Is Oakland’s DIY music scene in serious trouble?
Ambessa Cantave and I are taking a walk in West Oakland, looking for an old music venue he used to go to. He’s having some trouble finding the place.
“Let’s go down one more block,” he says. “I think … it’s one of these things.”
The building we stop in front of used to be a dairy creamery, before it got converted to a warehouse music venue called the WC.
“It was pretty abandoned,” Cantave says. “It seemed like a great place for partying.”
The WC was just one of several DIY music venues in Oakland that have been a significant part of the scene here for decades. The acronym DIY stands for “do it yourself,” and the venues offer a low-key way to catch a show.
You might hear noise, punk, experimental or rock music. And the shows themselves are a makeshift alternative to more established venues: They might take place at short notice, in a warehouse, an art gallery, or even in someone’s living room.
But that’s not all that makes a DIY show -- not exactly. “People want to feel ownership over the things they make,” says musician Maria Yates. “They want to feel community. And DIY spaces make that community.”
Cantave moved to Oakland in the early 2000s and has been going to DIY shows ever since. He’s performed in several of them too, with his reggae/hip hop band Earth Amplified.
He says the DIY aesthetic exemplifies the idea that people feel empowered to do their own events. “It’s freedom,” he says.
But some people say this freedom is being threatened. Rising rents and noise complaints create a sense among many that something big has changed in the DIY scene -- perhaps for good.
As we continue walking on our tour of DIY venues past and present, Cantave shows me another old warehouse venue, located deeper into West Oakland. While we’re standing outside, as Cantave marvels at how spruced up the place looks, a classic Bonneville car comes out of the garage. Inside, we spot two more.
It’s a stark difference from the type of place this warehouse used to be. Cantave says back then it was refuge for artists, and it was cheap. Now -- the Bonneville. Cantave says this is pretty exemplary of the changes he’s seen in Oakland in the past several years: “The person who just walked out of the work-loft space would be the last person you’d think coming out of it 10 years ago,” he says.
After my tour with Cantave, I had up towards Macarthur BART to meet Erica Johnson. She’s also a musician, playing a genre she calls “new oldies” with her band The Bitter Honeys. She shows me old fliers from past shows -- all handmade, ones Johnson used to cut and paste and design on her own.
From about the mid '90s to the mid 2000s, Johnson was pretty deeply involved in Oakland’s DIY scene. Back then, she says, the community didn’t even have a name for what they did. And people weren’t as careful or secretive as they are now.
“We made fliers and posted them all over town with the addresses of the warehouses,” she says. “And it didn’t seem to be a problem, I don’t know if we were naïve to think that we weren’t going to get in trouble … But there was also a general hope of goodwill. It was such a fun time.”
Over time, though, that goodwill got pushed away by fear and anxiety. A few times, she says, the cops came undercover, bought drinks, and then asked for a permit: a sting. She says some of her friends even went to jail “for doing something that was actually done out of love, and which is a positive feeling. And it became a negative feeling.”
Johnson’s eventual disenchantment with the scene also stems from the feeling that over the years, things have gotten harder for artists in general. And it is harder to make it here on a lower income: Rents in Oakland have been rising fast. In August 2014, rents rose more than 14% from the year before, on par with San Francisco.
“There are still people hanging by threads even to survive here,” she says. “And [they] don’t have the luxury of free time and affordable rent that we used to, to pour in our time and energy into fostering a more supportive scene.”
Asking her what that says about Oakland’s artistic scene, and she told me twice: “There is no support for artists.”
Damon Gallagher is someone who’s stepped in to provide the support Johnson says Oakland lacks, by keeping a venue open despite the challenges. Gallagher used to run the WC -- the venue that AmbessaCantave had so much trouble finding during our tour. Gallagher stopped hosting shows there a couple of years ago, but it wasn’t because of noise complaints, like Cantave thought. It was because things got too big.
Gallagher says he once found a journalist reporting an article on underground venues. The unwanted attention didn’t stop there: “I was getting Yelped as if this was some kind of business,” he says.
As more people came in, they became rowdier and less respectful, and Gallagher says the whole operation stopped being fun. In the end, he shut it down himself.
I talked to more than a dozen people in Oakland’s DIY scene, and the majority said they feel that there aren’t as many venues now as there used to be even a few years ago. Gallagher doesn’t agree, but he does say there are fewer shows.
“There was a time when it seemed like almost every damn night,” he says.
"And now?" I ask him.
Of course, it’s impossible to know for sure. There’s no one official list, and venues get shut down and new ones pop up all the time. The key to keeping your venue alive, Gallagher says, is to lay low.
“I know how far to push it and come back,” he says. “I keep it kind of safe.”
Meaning, he’ll throw a show, then keep quiet for a couple weeks. He doesn’t want to upset the neighbors too much.
The night I head over to his West Oakland venue, a doorman is guarding the gate, letting people in for $5 a head or whatever price they haggle him down to. DJs spin inside, and the party only really starts getting crowded at 2am. The doorman says that often these shows go until 5am. When I leave around 2:30, the sidewalk is full of people lined up waiting to get in.
A week later, I head back. And this show, with live music, starts around the more neighborhood-friendly hour of 8 pm. I’d expected something packed, uncomfortable, loud, but inside, it’s a small group of about 40 people sitting down and watching a trip-folk band called Cougar on a Meth Binge. It’s intimate and cozy.
The neighborhood is quiet. There’s a backyard patio for people to sit and relax in between sets. That’s where I find Josh Harrington, who used to run his own venue, Moco, in downtown Oakland, before it got shut down because of noise complaints. Even though he’s personally felt the ramifications of DIY shutdowns, he says he’s not concerned.
“Everyone’s so resourceful that it’s not going to stop and keep on going,” he says. “It’s sad that you can’t go to this certain space anymore, and that was kind of rad. But if you want something radder, you can do it yourself!”