In Defense of Underground Music and Arts Venues
Every city needs an underground.
Josh "CuriousJosh" Reiss
The first music event I attended after moving to Los Angeles took place in a warehouse. It was a psychedelic trance party thrown by a crew called Sixth Sense. The location was somewhere in pregentrification Hollywood, when many of its commercial districts were virtually derelict. Outside was an urban wasteland, but inside the party was filled with color, sound and life: loud, pulsating music, black lights, people in hippie/raver attire — phat pants, dreadlocks, fluorescent sneakers, T-shirts with mandalas printed on them. I made a lot of new friends and danced my ass off. It was fantastic.
In the years since — more years than I care to admit — I've probably attended hundreds of other underground events in various locales, from warehouses and lofts to deserts and forests. One event took place after hours in a gym, with a boxing ring doubling as a dance floor. Another happened at a paintball park. Soundstages, ranches, decrepit theaters, churches, abandoned storefronts, construction sites — anywhere you could set up a sound system and invite a few hundred of your closest friends, the underground was there.
I was introduced to this scene at a time in my life when I desperately needed it. My father had just died and my career was in limbo. I was new to L.A. and had no idea what I wanted to do here. I had come from the East Coast to escape a life that no longer suited me, but I was directionless, running away from everything and toward nothing.
In the West Coast underground dance music community, I found a safe landing pad. It’s probably an exaggeration to say that the scene saved my life, but at the time that’s what it felt like.
For others, I have no doubt that underground parties really did save their lives. To this day I have never encountered another community more diverse or accepting. My friends in the underground electronic scene were black and white, Asian and Latino, gay, straight and trans. Harassment was rare, fights nonexistent. I’ve seen many punches thrown at nightclubs but nary a scuffle at an underground event.
Most of the events I've been to over the years have featured electronic dance music, because that's my scene and the one I know and love best. But I've also been to warehouse parties that featured punk, garage rock, noise and hip-hop. I know there's a big metal warehouse scene in Southern California but I haven't experienced it firsthand. Any genre of music that still has room for artists who push boundaries has some kind of underground.
It almost goes without saying that the vast majority of the events I'm describing — “raves,” in the eyes of the outside world, though few resembled what most people envision when they hear that dog-whistle word — did not have the proper permits for what took place there. They weren’t allowed to charge admission, or set up large sound systems, or serve alcohol. They existed off the grid, in varying shades of illegality.
Were the spaces themselves dangerous? In the wake of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland, I’ve been asking myself that question a lot, and my honest answer is: I don’t know. I’d be lying if I claimed that every time I entered a new underground venue, I checked to see where the fire exits were. I have no idea if their electrical was up to code. I was young and there to party and not thinking about such things. (It's worth noting here that even fully permitted venues sometimes have safety issues, too. The most unsafe I've ever felt at a music event was stampeding down what felt like about 50 flights of stairs with a thousand or so adrenalized J-pop fans at Club Nokia after a Kyary Pamyu Pamyu concert.)
No rational person with any kind of conscience can look at what happened in Oakland and not recognize that something about these underground spaces needs to change. Though I had many magical, transformative nights dancing (and occasionally DJing) in dark warehouses and artists’ lofts, I am the first to acknowledge that anything that can be done to make them safer and prevent another Ghost Ship should be done, whether that action is taken by their occupants, landlords, city authorities or a combination of all three.
But shutting down underground venues, as many cities including L.A. have already begun doing, is not the solution — especially when the spaces being targeted are not the most dangerous but simply the most visible, as seemingly has been the case so far. The Bell Foundry in Baltimore and Purple 33 here in L.A. only resembled Ghost Ship insofar as they were live/work artists’ spaces that regularly hosted music events. Neither was a "tinderbox" or a "labyrinth" with a single, rickety staircase — which is how one survivor of the Ghost Ship fire described that space.
Instead of treating such spaces and the people who live, work, perform and celebrate in them as hazards or nuisances, cities need to start recognizing them as a vital part of their cultural fabric. They are incubators of young talent and emerging art forms. As you read this, the next Flying Lotus, Haim or Anderson .Paak is probably practicing for an upcoming warehouse gig.
In this way, underground venues fill a vital niche that mainstream clubs and concert halls, by their very nature, cannot serve. When you’re spending a small fortune on licenses and rent, as all legit venues in a city like Los Angeles must do, you need to book talent and charge prices that will enable you to cover those expenses. Your commercial imperatives trump your artistic ones. Underground and DIY venues are cheaper to operate and seldom run for a profit. They’re managed (and often lived in, to save money) by artists and musicians, for artists and musicians, and for those communities that want to support them.
Since Ghost Ship, I’ve spoken to many underground venue inhabitants, operators and promoters, most of whom declined to speak on the record for fear of putting their own spaces at risk. When alt-righters are starting 4chan threads calling underground and DIY spaces “open hotbeds of liberal radicalism and degeneracy" and offering tips for how to get them shut down, everyone is looking over their shoulders, hoping their place isn’t next on the hit list.
A common theme that has emerged from all these conversations is that there needs to be a “path to legality” — a way for the owners and occupants of unpermitted spaces to work with city authorities, not hide from them, when they are making good-faith efforts to keep their events safe, drug-free and respectful of their neighbors. Without such a path, most underground venues feel they have no choice but to continue operating outside of existing zoning and permitting laws. The alternative is simply too expensive, and the odds of going through the whole process only to be denied are too high.
Ironically, the city with the most progressive response to the Ghost Ship fire is the city where it happened — Oakland. Less than a week after the tragedy, Mayor Libby Schaaf announced that her city would establish a $1.7 million fund to help artists and arts organizations move into affordable and safe spaces or bring their existing spaces up to code.
I hope Los Angeles and other cities will follow suit. The Ghost Ship fire claimed 36 lives, but underground and DIY venues as a whole have saved many more lives than that. They should be supported and made safer, not snuffed out.
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