Evan Hoffman lives in an apartment on a quiet street in Richmond, Virginia. On weekend nights, some music fans seek out his basement instead of downtown’s theaters and bars.
Underground concert venues—typically in someone’s basement, backyard, or living room—exist wherever there’s demand for live music. In Richmond, the handful of formal venues is vastly outnumbered by private house venues with colorful names like Sloth Sanctuary, Crystal Palace, or Lucy’s. Typically hosted by renters, the names of venues rove around the city as hosts change residences.
Hoffman has run Good Day RVA, a non-profit music and film collective, since 2012. The project began as a music video series pairing bands with a particular location in the Richmond area. Good Day RVA shoulders the cost, allowing musicians that otherwise couldn’t afford the $500-$1,000 necessary to commission a professional quality video. The mission—to show Richmond off to itself and the world—remained unchanged as demand for the videos began to take off.
Eventually, Good Day RVA’s collaborators decided to move in together, creating a home base for their growing organization. As soon as he saw the basement in his current apartment, Hoffman thought about throwing shows there.
“We had concerns about sound,” says Hoffman. “We live in kind of an active area.” But as of yet, the Good Day RVA house had hosted over two dozen shows with only a few rowdy crowds along the way. The basement is cluttered with props from past shows including an enormous stuffed monkey and a cityscape made from cardboard.
Olivia Scibelli is the lead vocalist and guitarist in Idle Bloom, a Nashville-based psych-pop band. Now 28, Scibelli has played DIY shows across the country since 2009. Although DIY shows are rarely profitable—Scibelli has earned as little as $20 from some—she points out that DIY shows can yield important community connections.
“The connection in playing a basement somewhere random compared to a venue—the energy is really different,” she says, citing the fact that DIY spaces are all ages and inclusive of teenagers who might not be welcome at a traditional venue. “Those kids are just ravenous for connection,” adds Scibelli.
In Richmond, the notion of inclusion has merged with the national dialogue about safe spaces. “There’s no such thing as a safe space,” says Hoffman, pointing out that an environment that feels comfortable to a white man might feel profoundly fraught to a trans woman or person of color. His only guarantee is that there’s a conscious effort to make the Good Day RVA house a space that feels safe and comfortable to the broadest swath of guests possible.
Rivanna Youngpool used to run a sober venue called Sour Haus in a rapidly gentrifying Richmond neighborhood. On the day of a show, Youngpool would prepare by baking cookies, buying disposable cameras, and gathering firewood for bonfires in her backyard in between the scramble to communicate last-minute logistics to bands.
“The word ‘safe’ can be taken in so many ways,” says Youngpool. Along with banning alcohol, she kept a sign with house rules prominently displayed during shows. During shows, Youngpool and her roommates would circulate through the crowd, introducing themselves and keeping an eye on their guests. Disruptions ranged from unwanted sexual comments to situations that became more blatant.
“One guy came in—belligerent, insane—and walked through the band’s set,” Youngpool recalls. “He was sitting on the floor, which is a safety hazard. I had warning signs when he came in.”
When she approached the man to intervene, he pulled her in for a hug. “I was like, ‘I don’t know you!’” Youngpool says. She eventually managed to recruit a few friends to help escort him into a cab.
Because DIY spaces fly below the general public’s radar, audiences are assembled through webs of personal networks, with attendees texting hosts for their addresses. “I think we had done a good job of curating that community,” says Youngpool.
Although safe spaces have been criticized for having a chilling effect on controversial or difficult debates, in practice, the concept is not without political teeth. “DIY goes hand in hand with politics, whether you want to admit it or not,” says Scibelli, who points out that performing in DIY spaces allows bands to bypass the traditional system in which formal venues serve as the gatekeepers to audiences. “You’re going outside of a system to a radical space. DIY was created to break down that barrier. It’s important to bypass venues and traditional establishments to create fresh voices that are uncensored in the truest way,” he notes.
When booking shows, Hoffman makes an effort to be conscious to invite a diverse range of bands, including both the types of music and the artists themselves. “I’ve always loved every type of music,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll put math rock on the bill with a singer-songwriter. We were like, ‘Hey, we can’t just have white dudes playing rock all the time.’” He also emphasizes that everyone is welcome at Good Day RVA. “We’ll be inclusive to conservatives, too,” he says, “but not to assholes.”
DIY spaces have also created space for new communities to emerge and thrive in Richmond. When Tico Noise moved to Richmond in 2013, she stumbled upon the DIY scene by accident. Thinking she was attending a house party, she was surprised to discover a full sound system set up in the house’s living room and bands that played live music all night. At the time, Richmond was dominated by rock music. “Hip-hop wasn’t even on the radar because it was so fragmented and so underground,” says Noise. “I’ve seen it explode.”
When a friend’s recording equipment was stolen from his car, Noise channeled her desire to help into planning a two day event featuring over a dozen bands and visual artists to raise money for new gear. Now, she regularly books shows at friends’ houses in neighborhoods like Oregon Hill and Jackson Ward, plus a local venue called Strange Matter, transforming residences into DIY venues full of hip-hop, R&B, visual art, and creative lighting.
Noise’s efforts to book hip-hop and R&B artists have come alongside the emergence of local collectives like Satellite Syndicate, *B.ckwards Haus Ops, and Mutant Academy that help individual artists work together to gain greater traction. She suspects that hip-hop artists who work together as organized groups are better able to convince traditional venues of their artistic integrity and professionalism.
Despite its large population of socially progressive millennials, Richmond’s history as the former capital of the Confederacy still produces aftershocks that manifest, in part, as stereotypes about hip-hop and arts likely to draw largely African American crowds as threatening or dangerous. “I condemn that type of thinking,” says Noise, “and I have to use music to do it.”
Like Hoffman, Noise believes that social causes have helped the hip-hop community rally together. As it has coalesced in DIY spaces over the past two years, traditional venues have begun to soften, gradually booking more hip-hop acts. “You make your own space—now the venue wants to have you,” says Noise.
Despite its ability to nurture emerging communities, the DIY scene isn’t without drawbacks. Larger venues have professional security staff and systems in place that insulate them from liability should anything go wrong. Sexual harassment, drunken mishaps, health emergencies, and injuries caused by crowdsurfing or moshing are all risks that formal venues are better equipped to handle. Crowds frequently exceed capacity and lack sufficient exits in underground venues; in December 2016, over 30 people were killed when a fire broke out at a warehouse rave in Oakland.
DIY shows that are held in spaces zoned as private residences exist in a legal gray area, somewhere between a private party and a venue. Although Richmond is hospitable to underground venues, concert hosts in Los Angeles have found themselves in expensive, time-consuming legal battles with city officials over zoning permits. To avoid eviction, some suggest negotiating specific language into the space’s lease.
The etiquette of the house show is delicate. Because they are hosted in private residences, hosts make different rules about where visitors are allowed to be. Typically, upstairs bedrooms are considered off limits. But at Good Day RVA, Hoffman has dismissed that rule.
“We wanted to trust that people aren’t going to take anything,” says Hoffman, whose living room features a flat screen television, along with the video and camera equipment Good Day RVA uses to shoot music videos elsewhere in the house. “The openness has cultivated a very respectful community that comes here.”
For Youngpool, Sour Haus eventually created legal complications. She was recently sued by her former landlord for damage to the property caused by the weight of audiences packed into her living room. After over two years of shows that packed audiences into Youngpool’s living room, the floor began to bow and sink—something Youngpool noticed and tried to remedy by building stints beneath the joists with her father. At the time of this reporting, she was in the final days of negotiating a settlement for the damages with her former landlord.
For bands, DIY tours can also be punishing. “It’s not an old person’s game, usually. It’s a brutal life,” says Scibelli. “We’ve recently done touring that’s more professional, with booking agents. It’s really luxurious. You miss the connection, but you are more taken care of.”
Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled “B.ckwards Haus Ops.”