Not too long ago, local bands played in the back room at Mr. Fluff's, the laundry on South Avenue. The shows were known as sweat-drenched affairs attended by street-tough types. Police shut the shows down, and it's straight-up rinse cycles and fabric-softening at the place now.
But that kind of stuff's still happening in Rochester. Punk bands invite friends over and play a set or two in their apartments. College-age kids - some of whom may end up passing out or peeing on your front lawn - buy a keg, hook the iPod up to a stereo, and hold weekend-long parties with window-rattling music.
It's understandable that some parties get shut down. They can be noisy, or people can get drunk and stupid; maybe a fight breaks out, or in an extreme case, someone is shot and killed.
But nonviolent, community-friendly entertainment groups do exist in Rochester. The music at their shows can be as raucous as any other, but these "DIY" groups do not throw your neighbor's drunken house party. Still, they have had trouble finding and keeping performance space. They say it's unfair for the city to lump them in the same group as out-of-control house parties, and that they provide a valuable entertainment service to an underserved market. City officials say they're willing to help DIY groups work through the system and find legal space, but that no one has approached them. And if the groups are holding illegal functions - violating zoning, licensing, or other laws - the city can't discriminate, no matter how respectable those functions may be, and the venues will be shut down.
DIY shows are organized from the ground up. Groups find and rent space, obtain PA equipment, book bands, buy snacks, make flyers, offer bands a place to sleep, tear down, clean up, and repeat the whole process week after week. The groups are made up of 20 and 30 somethings, self-described as college-educated and sober, and their shows are far from haphazard; shows are typically booked months in advance, and there's a list of things the DIY groups won't tolerate. Don't show up with booze, for instance, and don't expect to find any for sale. Same goes for drugs. Nobody will ask you for cash at the door, though if you're kind, you'll cough up a buck or two to help the band - who is probably from out of town and in dire need of gas or food money. There's no stage, and when you show up at the venue, you'll find it's a living room, a basement, maybe a commercial space. The people you're eating cookies and drinking cream soda with are bands from Buffalo, Arkansas, or as far away as the Dominican Republic. Local bands are on the bill, too.
Three local DIY groups gathered for potluck dinners on recent Thursday nights to talk about something hurting them all: the shutting down of their performance spaces. These include A\V Space's Public Market location (shut down in June of last year), the Treehouse (shut down March 5), and The Landfill (shut down March 19). There's no single reason why the city shut these places down. The landlord of A\V's Public Market space was served with a cease-and-desist order after a seriesof disruptive and violent house parties caught the city's attention. A\V's building was not properly licensed for the events it held.
The Treehouse, Savannah Richards' venue, was shut down when a show - billed as a benefit for a housemate whose computer was stolen - was advertised on Myspace and the local NET office found out about it. Richards' landlord was served with a cease-and-desist order stating that the residence didn't meet the state building code requirements for public entertainment.
The Landfill, located in Greece, stopped holding shows when a neighbor saw the venue listed in City Newspaper and phoned in a complaint to the town.
DIY groups have common goals: bring music to Rochester. Keep music in Rochester. Give the kids a show they won't get anyplace else.
Sounds simple, right?
"The concern is if the facility is not designed for that particular use," says Amy Nichols, municipal attorney for the city of Rochester.
She explains that an entertainment license - bestowed on a building, not an individual or group - is needed if there is live music. And the building needs to be inspected by the fire department and NET to be sure it's in compliance with codes.
A\V's been actively seeking properly zoned and coded space - or one they could buy, then bring up to snuff. Meanwhile, they'veheld shows at area venues like Boulder Coffee Co and the Bug Jar. But these venues can't support the kind of volume A\V had at the Public Market, where they held three or four shows a week, and hosted art exhibits. The Landfill and Treehouse have rerouted their showsto area venues including theHouse of Hamez and New Health Café.
But the problem with having a DIY show at a conventional venue is that there's a stage and there's a cover charge, and these things ring false to the DIY crowd.
"It's a completely different animal," says Derek Sapienza, who booked shows for The Landfill and has experienced DIY shows as both a performer and audience member. At a DIY show, he says, "you're stripped of your ego when you walk in the door."
If you had walked through the front door of The Landfill when it was open, you would have been greeted by John Horner. The shows were held at his home-turned-music-venue. Bands set up merchandise on his kitchen table, he personally shopped for snacks, and he welcomed everyone from parents and teens to children.
"It's pretty cool to see an 8-year-old kid bouncing off the walls, listening to punk rock," he says.
And it wasn't just punk rock. Horner refers to the space as a platform for "a lot of people to say a lot of things," especially since Landfill shows - and DIY shows in general - are known to mix genres.
The Landfill "never had a hardcore show or a noise show, per se," says Horner, but "there'd be four to five different bands, usually punk. Folk.Dude with an acoustic guitar.A noise act."
Since there's no stage, Sapienza says, the performer is at eye level with everyone at the space, making an immediate connection between performer and audience members.
Similarly, fellow audience members make connections in a way they wouldn't at a typical bar or club. Richards explains that when you head out to a DIY show, even if you don't know anyone, you're immediately among friends.
Tim Avery, a local musician and supporter of DIY shows, surprised himself a little when he initially became part of the DIY community. He lent a PA system to The Landfill, and he is known for the recording studio-within-a-suitcase he lugs around, because he often tapes live shows. Avery remembers a show where a performer handed out lines of lyrics on strips of paper, and the crowd sang along - something Avery now incorporates into his own performances.
Essentially, says Horner, DIY shows are "no different than Canal Days or a fireman's carnival." They give people the chance to be part of a community, he says, and "break some bread."
Scott Oliver, one of the curators for A\V, says people in certain city offices are trying to help A\V and similar groups.
"The city architect is actually being very helpful and came up with some creative solutions," Oliver says. "But it took A\V three months to find the city architect."
Ultimately, he says, it's hard to be heard.
"It's almost like we're too small to wake up someone in the city," Oliver says. An event like the Jazz Fest swoops in once a year, he says, and gets total community and government support. Meanwhile, groups like A\V promote and enable culture 52 weeks a year, he says, without support from local government.
City Councilmember Elaine Spaull says that she'd be glad to work with the DIY groups, but that no one has contacted her.
"You do have people who kind of assume that no one wants to help them, but they don't actually reach out," she says. "I would say, access City Hall, access your council person, access the system."
Likewise, Nichols says she was unaware of the DIY groups' situation and questions why group members would approach the city architect for help.
What it really comes down to, Spaull says, is a matter of process.
"Almost anything can be done if you really work through it the right way," she says.
Here is what others say about this article. City Newspaper isn't responsible for the content of comments.
James Roweon April 30th, 2008
As the owner of House of Hamez, commonly known as The
Mez, I have hosted several DIY events recently. The audiences have been very
considerate, and the music has been extraordinary. I would like to point out
that for these events, there has been no cover charge; rather the organizers
have put out a donation jar to help the bands get further down the road. It is
true that there is often a cover here at The Mez, but I want to make it clear
that none of that money goes into my pocket: it is strictly for the musicians.
The upcoming first annual Mezapallooza, May 16-18 will feature a wide array of music, ranging from Kinloch Nelson to City Harvest Black, seasoned musicians such as Ed Downey and Jim Drew as well as names you will soon know, like Kelly Izzo and Raedwald.
Although the DIY groups have lost venues such as A\V Space and The Landfill, I believe that they feel at home here at The Mez.
Andrew on April 30th, 2008
What makes these shows "public" events that
require their location be a licensed venue? Does one need an entertainment
license for private parties? What about having a band for a graduation party or
a wedding? As long as there are no noise complaints, what is the issue?
To me a Myspace posting does not de facto make something public. Isn't it supposed to be "a place for friends" anyway?
Bill OReillyon May 1st, 2008
What a bunch of complianers!!!!! Im glad you idiots
got shut down. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Thank you.
P.S. Watch Fox news.
Jason on May 1st, 2008
Fuck you, City of Rochester.
Not only are you in violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the
(you know: the one that gives "the right of the people peaceably to
assemble"?), but you are also hypocrites. Does the City shut down illegal
house parties on S****Bowl Sunday? Of course not. They
target the creative fringe - ironically part of the "brains" they so
fear "retaining" since these are the people who see the needlessness
of a draconian City Government.
And as part of that creative fringe, I have been advising people to not speak with nor cooperate with the police for they are our enemy.
Ian on May 5th, 2008
Calling the police our enemies will only hurt our case.
Markon May 6th, 2008
Jason, as someone who's played basement shows/house/diy shows in and out of Rochester I can say that for the most part, it's not the police's fault. In all fairness, how would you be able to tell one crowded, loud gathering from another if you have no context of what's taking place? There's no one sitting in an ivory tower wielding a "SMASH FREEDOM OF SPEECH" hammer looking for hardcore shows or any other DIY show for that matter. The real issue is, which thankfully this article did a great job of highlighting, is not the shutting down of shows per say,but the lack of communication between the city and people who have been booking DIY shows. It shouldn't be terribly difficult to set up a "legitimate" show space in the city if the communication is there, and it looks like some good people are on the problem!
$haff-money on May 6th, 2008
Fuck the man, before he fucks you. Local music is the heart and soul of communities. Plus its good stuff.