3553 Brighton Blvd, Denver
3551 Brighton Blvd., Denver
2935 W. 7th Ave. Denver
1213 W. Elizabeth St., Fort Collins
Do-it-yourself venues, the barely-legal music and art spaces run by the musicians and artists themselves, are rare around Denver. It’s possible to never even know they’re here, hidden in forgotten neighborhoods, within the ugly walls of old warehouses and garages.
A DIY space often serves as a live venue, a rehearsal room, a recording studio, and simply somewhere for everyone to connect and hang out. A few of them maintain storefronts — Blast-O-Mat doubles as a record store and Road 34 is also a bike shop. But more importantly, these are the strange little spots that give new and sometimes weird music a home. They aren’t businesses. There’s no corporation involved and they’re not trying to make a profit. Money is an afterthought, a pesky necessity.
The financing is very much do-it-yourself. Even in the most minimal setting, it gets costly to keep a venue alive. Rent can run from around $800 to $2,000 a month. The cost of a PA system can be as cheap as $200, but a quality setup costs thousands. Over time, and with the guarantee of some heavy abuse, components break and need to be fixed or replaced. Stocking a bar, even with just cheap beer, is a relatively minor but ongoing expense.
Boulder was briefly home to a DIY venue on N. Broadway and Violet Avenue called Astroland before a failed fire safety inspection forced it to shut down in September. Zack Roif, a co-owner of Astroland, pointed out that once it shut down, there was little hope of saving it. Because they only made enough money to stay open, there were no funds to start back up.
“For us it’s not about the money, but for the city it’s about the money. So ultimately we had to think about making money,” Roif said. “The minute you slack off and you don’t book that show or you let that show go or you don’t promote that show well enough is the minute you don’t pay next month’s rent.”
The rent on Astroland’s space was $850 a month, plus they paid recycling and garbage fees and $100 a month to maintain a port-a-potty. Their only way of generating income was asking for a $5 donation at the door.
“Financially, it was precarious. Getting by on a month-to-month basis was tricky and sometimes we would be paying out of our own pockets just because we weren’t charging $10 to get in the door or selling beer. So we were missing sort of that side of the financial gain of a traditional venue.”
Getting people through the door of a DIY venue is an interesting balance — easy because of the appeal these places have to music fans, but hard because they might not know where that door is.
Finding the front door
The feeling of underground cool that comes with a show at a DIY venue sets in before the music starts. It’s practically a rule that they be located on an otherwise-deserted street in a neglected neighborhood.
Given the destination of 35th Street and Brighton Avenue, a Denver cab driver expressed concern: “Uh oh, did your car get towed? I don’t think there’s anything else over there. Do you want me to wait and make sure you find the right door? Be careful.”
It really doesn’t look like there’s anything there, but not far off the corner is one of Denver’s few DIY spots, Rhinoceropolis. The only visible indication of its existence is the very small lettering on the front door. There’s absolutely nothing to see, until you get inside.
Every last inch of wallspace in Rhinoceropolis is covered in art and random junk. The space is busy. Paintings by local artists who use the studio spaces there hang next to a found canoe with manikin legs sticking out of it. A worn-out collection of couches lines one wall across from a kitchen area that doubles as the bar, and a skinny mutt named Bill Murray runs around chasing a chewed-up Frisbee.
On Friday, December 9, Rhinoceropolis threw a benefit show to help pay for some new sound equipment and repairs to the heating system. Chris Westin, one of the musicians who helps run the place, said they were able to raise enough money for a new sub system, a new mic, new cable, and new EQ, plus the heating repairs. None of the benefit money ever goes to rent — Westin and the rest of the crew pay that out of pocket.
“We had a great night, it was a weird turnout. Saw a lot more new faces and people that have never even been here. So it was great success in that sense,” Westin said. “Just talked to Warren, who pretty much built the system here and asked him what the best approach is for a sound system and gave him the door [money].”
Benefit shows are not uncommon on the DIY scene. Rhinoceropolis holds one at least once a year, and even threw one in support of one of New York City’s similar spots called Silent Barn. Astroland hosted a benefit over the summer after they were robbed and needed emergency help to pay the rent. Benefits work not because tickets are expensive — in most cases it’s a “give what you can” type of thing. They work because so many people care, including the musicians and artists themselves.
Filling the void
Todd Novosad, who performs noise under the name Novasak, has played Rhinoceropolis a few times a year since it opened and volunteers his time running the sound system, booking bands, and working the door. He’s among the artists who thrive at a place like this because it’s open to less traditional forms of music.
“I like to create an aural/physical environment for the listeners using sound. It’s a dynamic between silence and extreme volume,” Novosad said in an email. “DIY venues have been some of the only places that allow extreme music. Yes, there are some bars and galleries that will allow it, but there is a broader sense of freedom at a DIY venue. Bands and artists don’t have to pay for the space, and the venues don’t require a cut off the door. All of the money raised goes to the bands and artists.”
While Astroland was alive, it was upholding the same ideals and striving for the same sense of community.
“Fundamentally what sets DIY venues apart from corporate-owned venues, and even smaller venues, is the sense of togetherness and family that you sort of get at a space,” Roif said. “Once you realize that you’re doing this for so many other people, that’s when it really sort of gets you motivated to be booking bands and dealing with booking agencies and management.”
The closing of Astroland left a gaping hole in the Boulder DIY scene. The spot was one-of-a-kind in town. Roif graduates from CU this month and will move back to his native New York, so he won’t be looking for a re-opening. However, he said the idea and brand of Astroland is still alive. The physical space is gone, but the people are still organizing shows, like a block party they’re planning for January 21, 2012.
For someone else to fill the void, Roif said it will be a struggle between what the city wants and what people want.
“There are so many people who are creative and artistically capable in Boulder,” he said. “The thing to understand is Boulder doesn’t want stuff like this, necessarily. It’s not the image that Boulder is trying to instill in people.”
It’s not an impossible task, though. As cheesy as it sounds, it really just takes a dedicated group of people with the best intentions.
“This is not something you do by yourself, this is something you need to do with other people, and make sure those other people are as motivated as you and you’re doing it for the right reasons,” Roif said. “I think there’s definitely still a need for it and I don’t think that will ever go away.”