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Brendan Mulvihill: Why I DIY.

September 23, 2013

TheOx16Brendan Mulvihill, who plays in Norwegian Arms and DRGN KING, writes about his experiences running DIY shows. Brendan co-founded and lived at DIY space The Ox. He books at Johnny Brenda’s and puts on DIY shows at PhilaMOCA, West Kensington Ministry and elsewhere. The images are from The Ox, courtesy of Brendan’s former Ox-mate, Daniel Hughes.

TheOx13Last night a guy with a goatee and backwards hat broke my heart.

I had just started breaking down all the equipment and locking the doors at a DIY space in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. I had just started putting on shows here two days ago.

This goateed guy, who was at this show for an anti-folk legend and an author reading from her book about gender and sexuality, walked up to me at the end of the night and asked me who ran the show. I told him I did, and then he said the first of two things that hurt my feelings

“Why was this show $8?”

I was taken aback. He said it in a tone that is best described as condescending, like he knew better. Later, he would break my heart again when he posted to his Facebook that “it was the worst show ever.”

He also friended me, but I’m not sure why.

Over the years, DIY show culture has changed. The people who organize and host these shows in urban environments are getting more creative. They’re moving out of sweaty basements and into new spaces that try to not only provide a place for bands to play for an audience, but also have at least decent sound and presentation. These people do this because they love music above everything else – and also because they know how awful it is to be on tour in a city where they know nobody and play a bad show. It’s disheartening.

I’ve spent the better part of this morning trying to understand why this guy would say such a thing. Interestingly enough, it would be through the previous night’s reading about gender and sexuality that would inform my current opinion. The author talked about the need to combat ignorance and inform people that things are changing. Specifically, through having a better understanding of these people’s lives, we can be better people ourselves.

Sorry goatee guy, but I think you’re ignorant.

As DIY moves out from basements and into more legitimate spaces, there’s a shift in how show economics work. Basement shows thrive on their low overhead. Usually the folks involved live at the space and are essentially sharing their rented space and PA equipment. There is a cost involved but it’s less apparent and usually absorbed by those who pay rent in the house. I’m not an expert in economics but I do feel the need to explain what those differences are.

Simply put, space costs money.

This space where this show took place, an old church, takes a 20 percent cut of the door. Like many in our recovering city, this church is strapped for cash. Churches also have space that isn’t always used. Sometimes they actually even have the tools (PA, lights, stage, etc.) to produce a show, as this one does. This stuff isn’t free. The electricity isn’t free. There are concrete costs in putting on such a show, even if it’s only accounting for wear and tear on equipment and paying utility bills.

There’s also one of the core values of DIY, at least in my book – always pay the bands, and pay them as much as possible. When goatee guy asked me about the price of the show, I answered, “To pay the bands as much as possible.”

Sorry folks, but the Fugazi rule is dead.

Or at the very least, it’s changed. What was $5 in 1986, according to every single inflation calculator I could find, is $10 today. So that $5 basement show you crave? True, Fugazi existed beyond the late ’80s, and $5 in 2002 (just about when they stopped) is only $6.50 today. But it should really go without saying that when you’re playing large rooms, even at $5, there’s the chance volume will make up the disparity.

Honestly, why a show was $8 instead of $5 is inconsequential. If you’re focusing on questions about ticket price, you aren’t asking the right questions, and to me, that position illustrates a position of a poor understanding of DIY show ethics, economics and methodology. I think the idea that solely fliering for a show would make a huge difference in any market is woefully uninformed and ignorant.

Simply put, $5 isn’t viable in most situations with the increased costs of touring. I’m not the first one to talk about this and for that reason I won’t go too much into it. But $8 is a very reasonable price for a show in a space that has real costs.

In fact, essentially only $1.60 of every $8 the show took in last night went to the place hosting it. A small price for assuming all the risks (injury, damages) as well as actually having to buy/maintain the equipment and pay the electric bill at the end of the month. The band is ultimately a contractor, a transient. Yes, they pressumedly draw the folks to the space but they also get to leave at the end of the night with, at the very worst, no money.

Spaces have to deal with damages, theft, cleaning and utility costs. Maybe you don’t clean your basement but that’s probably also why it’s really gross.

Beyond the pure costs of putting on a show, there’s also manpower involved – my time, the church’s time and the band’s time. The hours I put in organizing the show as well as the six actually running it? For that, I take nothing. Zero dollars.

You may say that nobody’s making me and that’s true. I took this upon myself. But there’s no denying that I’m still donating my time.

I guess only one thing remains. Why do I do it?

Because I love it. Because of the community it builds. Because some bands don’t have the connections, influence or even the desire to put together a club tour but they make great music that should be heard.

I’ve talked to many of my DIY contemporaries about this and after these conversations, I believe the following to be universally true: We do this because when we were underage, we wanted all-ages options in a state dominated by 21-and-over clubs with ticketing fees. We feel personally motivated to have shows, host bands, bring people together and build a community.

So goatee guy, I hope this answers your questions.

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