I Ran a DIY Space for Like Six Years, AMA

Framed photo by Jeanette Moses (Blood, Sweat & Beers) of a thing that happened in my old loft space

Last week, the DIY performance space I started back in 2013 opened its doors to the public for the first time since before the Covid pandemic. I haven’t been directly involved in managing the space in quite some time — I handed over operations to a friend in early 2019 — but I’ve been more or less kept in the loop since then, and from my perspective, reopening after a year and a half was one more improbable hat trick in a long series of hat tricks that have sustained the space in a city that can’t not change noticeably over the course of any given year.

The fact that a show space like this has survived for eight years now is, frankly, insane. In NYC, as in many cities, there’s always demand for DIY spaces. There’s always more talent than there are venues for it. Someone is always aiming to circumvent other ostensible cultural gatekeepers and put on performances or exhibits on their own terms. There’s always an audience that cherishes spaces that are not driven by profit and feel less rigid than your typical small club. But the lifespan of a DIY space is usually not long — I’d consider three years an exceptional run.

There was a brief window of time in Brooklyn when it seemed as though a “legacy DIY space” could be a real thing, that certain spaces could be stable enough to outlast any of the more ad hoc art lofts that were always popping up. In the end, though, that was an illusion brought on by the Great Recession’s slowdown in hypergentrification and real estate development. You just can’t expect the kind of lifespan we got from spaces like Death by Audio, Shea Stadium (that’s the oversized loft space in Brooklyn, not the former actual stadium in Queens) or either incarnation of Silent Barn. You can’t expect a nondescript block where you can get away with doing all kinds of bizarre shit without bothering anyone will stay that way for more than a few years.

People often asked how the space I managed (and I use that verb extremely loosely) has held on for so long. I honestly believe the most significant factor is dumb luck. It’s already in a neighborhood currently on something like Level Three gentrification — these days you see a lot of suits on the subway platform in the morning. It’s down to luck that the building hasn’t been sold or renovated, or that a high-foot-traffic business hasn’t moved in. While I certainly put in the legwork to find this place, it’s down to luck that I found a space that was large enough, customizable enough, inexpensive enough, and so surreptitiously located that people arriving often would text me asking how they were supposed to get inside the building, anyway. And it’s down to luck that so many things haven’t happened there: People often ask me for stories about out-of-control shit that went down during my tenure, and tbh there isn’t much of it. No (major) theft, no raids from authorities, no accidents that couldn’t be resolved quickly, no significant property damage, only one medical emergency, only two shows shut down by the landlord. These are all factors you can hope for, but that you can’t hope to orchestrate or control on your own.

There are also a lot of controllable factors, which I’ve been happy to talk about with whoever wants to know. So I wanted to take a few beats to answer the FAQs. By no means should this be considered a universally-applicable playbook for anything at all; I’m just answering questions based on my first-hand experience and colored additionally by second-hand observations. Obvs ymmv:

How did you get the idea to do something like this?

I guess I’ve never not thought that all you need to make a show happen is a large enough space and a PA. I grew up in a small city in Connecticut (Bristol) where there were no clubs to speak of, but there was a skate park that hosted punk and hardcore shows. A lot of the shows I went to as a teenager were in spaces that were not proper clubs: teen centers, community centers, more skate parks. In college, there were shows in the common areas of the dorms — the RAs were required to sponsor a certain number of events per semester, and signing off on someone’s show was an easy way to check a box. At a certain point, a bunch of clubs that had hosted all-ages punk shows either closed or started to implement rigid and sucky policies; kids took matters into their own hands and booked all-ages shows in rented halls. There was a solid DIY regional network in the New Haven area that made use of American Legion and VFW halls. When the halls started getting skittish about hosting rowdy all-ages shows, the DIY thing went into people’s basements and garages. There were a bunch of pretty active punkhouses around CT with names like The New Hawaii, The Handsome Woman, Thunderdome, and The Fucking Discovery Zone.

During the last year I lived in New Haven, I decided I would start a community show space. It would be all-ages, you’d have all kinds of performances at night, there would be a coffee shop and perhaps bookstore open during daytime hours (very important to maximize the hours you could monetize the space at all), ideally there would be a designated 21+ area that served beer during performances. It would be collectively run by a group of 10 or so people, so it wouldn’t have to be anyone’s full-time job. Hugely ambitious. I spoke with some owners of vacant commercial space who were amenable. Problem was, I couldn’t get a collective together. Plenty of people active in the local music scene were stoked on the concept in theory, but when I started telling them I was looking for a space, I got a lot of “Oh wow, that’s awesome; good luck with that.” (A cool epilogue: After I’d moved to Brooklyn in 2010, a group of people actually took over one of the spaces in New Haven I’d been interested in, named it Popeye’s Garage because it was a garage next to a Popeye’s, and hosted shows for a few years.)

During my first summer in Brooklyn, I was severely underemployed. That was a common condition among my peers during the depths of the Great Recession. I would pick up a copy of Showpaper, the free broadsheet that listed regional all-ages shows, and look for free shows. I ended up in the East Williamsburg Industrial Park a lot. In those days, there were quite a few former warehouse buildings that had been split up into art lofts. It seemed as though most weekends someone was throwing a one-off show in their loft or on their roof. I had definitely been to shows in art loft buildings before, but the frequency and scale of what I was seeing felt revelatory. Like, you could find a space that could be a suitable show space and then build it out to your own specs and then live in it? Outstanding. That sounded like it solved the problem of how to maximize a show space’s usable hours. And it all seemed so much less tenuous, and also more comfortable, than so many of the house shows I had been familiar with. 

There were plenty of people building out lofts and throwing shows who were younger, broker, less organized, less sane, and on weirder drugs than I. So I didn’t see what was holding me back from doing it.

How did you find this place?

Craigslist. Seriously. I went to check it out, saw that it was completely empty save for a bathroom, took some measurements, and decided I could build what I needed to live and have ample room for shows. It wasn’t as deep in the industrial park as I’d been aiming for, and it was a little smaller than I’d hoped. But everything I actually needed checked out. The landlord’s agent told me he was glad I wanted to sign the lease, because he got a good vibe from me and he really didn’t feel like showing the space to a series of people.

Granted, finding the space took months. I had a lot of flexibility in my previous living arrangement: I had a room in someone else’s apartment and wasn’t on a lease. I could move out anytime on 30 days’ notice. I’d taken a job that basically wrecked my life for a year, but I couldn’t quit it until I’d saved up enough for a security deposit. (For a commercial space, that would be two months’ security.) I started looking at loft spaces in February of 2012. I looked at 13 in total, a few each month. Each of the first 12 had a fatal flaw. Some were too residential. Some were shaped too oddly to properly build out the way I wanted. One didn’t have a bathroom in the unit — down the hall instead. One was prone to flooding. (I’m pleased to report one of the spaces I took a pass on became, in other people’s hands, the DIY space Cat Farm.) In June, I finally found the space that I felt confident would work.

How did you build it?

I had a lot of help. The landlord’s maintenance crew installed some plumbing for the bathroom and a kitchen area, and wired up several electrical outlets. My own plumbing and electrical skills are too rudimentary to take on anything this major. I had built a practice space in an unfinished basement (shittily) in my early 20s, and a bunch of bookcases, but this task was really beyond. There was no way I could have built it on my own; I mean, we had 16-foot ceilings in that space, and we built four lofted rooms on stilts. The landlord’s agent had lived in and built out a few loft spaces himself, and he came over and helped build to my specs. I picked up a lot from him. He nixed some concepts of mine that couldn’t be built soundly. My first roommate helped a ton. He enlisted the help of a friend who had also built out a couple spaces.

We were actually pretty lucky that we didn’t have to do anything special to soundproof the space — soundproofing being an absolute necessity before throwing shows. The space had previously been the back two-thirds of a recording studio, and already had blown-in soundproofing insulation in the existing walls. That was a major selling point. 

How did you keep it operating without shit going down?

That’s the most important question. Some of the answers are highly subjective to the particular space and its location and the quirky politics of a building with easily 30 tenants using their respective spaces for very different reasons. But there are some guidelines that I would suggest anyone follow if they’re trying to launch their own DIY space. Running a DIY space is complicated, and most are perpetually on the brink of getting shut down. Try something like:

  • Be open with the landlord about your objectives with the space. It is sheer folly to expect you can move into a space and surreptitiously hold events on the regular without the landlord finding out. It is actually the landlord’s job to know everything that goes down in their building. You can’t bank on the supposition that your landlord isn’t going to do their job. You need to be upfront about what you want to do when you initially look at any space. If the landlord says no, that space is out of the running; don’t waste more of your time. 
  • Get some provisions in your lease that will make it easier for you to do what you want to do. When I was signing my lease, the landlord’s agent smoked a thing that is now legal in New York and decided to add a bunch of provisions that allowed me some use of a lot of shared spaces in the building. Having that access eventually made shows logistically easier and — very importantly — safer. When I asked if there were anything else we should add, he gazed off into the distance and murmured, “Yes, life is beautiful.” So my lease literally says the landlord and tenant agree that life is beautiful. That’s the only provision of the lease that’s been impossible to uphold over the years.
  • Don’t assume your neighbors will “be chill.” A lot of people in this world can be amenable to a lot of things, if they know what to expect — but people generally don’t like disruptions to their routines. This was always a challenge for me and my spacemates. We were in the building for so long that, after a certain point, people moving in down the hall understood we were there and were cool with it. We had to be way more deferential when we were new. We operated around our neighbors’ schedules. We hosted events only on weekends. I adopted a “leave no trace” policy, so a person walking into the building the next morning wouldn’t be able to tell what had gone on the previous night. We never had the blessing of 100% of our neighbors, but we at least stayed generally out of their way. 
  • Expect the neighborhood will change over time. This is more of a concern in urban areas, where developers are eager to buy up property, but it’s something to consider anywhere. If you’re looking at a space where you’re currently out of your neighbors’ way, think about the likelihood of that staying about the same during the duration you hope to keep the space running.
  • In programming events, skew closer to the world you know, without being exclusionary. I think it’s wise to at least start out drawing from a scene you’re already part of. You want to know what to expect. You want to know who’s trustworthy (and who’s really talented). You want to work with people who understand how your space is different from a proper club. That said, I think everyone who has ever operated a DIY space has been accused of being cliquish. It’s probably impossible to avoid being called exclusionary — but you don’t want to catch yourself being it. Cultivate relationships with people outside of your core scene. I just think variety and new faces are more interesting than doing the same thing over and over for the same people.
  • Go dark when you need to go dark. Expect that at some point, the landlord will get antsy about what you’re doing. Expect that at some point, one or more of your neighbors will push back on you. You really need to listen to their concerns. There are times when it’s judicious and responsible to cool it for a while, until you’ve regained the confidence of other stakeholders. There were very few times when the landlord or neighbors raised a complaint with me, but each time I did, I postponed anything that was on our show calendar until six or more weeks out. Blasting forward uninterrupted is self-defeating. It’s not “punk.” It’s just obnoxious, and it’s a dumb hill to die on.
  • Avoid messy financials with any partners/spacemates. Look, you can hope that you get your full security deposit back after you move out, but don’t let your financial future rest on the prospect that you’ll get 100% of the deposit back. Talking about money sucks, I know. But if you’re doing this with other people, you need to all be on the level about how you might handle the everyday financials and “surprise” expenses. At my space, I was the sole leaseholder, and I assumed ultimate financial responsibility for everything. I wouldn’t necessarily advise doing the same, because it was often nerve-wracking. But the benefit of that method is that I never had to argue about money with anyone, and for that I’m extremely grateful.
  • Carry insurance. In my case, general liability insurance was a necessity — landlord’s orders. It’s also just the right idea. There is always the chance that someone will get hurt in any space that’s ever open to the public. If anyone gets hurt, liability insurance makes things much easier. 

Beyond all that, I operated on a few basic principles, with the knowledge that if I were unable to uphold one or more, I would have to seriously reconsider how I was managing things:

No one inside gets hurt.
No one outside gets bothered.
No one acting in good faith gets turned away.

Following the guidelines above allowed us to almost always uphold those principles. (So did running on the donation system. We had a policy of letting people in even if they didn’t have money to pay for admission.) People are drawn to DIY events in part because, when they run smoothly, they feel safe and welcoming. So you want to make people feel safe and welcome. And there’s a piece of that that goes beyond the physical nature of the space and touches on the people. The “good faith” qualifier matters. Harassing, intimidating, or physically harming people is acting in bad faith. It’s perfectly reasonable — responsible, even — to remove a bad-faith actor, or to deny entry to a person with a history of bad-faith actions. Not everyone who acts in good faith is right all the time, but they deserve respect and safety.

I’ve gone on for a while here, and I still have more thoughts about my experiences. I have a lot of stories. They’re for another time or place, or several times and places. There isn’t even a great way of tying up this whole piece. It’s an ongoing spiel. I’ll probably add to it at some point. I mean, it’s not as though I’m done with DIY anything, just because I live in a normal apartment and have a normal practice space. The music landscape in NYC is pretty different now than it was a year and a half ago. There are new clubs, new DIY spaces, a lot of new bands. New sets of people are figuring out what culture is going to look like in this city, or anywhere. I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing what they come up with.

The crowd-surfing guy in Jeanette’s photo at the top of this post runs a hilarious Instagram account called @bandmemes666, which I very highly recommend following.

Kinda meant it about the “AMA” thing. Post a q in the comments if you want to know something more.

About Brian LaRue

Writer, Editor, Guitarist, and So On
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1 Response to I Ran a DIY Space for Like Six Years, AMA

  1. Pingback: Advice to Young Musicians, Part 2: Should You Start Your Own Music Scene? | Hey, It's Brian LaRue

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