It’s no small challenge to get New Yorkers out of their living rooms, on the streets, and to an event in the dead of winter, especially with the additional chill of our economic times in the air. The holidays are done and we’re all just waiting for the spring thaw, as well as the possible liquidation of our assets. But if we’re anything, we’re fighters, not ones to sit back and whine or complain, and definitely not about to barricade ourselves in the house because of a little sleet and snow. We'll walk over the bridge to get to work in a transit strike, make dinner by candlelight in a blackout, and head to an underground show with seventy-five of our closest friends in the midst of a freezing winter.
So on a recent Thursday night I was one of many people braving the cold to head to Vanishing Point, an underground venue in Bushwick run by two best friends, Patrick Kiernan and Stephan Cherkashin. Kiernan and Cherkashin are part of a small but burgeoning group in Brooklyn and Manhattan who have made an effort to create the type of environment that made us all fall in love with music in the first place. Raw and inspiring, Vanishing Point is a cultural factory reminiscent of the influential spaces established by Tony Wilson and Andy Warhol in earlier decades.
If you’re a part of the DIY Scene (as it is often called), then you are familiar with one or more of these spaces and the people who run them. To an outsider they look like abandoned living rooms or empty warehouses, but move the refrigerator boxes aside, plug in a sound system, and…voilà! That these venues lack frills seems completely beside the point considering the many talented and enthusiastic people behind them, and the music-lover-friendliness with which they’re run. And, apparently, if you build it the bands will come: Death By Audio, Less Artists More Condos, the Market Hotel, and Silent Barn are just a few of the DIY spaces that have recently sprouted up around town, in what really does feel like one big scene. The people behind these spaces all know each other and regularly attend one another’s gigs.
On that recent Thursday night, Showpaper (a zine-like flyer that promotes all-age shows) was throwing a party at Vanishing Point with a typically eclectic roster. Rock outfit The New York Howl shared a bill with rap trio Ninjasonik, bringing together two very different acts and two surprisingly meshable scenes. And given the friendly cross-pollination that prevails among venues, it wasn’t surprising to bump into Ariel Panero, who runs the rough-hewn but comfortable West Village space Less Artists More Condos, in the stairwell.
Less Artists started when Panero and his partner, Alex Mallory, became interested in using the space they had available on West Third St. to throw parties, and inviting bands they liked to play at them. Joe Ahearn (who runs Showpaper) was the only promoter to respond to their request for guidance, so he came over and helped them make it happen.
“There were like three hundred people there or something; we didn’t know about capacity,” Panero says,
recalling the venue’s first show. “Cheeky, Oxford Collapse, and a few others I can’t even remember [played]. At the end of the night it wasn’t like there was a hole in the wall or someone had vomited in the sink—people were very respectful. So Ahearn passed the torch to us and we started throwing our own shows.”
Panero, like many of his kind, has a genuine passion for the scene and his role in it as a booker and promoter. “The DIY scene is great,” he says, “because you can trust the consistency of the acts and trust the promoters. Everyone will come out because they know those promoters and they know they throw great shows. People trust each other to find great acts and showcase them together. I don’t always know the bands that are playing, but I know it’s going to be a great time.”
Although the passion is there, Panero worries that this underground factory fun-fest could all come to a screeching halt at any moment. “The Vanishing Point got raided last weekend,” he said on the phone a week after the Ninjasonik show. “It makes me nervous because this could all easily end. It’s not as simple as ‘Let’s find a loft space, throw shows, and do all this stuff.’ There is some risk involved.”
It’s true, of course, that with anything good and pure and untouched by the power of some industry behind it, there can be a lack of concrete support to fight for their right to party. There are no iron-fisted lawyers or corporate entities ensuring that if there are legal difficulties all parties will be protected. And Panero was right: The Vanishing Point had faced some quarrels with the cops the weekend before, and that could very well mean the end.
“We weren’t exactly raided,” clarified Patrick Kiernan, co-founder of the Vanishing Point. But the cops did make a visit to the space, and just when Kiernan and Cherkashin thought they were off the hook, the captain rolled in. “He told us, ‘I’m going to be here every night and ensure that nothing ever happens here again.’”
Technically, the cops had a right to be there. On the night of the Ninjasonik gig, there were some underage kids outside and inside the club drinking alcohol and possibly experimenting with other substances. Despite the fact that the proprietors check ID at the door and only serve alcohol to those who are of age, youngsters manage to find ways to slip through the net.
As for the police captain, Kiernan says, “He was cool—he could’ve arrested me. Now he’s watching us because of the licenses. Bullshit, bureaucratic licenses, and codes. Now I have to see if I can [get up to code] quickly and that it won’t be expensive. This is DIY, and we don’t have a lot of money. We just might end it, and that scares me to death—it sickens me. It would be a tragedy because people really love what we’re doing.”
He’s right about that. Underage or not, the vibe of a DIY show is something that’s hard to find anywhere else, with rappers and hip-hop lovers dancing alongside punks and hippies. It’s unfortunate that the scenes that are so naturally formed around New York can just as easily be killed off.
Matt Conboy, who runs Death By Audio, agrees that overall the DIY shows are a benefit to the community. Since most of the operations and the organizers are unconcerned with making big dollars, the focus stays on the music and the fun of the events. While they are conscientious about paying the bands and covering costs for what is needed, nary a DIY space or promoter will tell you they are in it to line their pockets.
“We’re not in this to make any money,” says Conboy of the shows he organizes. “We need money to survive, and we pay bands and artists as much as we can. Our goal is more focused on having a show that’s really exciting and really great and really interesting, which is way [more important than] what can make us the most money.”
“I feel good about contributing to something,” Conboy continues. “Most of my life up to this point has been exclusively consuming music and it’s nice to make it happen and be the facilitator.”
It’s rare to get through a conversation with one of the promoters involved in the scene without a reference to Todd P. As someone who has done this successfully for over ten years, Todd P. stands as one of the godfathers of the DIY mafia. His voice echoes the sentiment of his predecessors, but encourages them to protect themselves legally and keep the scene alive, as he continues to do with the Market Hotel and other unconventional spaces.
“It’s tough sometimes, but not as tough as they make it out to be,” Todd says. “Church groups use outdoor spaces, large corporate concert companies use outdoor spaces—McCarren Pool, high schools, annual Oktoberfests in small towns. A venue is just a place where people gather to watch music, regardless of whether there is corporate money backing it. You do what you can and you care about people’s safety, and I find that works most of the time.”
Conboy is aware of how easily Death By Audio could be shut down due to violation of some obscure legal statute, but he says he can only worry about so many things. As for Vanishing Point, and the irony of its name, Kiernan is trying to move forward, get up to code as quickly and cheaply as possible, and hope that the next show can still happen.
“It brings people together and opens up opportunities,” said Kiernan “We’re really chill people, we like to make everything work for everyone. I love being able to add to that creative mix; it’s truly invigorating.”
MEGAN MARTIN is a freelance writer and editor in chief of Working Class Magazine.