Analysis: Local underground music spaces need to be nurtured, not shut down
Photo: Stephen TrageserThere is no Ghost Ship in Nashville.
There’s no secret warehouse filled with stacks of studios and living spaces shoddily constructed out of found wood and old trailers and running on stolen electricity. There’s no art commune with dozens of tenants crammed inside maze-like hallways and makeshift staircases. But when the Bay Area art space caught fire during an electronic music show earlier this month, killing 36 people and devastating hundreds of lives, Nashville’s own DIY music and art scene felt the effects, too.
The crew at Meal Ticket, a small music venue in South Nashville, posted on Facebook that the fire marshal instructed them to “cease all operations” and that their landlord would not be renewing the lease in 2017. Drkmttr, on Indiana Avenue north of Charlotte, isn’t closed, per se, but they canceled or moved the rest of December’s concerts and are now solely operating as a community space. The Glass Menage, which has been hosting shows for nearly a year in Wedgewood-Houston, voluntarily took a break to avoid possible scrutiny. For now, at least, Nashville’s DIY community is all but dead.
While it’s understandable that the city would want to do something, shutting down these venues without a plan to preserve their contributions is damaging, too. These closures rob the local music scene of a life source that has — quietly and outside the margins — put Nashville’s thriving rock scene in the national spotlight and given many people a place to go when more established venues weren’t an option.
Daniel Pujol, a musician, poet and frontman of the band Pujol, credits underground venues with helping him develop essential show-running experience. When he was younger, he lived in a place called the MEEMAW House, and he knows firsthand how beneficial spaces like Drkmttr and The Glass Menage can be.
“On the end of the city, I should hope that [the fire department, etc.] would not be intimidated by the aesthetics or the national headlines regarding these kind of spaces,” Pujol tells the Scene. “I would hope that the city would view educating and cooperating with these kinds of DIY spaces when possible as a means of culturally investing in Nashville. Because whenever people are allowed to get into creatively inclusive places with a very low pay wall, usually something pretty groovy ends up coming out of it, and that makes where you live more interesting for everyone.”
An underground music scene is vital, especially in a place that refers to itself as Music City. The lesson from the Ghost Ship fire is that Nashville ought to work to ensure these places can exist while also being safe. Not only do these spaces serve a different audience than mainstream and more-established venues, but they’re necessary if we want to nurture Nashville’s next wave of artists and musicians.
Local rapper and booker Al-D, who hosts the quarterly Meant for the Milk Crate hip-hop showcase, also benefited from a strong underground scene, partly because some local venues weren’t open to hosting hip-hop events. Being accessible to marginalized groups is another important reason DIY spaces are so necessary.
“I don’t want to single any out, but it is a challenge to get venues to agree to let you do a hip-hop show,” Al-D tells the Scene. “That does kind of send you back to the underground, house parties, anything you can get available to do something. That’s how I got started — house parties, keg parties where there was a DJ there, maybe I knew him, maybe I didn’t, but either way I’m just talking to the DJ, trying to get in on what they have going on.”
Local photographer Emily Quirk has been going to all-ages and DIY shows for about a decade — she says she owes her career as a professional photographer to the underground scene.
“The first show I went to as a high school student, and what made me become a photographer, was a JEFF the Brotherhood show at [now-defunct DIY venue] Little Hamilton,” says Quirk. “I shot that show on a disposable camera and posted the pics on Facebook the next morning, and that’s when Ben Todd, the creator of the Nashville’s Dead blog, said, ‘Hey, want to be our staff photographer?’ Here I am, 10 years later, a professional photographer as a career. It’s unbelievable.”
Quirk — who has toured with JEFF the Brotherhood, White Reaper, Daddy Issues, Diarrhea Planet and others — was drawn to spaces like Drkmttr and Little Hamilton because they were more accessible than larger venues. And, she says, their energy is better, too.
“All of those basement shows and house shows are where I saw DP and JEFF the Brotherhood and Natural Child — all these bands that are huge now,” she says. “They grew up in those spaces, too. Maybe those bands wouldn’t exist if they didn’t have those spaces. For the younger generation in the music scene — there’s a massive group of them — I’m nervous about where they’re gonna go.”
Additional reporting by D. Patrick Rodgers and Stephen Trageser.