Notes From The Underground: Success and Struggle in Chicago’s DIY Music Scene

 

It’s cold, nighttime in a Chicago winter cold, so cold that sweat and cigarette smoke have frozen thick in the air. The backyard of the Logan Square house is filled with people talking, a murmur rising above a soundtrack of lighter flicks and muffled drums. Inside, a battered ceiling fan spins wildly, fighting the heat generated by a hundred people dancing in a living room. It’s a normal Saturday night at the Dollhouse, a thriving venue in Chicago’s DIY music scene. Dollhouses are usually home to delicate toys in ruffles and lace. The girls that live here winkingly call themselves dolls, but the metaphor ends there. Dollhouse founder Serena Fath, who’s busy selling single cans of PBR out of a battered fridge, bears a mane of swamp green hair you’d be hard-pressed to find at Toys R Us, and her roommates are all ripped jeans and sharply angled eyeliner. They have to shout over microphone feedback to wrangle the smokers inside when a cop car sharkily cruises by. The goal is to keep a low profile, avoid the law. Like all good parties, tonight is illegal.

Chicago’s DIY venues are more than parties—they’re viewed as essential in providing safe, equal-opportunity spaces for underground bands to perform. However, they’re plagued by a popularity paradox: each successful show brings the risk of shutdown. Ask any member of the community about the venues shuttered by the city and they’ll rattle off a graveyard of names: Animal Kingdom, Ratt House and, most recently, Young Camelot. An optimistic look at this crack down paints it as a sign of a more active police force. Others see it as unnecessary activity deconstructing precious space for traditionally marginalized musicians. Perhaps no Windy City concert space is more emblematic of this cause than The Dollhouse, a feminist DIY venue that aims to provide a safe space for communal creative expression. Founded two years ago in a Columbia College apartment, it’s migrated to a house on a lonely block the police pace at night.

“At my old apartment, I knew everyone in the space at all times. Here I know maybe ten people at the show,” Fath says with a rueful chuckle, pausing to count on fingers tipped with chipped black nail polish. She’s the rare person excited by hordes of strangers in their home, but this welcoming attitude is double-edged. As it turns out, you can only cram so many bodies into a living room. Nicotine addition has become a surprising hero; the crowd spills out into the backyard to chain-smoke between sets. Still, the Dollhouse is approaching a Gladwellian-tipping point: with popularity comes the risk of shutdown. In the DIY community, success equals death.

 

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Underground concert venues have a beer-soaked history, but the women behind the Dollhouse aren’t just chasing a high. “We’re trying to use our platform to be more political, not just to throw shows because people like to party,” Dollhouse member Kelso Ashby says. “We’re throwing shows because we want to see change in the world, we want to smash the patriarchy and abolish prisons.” Benefit shows are one avenue of change. Tonight’s concert will raise $500 for the Chicago Abortion Fund, collecting cash from the $5 entrance donation and $2 cans of PBR. The bands are unafraid to get political. The lead singer of Daymaker, a kohl-smeared Sinead O’Connor doppelgänger, ends their set with a breathless cry: “Women’s bodies are important, we all came from them. Let’s let the women decide how to take care of them!” The crowd roars its approval.

This is a concert space where famed feminist writer Carol Hanish’s proclamation that “the personal is political” is a driving principle, and a twitchy teenager with Bernie Sanders hat lectures anyone who will listen about the importance of voting in primary elections. “You can’t separate the politics and the art, they go together,” says Fath. “The reason I’m an artist and I care about other artists is because of political reasons—the need to create a platform.”

In a city ruled by corporate, 21+ venues like the Empty Bottle, the Dollhouse is a breath of equal-opportunity fresh air. “There are so many spaces that will not pay you, that will make you pay to perform, that will make you perform for exposure only,” says Maryann Michael, aka singer Peggy Tenderass. A regular of the DIY scene, she’s been performing at underground and corporate venues for six years. “Our art isn’t about making money, but when you’re put in a position where you’re told that you have to draw 50 people or you have to pay $80-$100 to play here or you have to wait six months to play twenty minutes and maybe no one is going to come to your show, it’s really hard to share your music.” This struggle for exposure is a common one, inspiring the creation of DIY venues around the world.

Perhaps the most famous of these venues is Los Angeles space The Smell. The Smell has a Wikipedia page, and a vegan snack bar. It’s all very LA. The experimental punk group No Age is perhaps the most famous of the “Smell graduates,” but recent years have seen a host of young Los Angeles bands—FIDLAR, Girlpool, Cherry Glazerr, Moses Campbell—migrating from the DIY scene into the mainstream with gigs at music festivals and designer Hedi Slimane’s Saint Laurent fashion week shows. It’s a testament to the power of established venues for underground artists: they act like a slingshot into success. The Smell’s status as a legal concert space means record execs can attend shows, and media coverage comes at no threat to the venue. However, some members of Los Angeles’ DIY scene see this legitimacy as problematic.

“The Smell is so well known that you have to know someone to play there,” Tiana Jimenez says. “You can’t just show up, but the basis of the DIY scene is being inclusive and letting people have a voice to express themselves and create together.” Jimenez is a Chicago-based musician who grew up in the Los Angeles DIY scene. While she’s quick to point out that both communities are home to musical talent, she argues that Chicago’s relative lack of a music industry establishment forces local musicians to truly “do it yourself.” “The kids that play The Smell have parents who work for labels and can get free recording time, but here you have to make a friend who knows how to record or teach yourself,” Jimenez says. “I don’t mean this negatively but Chicago is a bunch of nobodies who need to make shit together, and that’s the beauty of it—that anyone can do it.” This lack of polish may lend authenticity, but it also means Chicago’s scene is residential, under the radar out of necessity instead of street cred.

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By sunlight, the Dollhouse is just a house. There’s no moshing crowds or microphone feedback, and this is somehow unsettling. The rooms feel lonely. Fath’s vivid green hair is damp from a haphazard morning shower, a fallen soufflé of the beehive that crowns her head on concert nights. This too, is wrong. Everything is too quiet, until Fath and Ashby dive into an impassioned, frankly unexpected, treatise about safety.

“I’m just so passionate about safety,” Ashby says, with enough conviction to wash away the inclination to laugh. Safety has never been particularly cool, much less the descriptor of choice for an illegal underground music venue. It’s certainly not a factor everywhere. Just remembering last night’s scream of microphone feedback is transportive. Suddenly I’m fifteen again, underage and overdressed in a warehouse nestled deep in downtown Los Angeles.

LA’s DIY scene was tenuous, a constellation of venues connected by traffic-choked freeways that acted more as obstacles than avenues. My mode of transportation that night was a lime green VW Bus—imagine a poorly cared for Scooby Doo Mystery Machine—with an uncanny knack of breaking down at the most inconvenient moments. The engine was weak, and the only way to start it back up was to gingerly roll it downhill and jump in, hoping the sliding doors wouldn’t lop off a limb. So far, we’d been lucky.

The warehouse was thick with a crowd, bodies piled together to attend the DIY festival FMLY Fest. I stood in the crush of bodies, lips bruised from kissing a spectacularly tattooed boy with dirty fingernails, and realized I was alone. Suddenly I was entangled in a thicket of elbows—all sharp corners—as the men around me moshed. I was surrounded by strangers, with a dead phone battery and no tangible ride home. I felt stunningly out of place. This is a common memory for women in the music scene. Ashby’s own safety quest is driven by a girlhood spent performing at hardcore punk shows in grimy basements. “I loved it but I felt really unsafe, because it was clear that this was a place for straight white males. Every time I’d play they’d be like ‘what is she doing, why is she playing music here?” she says, dropping her voice in a scathing imitation. “I like proving that here by booking female-fronted bands. That makes me feel safer.”

This quest for safety at events has become The Dollhouse’s driving ethos. Each show is equipped with a support liaison from the Feminist Action Support Network who encourages safe spaces in the DIY community. They’re there to protect from potential issues like negative drug experiences, sexually aggressive audience members and drunk driving. It’s a job the Dolls take seriously—they kicked a band off a bill last year after one of the members was accused of sexual assault. This partnership with FASN is emblematic of Chicago’s DIY community: a group of people expanding the idea of “doing it yourself” to create support networks, publishing houses, safety measures, community hubs, a cultural ecosystem. It’s fiercely loved, and fiercely protected by members wary of cops who can end it all. Facebook events are careful to exclude venue addresses, which can only be obtained by directly messaging community members. It’s still not enough. Last month, beloved venue Young Camelot was forced to shut down when an afterparty for a hip hop show at The Metro turned violent upon the arrival of the police. The Dollhouse saw this as a wake up call: something illegal can’t be the safe space they crave. “I’d hate to see them shut down for something as petty as a city ordinance when what they’re doing is so much bigger,” Jimenez says. “It’s not just kids in a basement making noise, there is a movement and a cause.”

The goal is to get legit, become a legal, non-residential, non-profit space dedicated to supporting an inclusive arts community. The storefront space would be the home to three weekly events, and all ticket costs would go directly to performing artists. It’s a beautiful dream, and one that requires start up capital. To the Dolls, this means applying to a tidal wave of grants and mining the DIY community for support via the old standby: benefit shows. They also set up an Indiegogo Campaign, raising $900 in two days. Visitors to the campaign website are greeted by an off-kilter and upbeat promotional video with a voiceover buoyantly listing incentives to donate. They start small, with handmade patches, and quickly ramp up to the Dolls pledging to get matching tattoos of the name of any donor who gives $3,000. It’s a dramatic, if a bit desperate gesture, but anything to bridge the $7,000 keeping them from their goal. This is the downside of truly underground communities—being legitimate means being broke. Chicago punk kids don’t have trust funds.

This is one of the innate problems with Chicago’s DIY scene, a line on a laundry list of truths so inherent that they seem obvious when stated. Of course corporate greed corrupts concert spaces. Of course brown bodies and female bodies are marginalized. Of course there are demographics that ache for a space where a crowd can become a community. There is no gravity in these statements because none of them are new, and there is no use in pretending otherwise. These sentences are not just a state of the music industry but a state of the world, of a past so engrained that it can’t help but inform the present. The Dollhouse is just trying to keep it from shaping the future.

 

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