Missing in Action

by by Milton Crabcakke

What is happening to all of the DIY venues in Providence? While there are still shows happening almost every night, compared to previous years, the number of venues hosting events is surprisingly slim. Browsing the Lotsofnoise show listings and forum reveals that most shows are being held at Providence's two artist-run venues with institutional funding, AS220 and Firehouse 13. Only occasionally does one come across listings at more specialized DIY spaces--power electronics and harsh noise shows at the Thunderdome in the West End neighborhood, or punk, metal and hardcore shows at a small house on Cemetery Street.

In general, DIY events are productions in which neither the organizers nor the performers intend to invest any money, making due with what is freely available. These shows run the gamut from informal gatherings of friends to the performances of internationally touring musicians. As such, DIY performances require flexibility in planning and a venue that doesn't charge for booking, ruling out more traditional venues like bars or Lupo's.
Over the past two years, the situation for touring bands and DIY organizers in Providence has become increasingly grim. The existing model principally supports local musicians, many of whom gained international recognition in the early 2000s. AS220 was largely established to provide opportunities for Rhode Island artists by giving them priority in booking. The venue was designed with the needs of independent organizers and DIY events in mind, as there is no charge for using the venue. If money is actually made, the first $75 goes to paying the sound manager for the event and the remainder is distributed between the bands. AS220 became a mainstay of the local scene by hosting a wide range of shows with diverse lineups. But since the departure of former program director Jeffery Alexander in late 2007, the AS220 lineup has catered to a smaller group of Rhode Island bands with lower profiles, and well known musicians such as Kites and Lightning Bolt have focused their energies elsewhere.
Historically, artists and musicians in Providence have benefitted from a wide range of inexpensive and unused industrial buildings--discrete, off-the-map spaces that are large enough to simultaneously house living arrangements, studios and performance spaces. In recent years, many of these buildings have been bought up by real estate developers and transformed into high-end, mixed-use office and condominium parks, which have sold with moderate success. This real estate trend, coupled with rising property values, has stripped the city of several important sites, like Monohasset Mills, a six building mill complex that in 2002 was purchased by a local group of artists and redeveloped into posh condominiums, and the Pine Needle Nest, a four story mill building where a variety of shows--including the well known West Side Halloween festivities--were held until 2006.
But while there are still enough mill spaces in Providence to satisfy the studio needs of artists, the number of spaces putting on performances has critically dropped. Many mill building landlords are willing to look the other way for discrete clients, but bringing larger numbers of people into a space can run the risk of attracting the attention of police or fire departments, as well as accruing hefty zoning and regulatory fines. Artist-built structures only occasionally meet fire code, and the discovery of even a single mattress can lead to an eviction notice.
As the generosity of individuals running alternative venues has worn thin, it is easy to understand why the residents of the remaining DIY spaces are closing their doors to new shows. Eviction fears and bad experiences have triggered a watchful conservatism; most spaces now limit themselves to promoting and providing opportunities exclusively to their friends and associated circles. This has largely hampered diversity, but it also spells trouble for the future of Providence's musical community. Over the past two years, the local music scene has lost a number of key organizers. Mat Brinkman, a founder of Fort Thunder, was a hub for international contacts. Geoff Mullen, musician and former AS220 employee, served as an instrumental link between younger local musicians in Providence and other music communities. After Brinkman departed for Texas and Mullen for Pittsburgh, many of those links to outside communities were broken. The result of these changes is that the number of people moving into Providence or staying behind after school for the arts community is shrinking. With fewer and fewer ins to an increasingly scattered musical scene, one wonders if the historical appeal of Providence's hyperactive and genre-defying musical community has irreversibly faded. Organizers need not only a thoughtful reevaluation of the remaining resources, but to adopt a more aggressive curatorial stance if the musical scene in Providence is to survive in its winter ahead.
MILTON CRABCAKKE RISD'09 has nowhere to go.