"Do it until they say no, and then keep doing it," says Michelle Carr, co-founder of punk haven Jabberjaw, describing how to properly run a venue without permits. Her legendary underground spot in Mid-City hosted icons like Nirvana, Elliott Smith and Sonic Youth until its eight-year run ended in 1997, and it's one in a long line of memorable music and art spots in L.A. that just happened to be illegal.
As L.A. Weekly's Amy Silverstein reported in May, it's damn hard to legally put on shows in this town. Throw in the fact that venues are forbidden to sell booze after 2 a.m., and you've got an atmosphere ripe for compelling after-hours and DIY spots. But LAPD is keen on shutting them down, particularly in recent years; unlike other metropolises, governing forces here seem set on finding and eradicating those clandestinely operated spaces.
Sure, it's easy to understand the importance of a few regulations, if only to prevent all-out anarchy. But compared to cities such as New York and Portland, Ore., where underground venues are better tolerated, L.A. seems downright draconian. Beloved music and arts spaces, including Mime School, McWorld, Homeroom and Il Corral were all shut down less than three years after opening. Founders of the Echo Curio, a venerated art gallery and all-ages experimental-music venue in Echo Park, which closed in late 2010, were told by the Department of City Planning that it would be "impossible" to get permits to do what they wanted to do. Hopes of moving Jabberjaw to a proper home dwindled along with Carr's capital, as no space she found could be affordably brought up to code.
Organizers at these types of venues describe their events as safe spaces for creative expression, which rarely threatens public safety. Take the L.A. Fort, a visual art and music center downtown, which was nearly silent when the vice squad stormed it in early February. Why? Because the crowd of 200 or so was quietly enjoying a projection of a postapocalyptic Western flick for which a pair of SoCal bands had done music. Vice cited a noise complaint, which seemed odd, since the venue is located in an industrial and manufacturing area, and its only neighbor is a pallet-storage warehouse.
According to vice detective Eric Moore, the vice squad is called in when an incident is "a bigger deal" than the local patrol can handle. (Moore adds that he can't speak on the L.A. Fort event because he doesn't know the details; it turns out no official report was filed.) L.A. Fort organizers were told by the squad leader that night to stop throwing events until they acquired a café entertainment license.
Venues that hope to avoid getting busted are forced to employ ever-changing tactics, including strict RSVP lists, private security teams and unlikely locations — warehouses, photography studios, industrial buildings — kept secret until just hours before the events begin. (It's reminiscent of the cloak-and-dagger secrecy of raves in the 1990s, with phone trees replaced by Google Docs and other forms of web technology.) Locations that have tried to maintain a regular after-hours presence, like the classic EDM spot Insomnia in Mid-City or Hollywood's anything-goes boutique-cum-disco Freak City, have been forced to fold or drastically alter the way they hold events, due to pressure from city officials.
"There's not the same sense of constant fear [of shutdowns] in most other cities," says Bobby Heckher, vocalist, guitarist and founder of L.A.-based group The Warlocks. The psychedelic-rock act tours regularly, and he cites New York, San Francisco and Austin as cities where it has performed in unauthorized spaces without opposition.
Oriana Leckert — who runs Brooklyn Spaces, an archive documenting alternative spots in that borough — notes that numerous underground Brooklyn venues have been active for decades, such as Rubulad, a giant, two-floor warehouse that hosts experimental installations and all-night dance parties. And Alejandro Archuleta, a booking maven in Oakland's underground scene, says that in his four years going to East Bay shows, he has yet to see one get the ax.
Meanwhile, in L.A., the shutdowns continue apace. In another bust in early February, LAPD arrived at The Warlocks' show at the Fortress recording studio in downtown just before the scheduled start time, explaining that the event couldn't proceed because the space didn't have event permits. Also downtown, the same thing happened in May at Think Tank Gallery, where psych-rock bands Soft Moon and Dead Skeleton were set to play.
When this kind of thing happens, the audiences are sent home and the organizers told to cease operation until they acquire the appropriate licenses. This is tough to pull off even for accredited venue owners, who bemoan a convoluted, citywide system that appears to be riddled with favoritism. In order to change a building's zoning designation to get an entertainment permit, for example, one can expect a year's worth of public hearings and expenditures of $50,000 or more.
Those running legitimate venues counter: That's just the price of starting a business.
"We've definitely lost shows to warehouse [parties]," says Liz Garo, talent buyer for the Echo/Echoplex and Spaceland Productions. She adds, "Yes, [obtaining permits is] expensive, but you know, we did it, it can be done, you just have to do it."
Though Garo's boss, Mitchell Frank, insists there is no competition between underground and institutionalized venues, he says via email, "Seeking capital for permits and meet[ing] city codes is tough for sure, but I always encourage new businesses to look at the long term ... to create a sound business plan to help acquire capital/crowdsourcing, etc."
For many folks involved with underground venues, it's not about the money, and they don't consider their spaces businesses.
"Our intentions are completely different," says Cameron Rath, L.A. Fort co-founder. "We're trying to [maintain] an inclusive space for people to work together, to create together, to explore ideas ... to create culture in our city and to build self-sustaining community."
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L.A. Fort was forced to restructure after its visit from vice; it pulled back from booking high-profile bands and increased offerings of lectures, performance art and various skill-sharing workshops, all organized by an open membership — anyone can join.
But this sort of highly organized approach isn't going to work for everybody. After all, half the appeal of an after-hours party is simply showing up somewhere, half-drunk, to welcome daybreak on the dance floor when everyone else has closed up shop.
So, the question becomes, what approach should those who want the after-hours parties and the unauthorized art spaces take?
"We need to start getting political," says Juli Emmel, operations manager at Art Share L.A., an artist-in-residency community center downtown. She suggests writing city councilmembers to urge them to work toward solutions to the gridlocked permitting system. "People can effect change much more effectively from within."