensible place to carve out a life in the big city. A plethora of complex factors come into play, but ultimately Brooklyn, and particularly the Williamsburg/Greenpoint area, developed a reputation for being a must-see stop on the circuit of young, creative communities like Austin and Portland, and San Francisco. Though it was on the national radar, there still weren’t any places for bands to play in Brooklyn. Brooklyn musicians could wait for people with money to realize the market opportunities and open official venues, or they could improvise and start putting on shows.

“You really have to understand what a desert New York was for having good music”, continues Todd P. “I started doing it (shows) mostly because I really felt like there were a lot of awesome shows that everyone would be excited about in other towns, but there was no one to put the show on.” Luckily, the industrial infrastructure of Williamsburg and surrounding areas provided fitting performance spaces for “illegal” shows on the fly. Not only were Todd’s and others’ shows happening in lofts, warehouses, and parking lots, but there were several dive bars happy to let bands play in the corner for their beer drinking friend-audience. These shows don’t have the sound system and sexy cocktails of a place like Arlene’s Grocery, but they also don’t have the eat-shit-and-die attitude that is communicated to bands and audiences by jamming 6 unrelated acts on a single bill and polling attendees about who they’ve come to see. Such policies make sense to venue owners trying to meet high overheads and compete in a diverse entertainment environment, but they don’t make for a good rock show. However, putting together the right ingredients for a single kick-ass rock show doesn’t mean you’ve got a good scene going on, either.
Michael Azerrad, author of Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground: 1981-1991, and editor-in-chief of digital retailer Emusic.com, emphasizes that “a musical community is the hub of many different things: labels, clubs, broadcast, print and internet media, physical and virtual music stores, even practice spaces and recording studios – and, last but not least, music fans. Virtually all these things must be in place before a scene and thrive.” Brooklyn certainly has all those elements, but rising rents and an influx of a less artistically involved population may erode the nurturing atmosphere that helped start the movement in the first place. It takes a lot of passion and devotion to cultivate a vibrant music culture, but it takes almost just as much to keep it going. Has the Williamsburg wave crested? Can it simply migrate to Bushwick and Bed-Stuy? And again, what the hell does DIY really mean and why is it so important to the music scene?

If you’ve flown on an airplane during the past two years you’ve probably seen Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point prominently displayed in the windows of airport bookstores. It’s almost become required reading for the corporate set because it explains dramatic social changes in contemporary business lingo that can be easily applied to modern marketing initiatives. Essentially, Gladwell describes how passionate, hard-working people make things happen for themselves. Coincidentally, the term tipping point was first used by Sociologist Morton Grodzin in his study of “white flight” and the shifting demographics of American neighborhoods in the 1960’s. Wherever there is a defining sense of community, there are usually attendant notions of the characteristics that preclude inclusion in that community.

DIY communities can be particularly sensitive to enviromental changes because their core principles are often difficult to clearly define. To some, DIY is “artistic, heartfelt music made by people that have a sense of their influences done in a setting that is not aggressively commercial”, as articulated by Todd P. Of course, what is heartfelt to one listener could be totally affected, over-the-top bullshit to another. Michael Azerrad stresses a more literal interpretation of the ethos: “DIY is purely a mode of production and distribution it has nothing to do with what is produced.” There is no grand philosophical consensus as to what constitutes DIY music, but scenes are birthed when local population agree on what “it” should be, and who “yourself” is ought to be. People congregate, networks are formed, ideas are exchanged, and art flourishes. Azerrad offers a simpler, alternative approach to understanding DIY: “Obviously the lines of DIY are blurry and a matter of opinion to some degree. But DIY is like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said in a 1964 decision about pornography: "I know it when I see it."

Brooklyn’s DIY scene is still alive and healthy. DIY inspired bands are playing every night of the week in places ranging from Williamsburg’s cute, trendy, and licensed Union Pool all the way to Bushwick’s austere and clandestine Morgan dorms. Bands of any genre can get shows. Todd P might be more than happy to book a show that Galapagos declines, and someone’s Bushwick loft might draw a better crowd than an official slot at Piano’s. The Charleston is doing shows again, albeit in a slightly different way, and Secret Project Robot has picked up where The Might Robot left off. The people and the ideas are still here it’s a matter of how long they’ll be able to remain. Clearly, the pace of change has accelerated. Williamsburg has a wine store every couple of blocks, and Bedford Avenue now has its very own high-end specialty Cheese Shop. Artists may work at these places, but they are probably not the residents that shop there. Abounding hipsters may form a telltale sign that an area is primed for the gentrification overhaul, but we must be careful in imputing blame. Passionate, active artists arrive first and pay the same low rents as their immigrant neighbors. “Gentrification happens when people come in and pay more than the market rate”, notes Todd P. The actual gentry are the well-paid corporate creatives that make art according to the instructions of their employers. They don’t go to shows until it’s presented by Bowery, but they listen to blog-approved Brooklyn bands on their ipods. They don’t play shows and they don’t make original art, but they’re hard to distinguish from those that do.

Brooklyn will continue to have a nationally renowned DIY scene as long as the people and the ideas can stay here. Todd P notes “it’s really just now getting to be a mature scene where there are old school bands that are still playing shows, informing new people. I don’t think it’s come and gone at all.” In explaining some of the rationale behind his shows, Todd P observes that “musicians aren’t business people. They always want to play with their buddies, but you have to get them out of that because that’s not interesting. They’re not expanding their horizons, they’re not re-informing themselves, they’re just playing for people that are aware of the same things they’re aware of. I want to break down the barriers between genres. I think that’s what a good scene is, when there is a little variety and diversity, and raises all boats.” There are few bands that couldn’t use a little help expanding their network of like-minded artists until they reach their own tipping point of self-sufficiency. A strong local scene must be tied into the larger, more complex national scene. Interesting bands are only going to stop in Brooklyn if they think there’s a show-going audience to support their travels. When those bands do play Brooklyn, the local bands here have an opportunity to land a show in the touring band’s home territory and reach a new audience. We take it for granted now that there’s a cool show happening on any given Monday – sometimes it’s even hard to choose. But New York was not always so friendly to indie rock, and the culture here is not necessarily structured to support it.

“I don’t that know that the scene we have now is going to continue”, reflects Todd P. “The problem with New York is the same as it’s always been. The commercial stuff is right there. Everything is about glossy magazines, and co-opting forms. The trend-spotters from all over the country are right here.” Michael Azerrad expresses a different point of view. “In the music business, physical proximity has nothing to do with corporate proximity… Look at the No Wave scene, the hardcore scene, the Knitting Factory scene, the Tonic scene, and countless others that were based right in Manhattan, the same borough where the record companies are. The DIY ethic arose from necessity – i.e., nobody had any money. Wherever there are creative people with no money, the DIY ethic will flourish, no matter how close to midtown they may be.” While it may be true that where there is a will there is a way, New York can be especially unfriendly to those with limited means. Todd P notes, “there’s a reason this (indie rock) is a precious thing. This is probably the only actual art form produced by middle class Americans that they own, set the rules for, and come up with trends on their own. It’s not dictated.” New York can be what you make of it, but it’s hard to argue that it’s a middle class town.

“Indie rock music is the only American art form you can break into without any endorsement from the establishment”, continues Todd P. This is where it becomes clear that DIY and Indie Rock should not be used interchangeably. As Michael Azerrad points out, “DIY lite Jazz is not only possible, but actually exists.” The light jazz community, the Tonic scene, and others like them are certainly DIY if they organically disseminate ideas about art without bending towards a commodified version of the form. However, as Todd P notes, “The real avante, what you would call fringe, is actually very mainstream, especially in this town… they have university degrees. It’s the modern conservatory. I think what we do is more fringe.” Bar bands will always exist because they can make money playing songs that people already know. High-brow, concept music has a nice home in New York because there are grants and subsidies to support ideas that look good on paper. Indie Rock, unfortunately, is often lost in the middle. Don’t let the popularity of Modest Mouse or the recent dominance of “indie” as a hot marketing term fool you into thinking the culture has changed in any meaningful way. Those people will move on to newer, hipper things, and we will still need to support our troops in unglamorous places.

New York is a big city, and there have always been plenty of musicians happily doing their thing without the expectation of subsisting off their art. However, indie rock – the type of music that we cover at The Deli, has only been able to flourish since the Brooklyn scene was developed by a community of devoted artists and music fans beginning in the mid-late 90’s. Maybe it’s been awhile since you saw an awesome show at The Lucky Cat or The Trash Bar, but those rooms were invaluable when the scene was young and growing, and they still play an important role. Sure, there might be five bands a night at Trash, three of which might not be very good, but Mojo doesn’t tell bands they have to bring 40 people if they ever want to play again. This gives out of town bands an opportunity to experience Brooklyn, sometimes for the first time. It’s a different artistic exchange than what occurs at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, and in many ways it’s much more important.

“It’s getting a little harder to do, quote unquote, illegal shows”, says Todd P. That evaluation of the current situation in Brooklyn is something we should all take seriously. Bands are always complaining about bookers, soundmen, and the overall state of music community in their town, but they’re usually content to wait for someone else to fix the problem. Action involves more than emailing venues for Friday night shows, or venting criticisms to a docile blog readership. The Lower East Side may have already lost its edge, but Brooklyn is a big place that still has lots of ignored buildings and dark spaces. If you’re not seeing the shows you want to see, contact some bands on Myspace and walk up and down Morgan Avenue until you find a place to throw down. If it’s a show worth seeing, people will come.

Gentrification will be a hot topic in Brooklyn for years to come. Is Greenpoint the next Williamsburg? Is Bed-Stuy the next Greenpoint? Does it matter? Is it even relevant to your lifestyle and interests? If you’re talking about it over $6 dollar pints of Stella at an oak-accented pub while the jukebox plays Marquee Moon, then you’re not really adding anything to the conversation. Go pick up some 24 packs and let’s listen to a band that we haven’t already heard a thousand times. If they aren’t any good then make a note of it and move on, but don’t just listen to the bands that are buzzing at the end of CMJ. There’s over 100 bands listed on the left hand column of the Deli’s website, and those are narrowed down from a much larger, continuously changing pool of artists. Don’t wait around for someone to check out all these bands for you and report back with the ones that really stand out – go do it yourself.



 
 

" New York became what I would call a post-college town: a stop on the circuit for people who are done with college but want to stay creative. " - Todd P


The Brooklyn DIY Scene
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