DIY punk’s openness, accessibility and ability to survive (and thrive) hinges upon the existence of the right mix of venues. For the most part, Philadelphia has just that. The scene here is so nurturing that just about anyone can start a band, write a few songs, practice them and eventually, play a show. That conduciveness can almost seem passé sometimes just because we’re so acclimated to it, but the reality is that it’s just not like that in most cities. It takes a lot of hard work, some clever maneuvering, and the right mix of personalities to save a subculture from stagnation. In Philadelphia, that means a plethora of non-traditional, not-exactly-legal venues. Pennsylvania’s draconian alcohol laws, along with operating costs that are almost universally prohibitive for broke punks, mean that the vast majority of all-ages punk shows here are happening off the grid in musty basements, dirty kitchens and cavernous lofts, which makes for a uniquely wonderful, but perhaps unsustainable experience.
Daniel Anderson wants to create something sustainable. Since 2011, he and his roommate Ruben Polo have run local label Kat Kat Records, while booking shows both in their own West Philadelphia basement and at others across the city. They’ve also booked festivals of their own, beginning with Kat Kat Phest and culminating with the inaugural TWOB Fest this weekend, which will see local favorites like Kite Party, Marietta and By Surprise performing alongside out-of-town acts like Laura Stevenson, Sundials and The Hotelier to raise money for an all-ages, DIY show space in Philadelphia to hopefully open in the fall.
“The Philly DIY community runs around all year booking hundreds upon hundreds of shows in a limited number of small clubs and basements. This is the type of city that needs as many safe, welcoming, all-ages DIY spots as it can get,” Anderson explains. “With a smaller DIY space, we can focus on specifically catering to the need of our small underbelly community. We’re not looking to detract from the basement scene—we’re doing our best to supplement it and help it grow.”
Indeed, demand for a venue that exclusively caters to Philly’s rapidly growing underground punk community seems to be at an all-time high. West Philadelphia’s Golden Tea House, perhaps the city’s best-known DIY venue, hosts somewhere between 15-20 shows every month, year-round. That’d be a busy calendar for just about any type of traditional venue, but for a house, it’s almost unheard of. Meanwhile, bars that occasionally host all-ages shows, such as The Fire in Northern Liberties and Fishtown’s The Barbary, are just that: bars. The shows they host are often secondary or even tertiary business. It doesn’t make financial sense for them to let in too many people who aren’t old enough to drink, so the cost to the booker is increased, often prohibitively so.
Anderson confirms this, adding that “the basement/house scene here is amazing, but only so many basements can facilitate the quantity of touring bands that are constantly coming through Philly, and not everyone can shell out the upfront costs of booking shows at small clubs and bars.”
Raising the money necessary to open a venue is only a part of the challenge, however. Anderson and Polo have been scouting locations and doing their best to get their ducks in a row. “We’re looking at locations that are widely accessible. We’re going to have to find a place that is laid out well to facilitate what we’re trying to do,” Anderson says. “Once we find that, we’re going to have to look at any construction/design costs, costs for sound equipment, costs for any acoustic treatments, etc. From a legal standpoint, we’ll have to obtain all necessary permits, zoning and insurance.”
“And to boot – it all has to fall within a reasonable, sustainable cost range.”
While TWOB Fest’s lineup is a strong representation of the diversity of Philly’s DIY scene, the national acts performing cement the city’s reputation as one where just about any band can have a great show any night of the week. “Typically, we reach out to bands that we feel the Philly kids will be stoked on,” Anderson says. “We also always reach out to old friends that deserve a good show in Philly. And we always keep room for any of the friends that might be coming through town on their separate tours. So it’s always a great mix of small, mid, and larger name touring bands.”
Laura Stevenson, who will be performing solo during the fest’s third and final day on Aug. 24 at the Barbary, has great memories of playing South Philadelphia’s now-defunct Ava House (which was immortalized by The Menzingers in their song of the same name). Regarding DIY spaces, she calls them “absolutely crucial. They’re for the kids that don’t feel like they belong anywhere—it gives them four walls that they can exist within and be themselves completely, and feel safe doing it,” she continues. “Even if it’s just for a couple hours a week, it makes a huge difference in kids’ lives. I remember when I was younger, I could go to shows and be free to be as weird as I wanted, and the jerky kids that weren’t cool with that ended up being considered uncool. It was like some alternate universe, it was crazy. Those places are safe havens and I don’t know who I would be today if I didn’t have access to that.”
For Sundials bassist/vocalist Carl Athey, DIY spaces represent an alternative opportunity for his band to play to a more engaged audience. “We [recently] played a bar in Kansas City,” he begins. “Originally booked as an 18+ show, a change in liquor laws or whatever in Missouri forced the show to become 21+. Four kids came out, couldn’t get in, and watched most of the show through the glass windows that kept them outside. It wasn’t the club’s fault, but the situation made us feel really bad. I’m pretty sure that it was our last time playing a 21+ show.”
“Harris [Mendell, Sundials guitarist/vocalist] said it well that night: ‘If I didn’t go to all ages punk shows when I was 14, I wouldn’t be playing in a band today.’ It would be a shame for us to deny kids today that same opportunity.”
The Hotelier, whose Pitchfork-approved full-length Home Like Noplace Is There was released earlier this year via Tiny Engines, are one of the headliners of TWOB’s second day on Aug. 23 at the Barbary. Bassist/vocalist Christian Holden has seen the model of what Anderson and Polo are looking to achieve in action. “In Murietta, Calif., we played at this space called the Dial that I thought was a really interestingly organized space,” he explains. “They had a very large team of peeps who were a part of the collective, mostly younger folks, and they had sort of been building a culture around the space through pressing zines with interviews, and artists that would come through and having volunteer shifts and stuff.
“That seemed really cool to me. Finding a way to not keep the whole duty of the space on one person; documenting the history of a space; having it be in a sort of neutral location; I feel like those are all things that a space can do to stay open.”
Staying open is often the most difficult thing to do for a DIY space. The punk scene, as much passion as its member have, is transient: People who book or host basement shows might move out of their house, or have the cops called on them one too many times, or simply outgrow it altogether. The difference with a focused, non-house venue is that even if Anderson and Polo eventually move on someday, it can be placed in the hands of the next wave of punks who want to make a difference. That’s sustainability.
TWOB Fest kicks off Aug. 22 at Moonbase Nix, and continues at The Barbary on Aug. 23-24. Tickets and info here.
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