The Music Underground 

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

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Like Kent, Lana Voronina also moved into her warehouse, Zool, out of artistic necessity. "It started three years ago when I came to the Bay Area to be a graduate student at Mills," she said. "I just needed a remote space that could accommodate music rehearsals at any hour, and an art studio."

Voronina drove around looking for "For Lease" signs in industrial areas and came upon one in West Oakland. With the cooperation of her landlord, she modified the space, which had been a crane repair facility as well as a coffee roasting plant in its former life, into something legally habitable. "It turned into an events space haphazardly," Voronina explained. "Because of the community I'm involved in and the musicians I met at Mills, we started hosting events and everyone liked it and it just grew from there."

Now, Zool hosts two monthly events: Katabatik, which Voronina said features "dark dance electronic music," and Record Label Records Night, which highlights "experimental, new electronic, sometimes dance-oriented, sometimes ambient" music.

The closure of 21 Grand, earlier this year also created a need for venues to host experimental music. Sharkiface, a musician who lives in and runs a mostly experimental noise venue called Life Changing Ministries (so-called because it occupies a former church), said demand for her space increased after 21 Grand went away. That venue closed after receiving a "cease and desist cabaret activity" notice from the City of Oakland for failing to meet building and fire codes, which would have cost $100,000 to fix.

The notice was part of an effort by the city last year to enforce various permit requirements of bars and clubs. Thus, the cost of running a legitimate club went up, at the same time that the economy has made it harder to get people in the door. Tom Chittock, former manager of the Stork Club, said he had to pay thousands of dollars in fees every year to the city, ASCAP, BMI, and the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. "Every one of these licenses is $1,000 and up," he said a few months ago, pointing to a bunch of framed licenses on the wall above his bar.

"It's a bitch doing business here," agreed Jason Herbers, co-owner of Eli's Mile High Club. "For three years I tried to get this cabaret permit. It took me thousands of dollars. I had to put in new sound-proofing, I had to have a security plan. I had to deal with all this stuff to prove, hey, we're responsible business owners." (He says things have gotten better in the city since Arturo Sanchez, an assistant to Mayor Quan, was put in charge of cabaret licenses.)

Promoters and bookers say the amount of legal red tape necessary to open legit venues, along with having to navigate bureaucratic ineptitude, discourages more entertainment from flourishing in Oakland, while spurring the proliferation of underground spaces.

Take the recent example of the Mission Creek Music and Arts Festival. Originally started in San Francisco, the nonprofit indie fest jumped the bay a few years ago in response to the thriving music scene here. The offshoot, Mission Creek Oakland, booked a month's worth of shows at various venues in September, and wanted to conclude its festival at Mosswood Park's amphitheater.

Go to that park on any sunny weekend, and you'll often find a crowd of people dancing to a DJ set up with a makeshift generator. The organizers of Mission Creek Oakland wanted to book the outdoor space legitimately, but when they went through the official city channels, organizer Kiyomi Tanouye said no one could tell her how much it cost to rent it out. "I called for three weeks and I was, like, 'Could I please just find out how much it costs?' And they're, like, 'We don't have the piece of paper.'"

DIY spaces may not be a new phenomenon, but some say that a fundamental change has occurred in Oakland, at least among bands not from here.

And that is that the city is becoming known as a destination for touring bands to play, according to Earhammer Studio's Greg Wilkinson, thanks to the presence of so many DIY venues. Kent says he gets about five to ten requests a month to host shows, far more than he's able to accommodate. "We've had musicians from all over the world who've performed there," said Zool's Lana Voronina. "China, Australia, Illinois, Berlin, Maine."

Brooklyn-based duo Mountains, which is signed to Thrill Jockey, chose to play a DIY venue in Oakland for its first outing to the West Coast. Band member Koen Holtkamp said that his band is increasingly playing nontraditional venues. "We might play a DIY space one night and have that sense of community, and then play a venue or gallery," he said. "There's not one place that's ideal — it's the variety I like."

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