The Music Underground 

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

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Inside the large, dark, warehouse-like room, about sixty people are either milling about, sitting in chairs near bookshelves, or standing around and talking. A dry-erase board on the wall lists upcoming shows, and a bike rack near the entrance holds a ridiculous amount of bikes, giving the impression that the place is sort of a mini commune. Hanging from a makeshift second-story loft is a sparkly homemade banner that reads: "Since the system won't surrender let us build popular power/Long live those who struggle." A couple people sell alcohol from behind a makeshift bar in the kitchen area, pots and pans affixed to the wall.

At about 10:40, an emcee gets onstage and announces that tonight's show is a benefit for a new anarchist space opening up nearby. Then he introduces a local rapper, who gives a shout-out to Lovelle Mixon over prerecorded tracks. He's followed by a duo, who rap about various effects of being poor. At one point someone shouts, "Fuck the police." By 11 p.m., the room is getting crowded.

Despite the absence of security, proper lighting, and emergency exits, there's a relaxed feeling to the whole thing, as well as a sense of community. You could strike up a conversation with a stranger and it'd feel organic. Everyone seems to respect the space because trashing it would be like destroying your own home.

That's a common feeling at DIY spaces, whether it's a low-ceilinged basement in a house or a bigger warehouse show. That said, the experience probably isn't for everyone. Some venues are pretty run-down, reek of stale beer and cigarettes, and have graffiti everywhere, holes in the walls, and squalid bathroom conditions.

But these aren't clubs, after all. This is about the music, not making money. They're about giving bands a chance that otherwise might not have a place to perform.


That's apparently how DIY venues started in the first place. "It basically started in the Seventies with punks wanting to find a place to play," explained DoDIY's Neil Campau. "Bars or venues wouldn't book their band, or maybe their music was anti-capitalist and they didn't want to play bars where it's about making money. People created their own spaces and realized they could do that. ... It's expanded a ton since then."

In the Bay Area, the early punk scene was nurtured by venues like Berkeley's 924 Gilman and Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco. And while Gilman is still around, a lot of the other local venues eventually closed down. Gradually, warehouses began to fill the void.

It has always cost less to live in Oakland than San Francisco, so it's natural that artists and musicians would move here. And many of them moved into empty warehouses in places like West and East Oakland (an exception was Burnt Ramen in Richmond). And it wasn't just punks. The rave scene in the Nineties also facilitated the rise of underground warehouse parties, as did the experimental and noise community. Places like 40th Street Warehouse became a vital outlet for local bands.

But, as is the nature of these spaces, warehouses always came and went. Eventually the cops or the fire marshal would get wind of them and shut them down. Or tenants would move out and the new ones wouldn't want to host shows. Or it just became too hard to have a bunch of people moshing in your living room.

In the last handful of years, however, the number of DIY warehouse and house shows in Oakland appear to have exploded. Depending on whom you ask, the reasons for this vary. Greg Wilkinson, who plays in the Oakland sludge band Brainoil and who runs Earhammer Studios in West Oakland, where he's recorded many bands who play the DIY scene, says Oakland has become a "cultural hotbed" in the last year or two.

First, he cites San Francisco's skyrocketing rent costs, plus the closure of the rehearsal space Downtown Rehearsal, for pushing many musicians and bands across the bay. Second, he notes that the reopening of the Oakland Metro, a large-capacity venue catering to metal (and punk), meant that large touring metal bands were suddenly playing in Oakland for the first time, instead of or in addition to playing the City. "During this point, the demand had outgrown its outlet," Wilkinson wrote in an e-mail. "The newer acts (touring and local) need to start somewhere where 50 people can watch without paying a high door price to stand in a seemingly large and empty room."

Not only is there increased demand for more spaces for bands to play, but there is also a larger fanbase, as punk and metal converged in the past decade or so, whereas previously those scenes were fairly separate. Wilkinson said there's one block in West Oakland where punks have taken over, renting as many as ten houses, which host regular shows.

Often, DIY venues are started by artists and musicians who need space to do their own creative work. Kent (who only wanted to go by his first name) initially signed the lease on his West Oakland warehouse four years ago in order to have a workspace for his electrical contracting company and for the installation and performance art he does. Eventually, Kent, who's also a musician, started hosting occasional experimental noise shows, but demand for his space began to ramp up in the last year or so, in part, he says, because of the growth of the metal scene. His shows are now almost exclusively metal. "Usually black metal [bands] weren't interested in performing that much, and they seem to have broken out of that in the last year," he said. "There's a lot of great bands."

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