The Music Underground 

In Oakland, unlicensed DIY spaces have quietly exploded into a thriving music scene.


When the legendary Bay Area experimental band Negativland decided to unveil its new project, NegativWobblyland, to its fans in August, it didn't try to book a show at an established club like Slim's or Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. Instead, it decided to play at "Zool," a space that doesn't advertise, have a cabaret license, or is known to the general population. Located in an industrial section of West Oakland, the live-work warehouse occasionally hosts live music and only advertises its shows via word of mouth, Facebook, an e-mail list, and judiciously distributed fliers.

"It was lower pressure for us," explained Negativland's Mark Hosler, reasoning that the new band is an all-improvised instrumental project using homemade electronic noise-makers. "They're very silly sounding," he said of the devices. "It was hilarious and fun."

Only about fifty people ended up attending the show — far less than would have perhaps showed up to an established club that advertises in mainstream channels. But to Hosler, that wasn't the point. "It's kinda cool to do something in an unlikely venue," he said. "It kinda reminded me of warehouse shows we used to do in the early-Eighties — set up in an art gallery or basement with no stage. But now you have social networking."

Zool is one of at least seventeen underground warehouses and houses in Oakland right now that host live music — some of them in an apparent violation of city law. While Oakland has always had its share of these spaces, what's happening now seems to be unprecedented. From interviews with those running them, as well as musicians and bookers involved in the scene — many of whom requested to remain anonymous for fear of legal consequences — it appears that a combination of police disinterest, a thriving music scene with a dearth of legal venues, a surplus of unused industrial spaces, and the advent of social networking has created a perfect environment for underground venues to thrive.

In many cases, bands find these spaces more welcoming and with a lower barrier to entry than a traditional club. After all, DIY venues don't have the overhead of a legal brick-and-mortar nightclub. And every one of the DIY spaces is all-ages, meaning teens aren't limited to 924 Gilman or the Oakland Metro to see live music. Most charge low cover fees or ask for donations (about $3-$8), some sell alcohol, and there's a universally accepted BYOB policy. For fans, it's a chance to see obscure or local bands in an informal setting.

As a result, on just about any weekend night in Oakland, one can see a show that will not be listed in the Express' clubs calendar. And it's not just unknown local bands playing. David Halstead, the director of public relations for the Chicago-based indie label Thrill Jockey Records, said: "All the bands I've had come through Oakland have been playing DIY spots it seems."

This phenomenon also extends way beyond Oakland's borders. Neil Campau, who runs the website out of Seattle, says the proliferation of DIY venues is an international movement. His site lists venues throughout the United States and in sixteen countries, from Hungary to Vietnam. "People just like creating their own spaces and environment," he surmised.

While the DIY trend may not be limited to Oakland, for various reasons the city's underground scene seems to be having a moment. Some in the music industry say the DIY scene also is helping put Oakland on the cultural map. Moreover, underground spaces offer a much-needed platform, especially for up-and-coming and experimental bands. And even with the recent proliferation of nightclubs and bars in the city, many people say there still aren't enough venues to accommodate demand.

On the surface, DIY spaces might seem like noisy nuisances, safety hazards, or a missed tax opportunity, but there's also reason to believe that they could help recharge Oakland's sagging economy.

It's about 10 p.m. on a Friday night in early September, and we're hunting for some music. According to a website that lists local shows, there's supposed to be some bands playing at a house in West Oakland. We have no idea what kind of music it is, but judging by their names, we guess they're punk rock.

The house is located in a residential neighborhood, but as we roll by, it's completely quiet. A couple goes inside and shuts the door behind them. Was it canceled? Did we have the right address? Is it a really small show?

We use our smartphones to go online and find the venue's Facebook page to verify the address. There's a status update that says the show has been moved to a new venue, but to get the address we have to call a number. We dial the number and a cryptically recorded message tells us where to go. It's just a five-minute drive away, located on a busy thoroughfare.

This time, there are people hanging out front smoking. The two-story brick building looks like it might have been an office at one point, or maybe used for some kind of industrial purpose. Now its exterior is graffitied, and bars cover the windows. Bikes are locked up two, three deep on every nearby pole.

As we approach, we feel rather buttoned-up, even though we're only wearing jeans and hoodies. The majority of the people are young and white, in their twenties, and grungy. A cardboard sign taped to a black curtain inside informs us that the show is a benefit and there's a $10 donation. We pay a young woman, who throws our money into a shoebox of cash, then draws a geometric design with a Sharpie on the tops of our right hands (presumably so we'll have in-and-out privileges).

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