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Passion over Profit: The Struggles of the DIY Scene in SLO

A warm February afternoon, a notification, and a long sigh.

A quick swipe and the sigh turns into cursing at the phone.

“Dwellinart shut down any future free shows that it was hosting and fired a lot of its staff,” said a visibly irked third year Ethan Weiss to his fellow bandmate fellow third-year Laila Zaidi.

The problem? The band was booked to play a show there in two weeks, and now they were stuck in a position all too familiar to them.

With its shutdown of the popular free shows, Dwellinart/Stage 9 severed a powerful showing from local bands. Weiss plays in one called SPY and over the years he has seen the scene struggle between the interests of the city and the wellbeing of the scene.

A hardcore band struggling to get by is not uncommon in any music scene, not by a long shot, but for local hardcore punk bands in SLO, from losing venues willing to host them to actually being asked to pay to play, hardcore punk bands in SLO find themselves in a fight for their creative lives.

“It just doesn’t make sense, how can venues like SLO Brew Rock and Dwellinart not have the capacity to understand that bands like the ones from our community want to play there,” Zaidi said.

Both Zaidi and Weiss’s hardcore punk band SPY was one of the bands booked to play a big show at the venue and now they are left to their own devices after cancellation, but more importantly to them, this highlighted a major issue the community has with the area of SLO.

SPY performing at the CalPoly University Union Plaza

Hardcore’s inherent sound relies on bombastic guitar riffs and fast-paced drum lines that more often than not solicit a headbang or two from the crowd. Beyond its loud nature, hardcore in SLO carries another unique identity with it in its “Do It Yourself” mentality that many of its members feel conflicts with the values of SLO itself.

This DIY attitude is something that punk rock has carried with itself since its inception in the late 70’s. From bands like Black Flag to modern local groups like SPY, bands have relied on themselves and like-minded people to instill these core beliefs in every aspect of their art.

Some of these values include public accessibility to live music, support of the creation of music, experimentation of art and music, and most importantly cultivation of musical acts and the community through shows and events.

Cultivation of a Community

This cultivation of a community is not a task that many can keep up for long periods of time, but certain people within the community help keep the scene strong for years. These organizers are the heart and soul of the community according to SPY, and it is through them that shows are put together and word is spread.

Two of these organizers, Stripped vocalist Sterling Snow and DIY Organizer and former Dwellinart Event Planner Biba Pickles, have worked to put on shows to keep the scene growing, and expose it to a larger audience while avoiding the risk of noise violations that comes with house shows.

The stress that comes with running the scene and maintaining a sense of community isn’t something that comes free of charge.

“We have both been part of this scene for years,” Pickles said, “and after a while, especially when you have to deal with people like [Ackerman], it starts to wear down on you.”

That isn’t to say that the experience isn’t rewarding, particularly with the Dwellinart fiasco, as Snow and Pickles both felt like the experience strengthened the community.

“I’m not the first to say this,” Snow said, “But us punk rockers [DIY] are like cockroaches. We will always find a way to bounce back and survive.”

One of the ways the community connects with new people and keeps the scene tight knit is through the Instagram account called SLO DIY, which gets the word out about shows and events that the community is putting on.

Second-year Plant Science major Wenqi Zhang uses Instagram’s’ vast reach; this page helps get the word out for various shows in the scene and helps take the pressure off the organizers who have to deal with other issues within the community, like Ackerman, who was allegedly hard to work with.

Zhang feels like the gap between the DIY music scene and SLO has become more visible than it ever has been after Ackerman decided to stop working with the scene. Dwellinart having once hosted everything from indie rock bands to variety shows called “Art After Dark”, has parted ways from DIY organizers and other venue volunteers.

“It was the place,” she said, “There was no other venue that really wanted to work with our community.”

The bizarre and often avoided venue on the outskirts of downtown SLO had a ton of potential, according to the SLO DIY account, but suffered from a lack of structure and support needed for the venue to truly succeed.

Now that the venue has effectively ended its relationship with not just the hardcore punk scene but the DIY scene as a whole, the glaring issues it had in the first place (especially with its owner Michael Ackerman) have come into the spotlight.

“The venue was always dubious in nature, at least from my perspective,” Zhang said, “I don’t know where or how it got here, other than the fact that it was allowing us to host shows there.”

The nature of who and where exactly the Dwellinart/Stage 9 owner came from was always a mystery but according to Pickles, Ackerman never quite understood what she and many others saw the venue as.

“I cannot stress how often I would clash with Ackerman on whether or not a band could play at the venue because of his complaint of it not being profitable,” Pickles said, “and these shows like T.S.O.L and community bands were bringing in so many people.”

Both Snow and Pickles remember these acts bringing in tons of people, so they know that the bands can bring in crowds. If profit was purely the focus, then they never felt Ackerman was ever at a loss.

Both Ackerman and the Stage9/Dwellinart venue refused to comment on the situation or their past experiences with the DIY scene. 

Going forward and the future of DIY

Places like the Fremont Theatre have a storied history of hosting touring DIY bands with a brand or name recognition like in Jul. 2017 when they hosted the industrial metal group Ministry at the tail end of their 2016-2017 tour.

Bands like Ministry have helped foster hope for the scene, but within the last year these acts have fallen off the minds of venues in favor of more “brand-friendly” alternative and indie music.

“It feels like in order to play out here, you have to have some kind of brand,” Snow said, “We have more than a ‘brand’, we have a community, but it never seems to be good enough for them [venues] nowadays.”

With the future of the scene up in the air with regards to playing venue shows, both Snow and Pickles feel like the scene will survive but not without a new wave of like-minded people to help the DIY scene reach its full potential.

“You know, we do this because we are passionate about it,” Pickles said, “It has never ever been about the money or fame, that’s why I stuck up for these bands till the bitter end, because I know that through events like this we are stronger together and the future is a lot brighter because of that.”

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