The Music Underground 

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

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Campau says the best way to avoid getting shut down is for venue operators to "have a relationship with their neighbors" and tell them "what they're doing and what will be happening and be really clear with that. If cops or city officials get called, it's usually because of neighbors." Some venues might choose to only have acoustic shows as to lessen noise complaints.

The decision to sell alcohol raises the risk of a venue getting shut down, says Campau, yet he estimates that about half of the DIY spaces do so. "Obviously there's gonna be more problems if you have alcohol, if you provide alcohol to minors," he said. "If you don't have alcohol it would help you probably. It's really important to realize that you're not running a business and so most spaces ... [are] taking money at the door or passing around a jar to pay for the performers' gas. Almost always, it's a suggested donation, which goes with the vibe of everything that no one's turned away. Also it helps you get around a loophole as far as laws go."

Just how illegal are these spaces? According to Oakland city ordinance, a cabaret includes "any place where the general public is admitted, for a fee, entertainment is provided, and alcohol is served. A place that does not charge for admission but where the general public is admitted, alcohol is served, dancing is permitted, and the venue operates past 11:00 p.m. shall also be construed as a cabaret." In other words, as long as DIY venues don't charge, sell alcohol, or allow dancing, they could theoretically be considered a house party. Otherwise, they're subject to fees and regulations.

Fluorescent Grey, who also runs Record Label Records, notes that ex-Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts announced in July 2010 that police would stop responding to noise complaints in the wake of eighty cop layoffs. He believes that announcement may have caused more people to start DIY venues in the belief that they could operate with impunity.

And in most cases, it appears that the police and the fire departments know about these shows and aren't terribly concerned about them. Kent, who runs the metal warehouse in West Oakland, says police have rolled by when he's having shows but haven't bothered him. Sharkiface says she hasn't had any problems with police or her neighbors, either.

But should the authorities be concerned? Sometimes people get ridiculously drunk, and the occasional fight has been known to break out. Some shows draw crowds of a hundred people or more. But in general, most DIY shows are fairly small, low-key affairs, drawing maybe twenty to fifty people. "In the last five years has anyone heard any problems about crime, violence, or fire issues at any of these places?" asked Jason Herbers of Eli's Mile High Club. "No, we haven't, because if we had it would be all over the news. The reason we haven't heard is because it hasn't happened. The people running these spaces ... generally cover their ass."

"There's nothing sketchy going on at these shows," agreed Zool's Lana Voronina. "It's hardworking artists trying to show their work."

Yet with the proliferation of so many houses and warehouse shows comes the increased possibility that the authorities will crack down on them. That's why Wilkinson believes the scene may have a limited lifespan. "Although new taxpayers are moving in flocks to embrace this large scene and growing city, Oakland is facing a financial crisis," he wrote. "In response, the city is trying to grab money where it can and these small business ventures and even houses known for shows sit in the line of fire. New fees, and in some cases weekly inspections by the city, have become commonplace. Some underground warehouses and houses have already thrown in the towel in the past few weeks (in some cases, by force.)"

A recent example: Hazmat, a long-running and fairly well-known punk venue, which was shut down by the Oakland Fire Department in September. How the fire department discovered Hazmat isn't clear — perhaps someone alerted the authorities. Nonetheless, it was a vital community space for local punks, and an in-demand venue for both local and touring bands.

Most DIY venues start for altruistic reasons, not to make money. But even without having to pay for cabaret or ABC licenses, hosting shows can still be a time-consuming and expensive endeavor. "I backed down from booking shows because I ran out of money," said Voronina. "But now it's getting more on track now. It just takes a lot of legwork."

She said she's starting a Kickstarter campaign in order to transition Zool away from being a living space and into a legitimate nonprofit music and arts venue and studio.


At first glance, DIY venues also appear to pose a threat to legal bars and clubs. After all, they have the advantage of lower overhead costs and being all-ages. As more music fans choose to go to DIY venues, that means the loss of much-needed tax dollars to the city. "Of course it has an effect on my business," said the Stork Club's Tom Chittock.

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