Death By Audio or Vice? Not a Hard Choice

by delarue

If a venue doesn’t book good music, should it exist?


Why should we care if Death by Audio or Glasslands bit the dust? To castigate Vice Media – who are taking over the Williamsburg space that housed both clubs – is absurd. Vice has a reputation for brave reportage well beyond the scope of corporate media. Aside from that free jazz night once a month at Death by Audio, neither of those two venues ever took any chances, or showed any real balls, when it came to booking music.

And isn’t it funny that far less ink has been spilled over the closure of Rodeo Bar, Spike Hill and the Ding Dong Lounge, venues that actually served a useful purpose and at least to some extent supported viable scenes?

The general perception these days whenever a club closes is that gentrification is to blame. While that’s usually the case, there’s a misunderstanding of how that pathology works. To use a gentrifier buzzword, a lot of these closures are a market correction. Much as extreme rent increases killed off the Rodeo, Spike Hill, the Ding Dong Lounge and others, there’s an elephant in the room that’s just as responsible. That elephant is the overproliferation of outer-borough bars, itself a toxic by-product of gentrification.

The obvious question is how a surplus of venues could possibly be bad for New York. Why should a musician have shlep all of his or her gear into Manhattan when they could just walk to a gig at their local? Why deal with the endless hassle of the trains when there’s a place just down the block that has music that’s probably better than what you could find in Manhattan? And isn’t all this just a return to an earlier period in New York history, when music was more of a local phenomenon, with neighborhoods more defined along ethnic lines?

And aren’t all these bars a boon to the economy as well? Think of the tax dollars. And don’t people actually spend more at their neighborhood bar than they would if they were hanging in Manhattan? If you’re taking the train home, you have to watch your back. But you can get as pie-eyed as you want at your local and then stumble straight to bed.

The result of all this is less serendipitous than the corporate media and their imitators in the blogosphere want you to believe. For one, all these new Brooklyn quasi-venues, most of them without any kind of decent sound system, have balkanized the music scene, which makes it exponentially more difficult for a band or an artist to gain traction and build an audience. Nobody is going to come see you play in Red Hook or Ditmas Park except for people who live there. But if you play Manhattan, pretty much everybody can get there.

Except that nobody does. Nobody wants to leave their neighborhood anymore – and this blog is just as guilty on that score as the rest of you are. And even if you were willing to grapple with finding a way home on the train in the wee hours, the real estate bubble has made it all but impossible to open new venues in Manhattan. Is the city so strapped for cash (yes) that we have to turn every neighborhood into a vomitorium for the sons and daughters of New Jersey Wall Street money? Ten years ago, the idea of Santacon invading Bushwick would have been just as laughable as it is now – for completely different reasons.

What economy do these bars benefit? It’s Robin Hood in reverse. Gentrifiers own them, and gentrifiers work there. And none of those people really need to work for a living: they’re just picking up beer money. Unless you count the Mexican guy slaving away in the kitchen sixty hours a week, off the books, for minimum wage.

Rodeo Bar, on the other hand, drew a diverse crowd. Yeah, a lot of those people were Baruch College kids who wanted to get as trashed as possible and just yelled louder and louder once the band started. As the neighborhood became overrun with yuppies, the din went up another notch. But much as classic country music is a niche subgenre now, there’s money in niche audiences, and the Rodeo folks were keenly aware of that. It might be a stretch to call the Rodeo the equivalent of CBGB for country music in New York, but it was home to a genuine scene, even if that scene went into decline in the past few years. Ridiculous as it might seem to say that Hill Country Brooklyn put the Rodeo out of business, there’s more than a grain of truth to that.

The Ding Dong Lounge was a local Harlem bar and also a spot for punk rock shows, off and on, for more than two decades. If you didn’t live in the neighborhood or didn’t have friends who played there, you probably didn’t know it existed. It was dark and dingy and cheap and back in the day had a good jukebox: sort of a Harlem counterpart to O’Connor’s in Park Slope, another legendary neighborhood spot priced out of existence.

The great loss here is Spike Hill. It was an ideal place to play, just steps from the Bedford Avenue subway. Sure, the club went through a down phase a couple of years ago, trying to sell tickets and compete with the trendoid venues, and making a dubious deal with an online booking scam didn’t help. But they learned from those mistakes, and booking was on the upswing again. They had a backline, the sound there was surprisingly good and the crowds were a lot more diverse than you typically see in that neighborhood, just like the music. And it’s not like the venue wasn’t raking in the dough. When a busy bar on the Bedford strip can’t make enough to survive there, that’s more than a canary in a coal mine: that’s a screaming eagle.

For a gentrifier venue, Death by Audio drew a surprisingly mixed crowd, if only because ownership was cool enough to let neighborhood kids and local stoners in to smoke weed. Which isn’t to say that those crowds mixed. And ultimately the venue was better than the music there. Sure, some good bands passed through, but pound for pound, Death by Audio was no more important to the New York music scene than Arlene’s is now.

As far as Glasslands is concerned, there are plenty of gay bars and loft spaces where newcomers from Laguna Beach and Lake Wayzata can get their fill of being “in a band” until their trust funds kick in and they move to Beacon or Provincetown. They won’t be missed. If the owners choose not to reopen the venue elsewhere – which ostensibly they plan to – they can always repurpose their Greenpoint piano bar the Manhattan Inn.