The Music Underground 

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

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When Mountains does play a DIY space, he said more fans attend because shows at those venues happen infrequently and thus are considered "special occasions" when they do. "There's a purity to it — people tend to be really excited and happy to have you there," Holtkamp said. "With DIY venues, because it is a special event and a more personal connection to what's going on, you have consistently better crowds."

Established clubs, on the other hand, he said are usually more concerned with their bottom line. They generally book bands based on who'll draw enough people so they can cover their overhead costs, and view bands as just one of many coming through town.

By their nature, DIY spaces have an anything-goes type of atmosphere. They tend to attract more "underground, esoteric music," said Holtkamp. And they're "more malleable," meaning the sound system and the stage aren't set in stone, whereas at a regular venue: "there's the venue, there's the stage." "So you can get more creative" at a DIY space, he said. Many years ago at a warehouse show, this reporter witnessed an audience member perform spontaneous oral sex on a singer of a band during its final show. Suffice it to say, that wouldn't have happened at the Uptown.

"What I like about Oakland is it's so downtrodden, it's been so disheveled that literally you can walk down the streets and not be bothered by the cops," explained Sesar Sanchez, a guitarist in the Chico metal band Cold Blue Mountain, about why his band chose to play a warehouse show. "I like it here. It's awesome, it's amazing."

Indeed, DIY venues have an entrepreneurial spirit about them. At one punk venue in the basement of a house in North Oakland, a hand-drawn cardboard sign on the wall advertises: "Ask about cheap prison tattoos." A table by the door displayed seven-inch records and cassettes for sale.

It may seem counterintuitive, but bands (at least smaller ones) say they also can make more money at DIY shows because they're all ages. When Brainoil played the punk warehouse Hazmat a while back, Wilkinson said the venue made a total of $1,600 and only kept 30 percent, whereas traditional venues keep a larger percentage. (Wilkinson said he gave most of the money to the out-of-town bands on the bill.) Kent says he gives bands 60 to 75 percent of the door (he charges between $5 and $8). DIY venue operators can make money by selling alcohol, but most do so for very cheaply and no one prevents folks from bringing in their own booze (or weed, for that matter).

On a Friday night at Hazmat, 37-year-old drummer Damian Talmadge was waiting to perform with his band Paranoid Freak Out. He said he plays Hazmat a couple times a month, in addition to venues like the Elbo Room, Oakland Metro, Thee Parkside, and Burnt Ramen. "For the underground scene, warehouse shows make more money," he said. "Without them there'd be nothing but mainstream bands."

But with that open-door policy comes some drawbacks. "In some ways, it makes music shittier because people don't have to try as hard," Talmadge said. Later, realizing that perhaps that statement sounded a bit harsh, he qualified it, saying, "It also gives people a chance to get started."

Some say all these underground spaces are actually balkanizing the music scene, since some venues only book certain types of bands that have very specific or niche audiences. "Oakland isn't really that big of a music scene but it's so fragmented into all these genres and scenes," said Fluorescent Grey, who also books acts at Zool. "But a lot of it has so much in common with each other and we think it's better to mix it up and challenge people a little bit, take them out of their comfort zone."

For fans, DIY shows offer a casual, cheaper, and more intimate experience. Many believe that they're also helping the bands more directly. "Most of the money is going back to supporting their art," said Oakland resident Brooke Sommerfeldt, 31, who attended a metal festival in West Oakland in September. "It's a different environment. ... I think it's important for the musicians and people in the scene to have more control. I appreciate that."

In essence, it's the vibe that bands and fans seem to appreciate most about DIY spaces. It's a less stressful and more relaxing environment for the bands, more casual and affordable for the fan, and has an altruistic, community-fostering sense of purpose. But is it all too good to be true?


Unless you know where to look, finding a DIY show in Oakland isn't that easy. They aren't exclusive, per se, but organizers make it a point to stay off the radar of the general public. Inviting everyone means inviting trouble, and thus inviting cops, which means no more shows. So venue operators walk the line between maintaining secrecy and generating publicity.

The advent of social networking has made that a whole lot easier, allowing promoters and bands to discretely spread the word about their shows to a select group of people. "It seems really generic to say, but social networking and all that kind of stuff, it's becoming more accessible," said DoDIY's Neil Campau. "When it started out, some houses are really secretive, not necessarily because they don't want to open their space to all kinds of people but more because they're worried about getting shut down."

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