On a Sunday evening, mid-summer, a knot of people gather outside a standalone brick home in the Northeast neighborhood of Langdon, milling about the basement stairs. Every few minutes another person or pair arrives. Some look around and then down at their phones as if to confirm they were in the right place; others come as if on a track, sure that they belong.
With each arrival the knot grows so that it is not quite a throng, but an organic jumble of perhaps two dozen or so, a quarter-hundred gathered clumped in twos and threes and fours. Some sit on the grass talking about AU student politics. A choice few shuttle in and out of the house, fetching beers colder than the ones lugged in backpacks through the sweltering heat. The tang of bug spray hit my nostrils and crabgrass scratched at my ankles.
I stand in a circle by the stairs. Turning to my left, I ask, “Is this really it?”
Geoff, who lives in the brick house, doesn’t hesitate. “Yeah, this is it.”
In the six years I’ve been in DC, I’ve been to over a dozen house venues scattered across Northeast and Northwest, from Palisades in the west to Kingman Park in the east, from Rockville in the north to Georgetown to the south.
Nearly all of these venues do not exist any more. Places with names like Subterranean B, Dead Kennedy Center, and Crack Rock Creek Church live on only in memories, archived Facebook events, and promotional quarter-sheets I’ve collected over the years.
2019 hasn’t slowed the pace of closures. The Dougout is not long for the world; Geoff is moving to Cleveland, where he says he’ll be able to live downtown for just $200/month, ending a 7-year run as a house hosting concerts. And just as we went to press, Dwell, another centerpiece of the DIY music scene that has hosted underground shows for the last two years, received a visit from the authorities and announced their closure (at least for now) on Instagram.
“The house show component has always been huge in the DC underground,” Chris Richards, the Washington Post music critic and member of early-aughts DC band Q & Not U, told me. Minor Threat played their first show in an Adams Morgan row home.
Now, despite this legacy, many are wondering why so many houses are closing, whether they will come back, and what will be lost if they don’t.
What Is a House Show?
It’s a show — a concert — but at a house instead of a club.
Usually, club shows are bigger, and their operators need to know that they can not just cover their costs but make real money.
House shows, on the other hand, are often (but not necessarily) labors of love, a form of cultural activism, where organizers take money for themselves but instead providing a free platform for emerging artists. These shows can incubate a local music scene — essentially subsidizing art by removing the need for performers to attract a profitably-sized (and aged) crowd. Indeed, some house shows draw just a dozen or fewer curious or devoted fans. Others, of course, cram scores into a living room or basement.
In terms of physical spaces, warehouses and lofts have been artists’ preferred haunts in the postwar U.S. (C.f. Baltimore, Brooklyn, etc.) Cheap and spacious, these types of units just aren’t very plentiful in D.C., which means that some underground music that might, in other cities, happen in warehouses has instead been performend in rowhomes and other smaller residences.
By their nature, house shows can, occasionally, be the place to watch as a star is born. At The Dougout itself I saw Speedy Ortiz, some time in late 2013 or early 2014, who were not yet opening for the Breeders or Liz Phair. It was one of the most electric shows I’d attended, and also one of the sweatiest. When I told Geoff about it, he called it the craziest show the Dougout ever hosted.
Like Speedy Ortiz, Lucy Dacus was on the cusp of breaking out when she played at Bathtub Republic (the Brookland iteration) in February 2016. It was, if I remember right, the day after Pitchfork gave No Burden a 7.8, assuring a bigger stage on tours to come, and the place was stuffed. I recall people watching from the windows outside.
Sometimes, you see someone before anyone even realizes what they’ll become. Before any Grammy nominations came her way, Mitski came through suburban Maryland one night — it must have been 2014 — and played songs from bury me at makeout creek for about a dozen of us in a candlelit basement that belonged to (IIRC) members of excellent erstwhile local band Two Inch Astronaut. I think the opener was a woman who played harp and sang medieval-tinged songs. It was magical.
Washington in those late Obama years was so replete with house venues that a number of them banded together for In It Together Fest, an all-DIY weekend where every show was in a living room, basement, or backyard. It was the punk response to the commercial excesses of festival culture. These shows were all-ages, but if you drank, you could bring your own instead of being gouged for $10 beers. Bands were mostly punk and rock but with sprinklings of rap and experimental from all around the mid-Atlantic. Instead of a massive traffic jam after the show, there were two and three bikes locked to every stationary post for a block.
Are There Fewer House Venues?
So a house show can be a very special; it can be an incubator for local artists, a platform for experimentation, a haven from commercialism. All of these things seem vital to a music and arts scene that residents crave. Yet the Dougout’s closing seems far from isolated — it seems, rather, like part of a pattern.
In It Together hasn’t been held in several years, and the website has since been taken over by Chinese spam bots. If someone tried to organize it this summer, it’s not clear if there would have been enough houses to call it a festival.
“You feel like there were more house shows? I feel like there used to be more,” said David, a local musician I ran into last weekend. By my count, there are currently at most a half-dozen residences in DC actively booking guitar acts, and fewer doing so with any regularity.
Are there fewer house venues? Observers say it seems likely. “In 2015 there were as many as 10 house (and other private) venues inside the District alone (that I knew of, at least),” wrote Peter Lillis, of Babe City Records. “In 2019, only Rhizome, Dwell and Hole In The Sky are coming to mind as the venues.”
Ben Schurr, of BLIGHT. Records, was less equivocal. “Yes, absolutely.”
Hannah Swearman, of the booking collective Concert Moms, said “2014–2017 to me definitely felt like a heyday for traditional ‘house’ shows with the Babe City house, early Bathtub Republic, Paperhaus, The Commune, The Dougout, Lamont Street Collective, Above the Bayou, and others I’m definitely forgetting.”
Leah Gage, of aforementioned Bathtub Republic as well as the bands Stronger Sex and BRNDA, echoed that assessment of a “peak” around 2014. Andrew Grossman, who also lived there and performs in the North Country, emphasized how the profusion of DIY spaces around that time encouraged musical artists like him. “It was a vibrant and tight knit community of really special people, and was incredibly stimulating and invigorating. It encouraged experimentation and creative fearlessness.”
From Surplus to Scarcity
Throwing a house show requires, well, a house. And to afford a house — especially one with enough room to pack two or three dozen strangers, a drum kit and a couple guitarists, or whatever, all at once — is no mean task. The combination of affordability and space has typically been found in the “transitional” neighborhoods.
These are shifting and even disappearing with the gentrification of the city. For several years in the early 2010s, the DIY scene seemed to revolve around Petworth. The neighborhood was home to a number of venues, including the Beehive and Hottub House, but one loomed large: Paperhaus. Named after a Can song, the house was home to several members of a band by the same name — but it was also one of the most consistent places to see a show, with band guitarist Alex Tebeleff one of the most energetic organizers of underground concerts in the city.
This kind of community hub generates large knock-on effects. At a recent show, I ran into Schurr, who was playing bass in Tadzio, a new group on BLIGHT. Records. He told me about how he had been on the cusp of moving to Minneapolis when he came through Paperhaus and was so inspired by the experience that he moved to DC instead. BLIGHT. ended up playing a major role in supporting DC experimental music beyond the guitar-bass-drums setup, releasing work by Loi Loi, Park Snakes, Br’er, Stronger Sex, Sean Barna and more.
Another house-cum-label, Otherfeels, closed last year after hosting three-dozen shows with a wide range of acts in rock, rap, R&B and electronic music.
Artists have always been priced out. That’s not new. Kansas House, where Q & Not U performed in their early years, “was absolutely destroyed by development, the land became valuable and there’s now a nice condominium building there,” Richards said.
In 2016, Redfin reported that Petworth was the most profitable neighborhood in the country to flip a house, and Paperhaus ended up on HGTV. Despite a brief second run at a house in Brookland, Paperhaus is no more. It’s not an unfamiliar fate. Gage told me that they left the second Bathtub Republic — the one in Brookland — when the rent was raised. House-flipping also took Dupont venue Babe City in 2015, when Ally Schweitzer — then writing for WAMU’s also-disappeared Bandwidth vertical — described its exit as “the same fate as dozens of D.C. house venues before it.”
“The rent and cost of living keeps increasing here, making it harder to find houses/spaces that are suitable to have shows,” wrote Eric Zidar, a member of the rock band Tosser who helps run the Shrine. The cost of living also “makes it hard for people to stay here.”
It’s not just punk houses. Locations that catered to folk and Americana have closed, too, including Red Panda House in Mt. Pleasant and Hamlin St Diner in Brookland. (The latter now books at Public Option, a delightful bar on Rhode Island.) Visual art-centered venues have had a tough time, too. The Dunes in Columbia Heights and Gold Leaf Studios in Union Market closed. In Eckington, Hole in the Sky hosts fewer concerts, though its art shows are going strong. Uptown Art House is now a “placeless collective.” Over my desk hangs a poster from the 2016 concert to save Union Arts, a warehouse space that hosted underground concerts as well as art builds for progressive protests. Despite a benefit show featuring prominent DC punks past and present — hello, Ian Svenonious, hello, Priests —that raised over $2,000 according to organizer Luke Stewart, the building was bought for conversion into a boutique hotel which, to date, has yet to open.
Is It Different This Time?
Again, house venues have always come and gone. As punk writer Tim Follos put it while eulogizing a house venue called Corpse Fortress in his chronicle of the ’00s hardcore scene, This Was My Night & A Lot of Other Nights, “All houses die, but not all houses live.”
In evolution, there’s always a background extinction rate. That exists in the DIY community, too. People move away, age out, tire of cleaning up strangers’ beer cans. Burnout isn’t new. I heard again and again that organizing house shows is not easy — that it is in fact so difficult no one can do it for long. So maybe the question is not why house venues are closing, but whether fewer venues are opening to replace them. Could there be a tipping point, cultural or economic, beyond which new DIY spaces would cease to sprout?
This possibility was echoed at a recent discussion of the re-opening of the Duke Ellington mural on the True Reformer building on U St. Reflecting on the relationship between gentrification and cultural production in light of #DontMuteDC, Rev. Dr. Sandra Butler-Truesdale — 78 or 79 and a “U St fixture” — weighed in that “DC was always a place where the real estate wasn’t so high, and that meant the musicians were here. They didn’t live on Beach Drive, they lived on P St and U St and your street. This town has always been a music town. The living was easy and the musicians came.” Now, she went on to say, that wasn’t the case. Higher rent costs us our culture.
Ahmad Zaghal, as avid a DC concert-goer as any, told me he guessed the cost of living is a factor in the general downturn in new venues. “It’s probably harder for those who are willing to put on house shows to afford houses that enable them to do it.”
Swearman, from Concert Moms, said “the cost of rent and displacement in DC is definitely noticeable. I think there used to be a lot more working-class and artist folks living in group houses in more central DC, but now even most group houses are expensive and filled generally with folks working 9–5s who wouldn’t be interested in hosting shows, at least not on regular basis.”
Another member of several local bands suggested that the overall composition of the local scene could be shifting as a result of DC’s ongoing (re)development. As a smaller and smaller portion of the city’s residents, including artists, hail from the area, fewer feel connected to the DC DIY tradition so strong in the 80s and 90s. Separately, Grossman echoed the idea that DC’s demographic shift towards millennial imports could undermine the music scene, calling young people’s transience a “huge structural factor.”
Ironically, artists seem to play a role in creating the cultural capital that attracts development and drives up rents. It’s hard to walk through Mount Pleasant these days without seeing business district advertisements bearing Minor Threat/Fugazi legend Ian MacKaye’s visage. Yet artists— like many others who lay the groundwork for an area to become “attractive” for development, as well as those simply living there— are largely cut out of the monetary benefits. Indeed, the arrival of the MCI Center to Chinatown, long lauded for catalyzing development downtown, also played a role in erasing downtown from the city’s art map.
Fear of Music
As bleak as the march of gentrification is, there’s another bleak current running against house venues: fear.
House venues can be hard to find. You might have to message the host, or “ask a punk.” Addresses that were relayed in text suggested part of the problem: As legit as the shows might be, they were not necessarily legitimate in the eyes of the state or broader society.
The most basic fear is of eviction. Schurr, who had run his record label BLIGHT. out of Petworth house venue the Beehive, cited cost of living as a major reason why he moved to Philadelphia. But, as he pointed out, the reasons can be more complicated than just not being able to find a space. Hosting shows is often illegal. “If houses are a rarity in a city with rapidly increasing costs, the stakes are raised considerably when you factor in the risk of eviction.” Artists are often unwilling to risk their practice space, much less their home, to host shows.
The second, related fear is the cops. House venues must be very deliberate at outreach to neighbors if they are going to last. Rowhomes share a wall with neighbors, and they are the dominant residential architectural form here. You hear your neighbor playing video games—now think about a three-piece thrash group. A 2014 WAMU story detailed how Fort Loko’s Sharon Din would bring cookies to neighbors in hopes of assuaging concers about her hosting shows.
Whether because some organizers don’t do this level of outreach, legitimate noise concerns by neighbors, or other reasons, noise complaints still put a major damper (pun intended) on shows. “Cops love shutting us down,” wrote one member of the Dead Mothers Collective who helps organize shows at the Snare. (In some instances, the racial privilege to be coded as a nuisance rather than a threat may have kept this response from being less explicit than it might have been. White house shows get shut down; Latinx street vendors get chased and arrested.)
It’s not even just noise complaints: One house in Northeast recently stopped hosting shows after neighbors complained to DCRA, alleging the house shows amounted to operating an unlicensed small business for which the home was not zoned. Dwell’s temporary closure also followed a visit from DCRA and the Fire Department; they’re now attempting to bring the venue up to code—a massive boon to the community, but not necessarily an option for tenants at other venues. (Dwell’s operator owns the carriage house.)
The need for fire safety is deadly real. It has also been weaponized by right-wing trolls.
In the wake of the tragic Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, where 36 people died when an unlicensed warehouse venue burned mid-show, right-wing groups sought to use the tragedy to their own advantage by reporting left-wing activist and art spaces to the authorities on the basis of fire hazards—an evolution of SWATing weaponized to close “shitholes” full of activists. A desire to lie low after such attempts played a role in at least two DC venues’ diminished visibility.
“MAGA,” the “Make America Great Again” tagline, had been reframed with MASA — Make America Safe Again — and the newly dubbed “Right Wing Safety Squad” or the “SS” (named with a nod at Hitler’s “SS” paramilitary), were congratulating themselves on their progress in shutting down warehouse spaces around the country...Paired with jeering and seemingly sarcastic calls for greater safety, commenters directed people’s attention to places where organizers could be planning protests in Washington DC for Trump’s inauguration. (from BoingBoing.net)
“Pizzagate alt-right losers/bots released a list of all of the DIY house spaces and tried to get them shut down by authorities which def made people more skeptical of opening their houses to random folks,” Schurr related.
“Many attendees [at house shows] have remarked that they’re surprised something like this exists in DC’s current political climate, which makes me think DIY spaces are rare,” a musician told me.
All this can lead house venues to minimize, rather than maximize, their exposure to the public. “We’ve been taking a very under the radar approach to our space and so far that’s worked pretty well: no noise complaints, no police, no jerks,” said another show organizer who preferred to remain anonymous.
This dynamic, however, can lead to insularity that undermines the open and accepting nature that many organizers strive to create. “[Fear of eviction and trolls] made it riskier to publicize the address on flyers/social media which created a “you need to be in the know” to attend shows, which is antithetical to the inclusive philosophy i always maintained in hosting shows,” Schurr of the Beehive said. “Shows should be for everyone, not just a hip elite.”
All of these fears have at their base the vulnerability of house venues to legal claims against the appropriateness of homes for hosting performances. One might expect, then, that performances would migrate towards “legitimate” spaces. “You have to think about the nightlife as a giant ecosystem,” Richards explained. “The pendulum is always swinging.”
This appears to be happening in DC right now. The seeming downturn in house venues has been accompanied by a rise in smaller clubs; shows that once might have been at Paperhouse, Above the Bayou or 453 Florida are now happening at Pie Shop, on H Street; Songbyrd, in Adams Morgan; and the Pinch (recently RIP) and Slash Run, in Columbia Heights and Petworth. Jackie Lee’s on Kennedy, Dew Drop Inn in Brookland, and Electric Maid (Takoma) deserve shout-outs. Dwell (Trinidad) and Rhizome (Takoma), homes which host shows but are not residential, play an outsized role in keeping experimental and underground shows going. The Post’s Stephanie Williams (formerly of DC Music Download) recently explored several of these venues.
It’s not just concerts that are moving. Some bookers have gone legit: Lillis, of Babe City, was marketing director at Songbyrd before moving on to Union Stage and Miracle Theater. Scott, of Otherfeels, booked shows at 9:30 Club and managed area products Shaed and April + Vista. “As living in DC gets more expensive, people who might have been running house shows a decade ago pro bono might now be more likely to be booking somewhere that they can get paid a little for it,” said Kevin Erickson, author of a book on DIY spaces and a voice for artists on Capitol Hill with the Future of Music Coalition.
These venues are not immune to the same pressures that face house venues. Black Cat sold its Backstage space, which often booked local acts. The Pinch just announced its closure. Pie Shop, ironically, faces noise complaints from neighbors.
Whether this move towards “legal” spaces undermines the promise of underground, DIY and house shows is up for debate. Natasha Janfaza, artist and member of local bands, told me, “House venues are the most important spaces for us. There’s no pressure to buy alcohol, there’s no age restriction. We don’t feel self-conscious about how loud or abrasive our music is, because people are there for that. … It’s also the space where many of us feel the most comfortable to be ourselves, as queer people, as people of color.” (This perspective was not universal, and one source noted that the College Park scene in particular had been a haven for abusers.)
“That music was best experienced intimately and free of any over-arching corporate or business infrastructure,” said Grossman. “We, in our artsy group houses, could provide a better experience than the venues.”
Zaghal concurred. “It is good to see places like Dew Drop, Pie Shop, Slash Run and Studio Gaga pick some of the slack up, but those places all sell alcohol which means they go later, which in turn probably hurts show attendance. I definitely can’t be out that late on weeknights.”
Washingtonians don’t just miss out on local music. “For bands on tour, I think the experience is that it’s that much harder to book in DC. That’s something I hear all the time on tour, that DC is one of the hardest cities to book,” added Gage.
The profit motive is a clear difference between a show at a club or bar and a show at a home. When a band is booked to play at a bar, the bar expects a certain number of people to show up, to have a good time, and to buy drinks. None of those expectations — each of which subtly structures the performance, for both the performer and the audience — is present at a house show, where old heads and high schoolers are equally likely to be present, where you can bring your beer or other substance without paying a premium (or abstain from drinking without feeling any compunctions about the band hitting a minimum), where a band can play as experimentally as it cares. (All-ages access is a huge part of the overall DC DIY tradition.)
In fact, the more I think about it, it seems like what’s special about a house show comes in large part from this subversion of norms. A private (residential) space becomes public, and in that invitation lurks the invocation of communitas, that leveling and binding force well noted by the social scientists.
And the profit motive isn’t just driving up rents. The entire, macro-scale musical landscape is different. “Artists are facing new economic pressures,” says Erickson, citing streaming and fewer avenues to publicity. Musicians who want to make a living from their craft may not be best served by playing uncommercial music at venues where take-home is meager, audiences insular, and much of the currency immaterial—a realization some sources seemed to say they arrived at too late. Looking further afield, music critic Liz Pelly has written persuasively about the danger facing DIY venues that rely on Facebook events and groups to connect with audiences.
I’ve made it this far without mentioning Sofar Sounds. These concerts are held in homes, but brokered by a private, profit-seeking enterprise. They are something, but they are not DIY. Still, says Erickson, Sofar’s popularity shows the demand is there. “I think there’s increased interest in house shows conceptually from people outside of punk traditions, which is good to see, and I think it’s important for the VC-backed companies not to occupy too much of that space.”
DIY Will Never Die, But You Will
One current that ran throughout conversations with artists and former house venue residents was a healthy skepticism that any of us could see the whole picture. There could be a whole scene out there we didn’t know about, several suggested, reminding me of the time this spring I was biking through Bloomingdale and saw several older gentlemen playing brass instruments on their porch.
After all, the biggest story in local music this year—DontMuteDC—can definitely be appreciated through the lens of DIY. Swearman, of Concert Moms, notes that while rap performances in the DC suburbs might not be coded as “house shows,” they’re often exactly that.
Moreover, I heard time and time again a certain trust in artists’ resilience. “We have this moment where smaller venues are very hospitable to bands working on the fringes,” Richards mused. “I do think that DIY will solve its own problems. The artists who come from this culture will host shows themselves,” if it comes to that. While many of the artists I talked to believed that DC’s “peak” house moment engendered creative leaps and community, many also noted its drawbacks—and everyone was more focused on what comes next than what came before.
Still, onlookers are concerned that the current cycle of gentrification, driven by the influx of a “creative class,” will eventually eat its own. Unless the trend breaks, it’s hard to see how non-commercial, confrontational art won’t be threatened by the cost of living in 21st-century Washington, DC.
There’s some golden balance between believing that DIY will find a way, and fearing that it could be different this time. It does make sense that at some point it will simply be too expensive for a self-sustaining arts scene to survive here. If music exists in an ecosystem, as Richards posited, then it’ll be subject to the same abrupt tipping points that characterize our natural world’s response to interference. The music could be here today and gone tomorrow. Listen closely now.
The Punk Archive is always seeking donations. If you’d like to find a home for your local music collections—fliers, correspondence, posters, zines, recordings—please contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to Ray Barker at DCPL for research assistance.