All-ages DIY music venues – a place for incubation

Lesher Middle School and Little Kids Rock student Julia Kirkwood plays the Mountain Avenue Stage during the second day of Bohemian Nights at NewWestFest on Saturday, August 10, 2019. Photo by The Coloradoan.

The arts often turn a space into a place. Four walls can easily become an art studio or gallery hosting exhibitions of local artists. Empty parking lots are perfect for celebrations driven by food trucks with culinary artists pushing ethnic cuisines into new and uncharted territories for hungry community members. Music festivals can take the streets and buildings of a familiar downtown and transform them into a pedestrian-friendly place where friends connect with each other and their city while live music provides the soundtrack for new experiences. Taken collectively, these places give a city an identity and an energy that drives everything from community engagement and education to tourism and entrepreneurship.

Musical theatre performance at the CSU University Center for the Arts
Colorado State University’s Department of Music Theatre and Dance presents Urinetown, the musical by Mark Hollmann, book and lyrics by Greg Kotis and guest directed by Richard Cowden.

Fort Collins has the spirit of the west and Colorado embedded in its residents. From its origins as a frontier town in a state familiar with the boom and bust cycles of energy extraction and the precarity of ranching, to its current status as a city boasting a major university, a thriving music scene, and a cluster of craft brewers reminiscent of Silicon Valley in its scale and scope, Fort Collins has emerged as a creative city where the arts often catalyze space into place. This is especially true for music.

On most nights, you can find live music spanning genres like jazz, rock, folk, and hip hop at venues like the Aggie Theater, Hodi’s Half Note, Washington’s, Surfside 7, or the Magic Rat. If you like festivals, FoCoMx and Bohemian Nights energize Old Town in the spring and summer. Establishments like the Lincoln Center and the University Center for the Arts offer performances from music icons and artists like Art Garfunkel, Eddie Palmieri, and CSU faculty and students that tap into the worlds of orchestral arrangements, musical theater, and opera. The Music District is a truly one-of-a-kind place where you can learn a new instrument, book rehearsal time for your band, or network with music professionals who are eager to help you chart a path in an industry that is changing along with the technology influencing it. Despite this wealth of space transformed into place via music, there is one ingredient lacking in Fort Collins’ musical landscape – an established all-ages DIY music venue.

All-ages DIY (Do-It-Yourself) music venues are the incubators of music scenes. They are the places where musicians can try new ideas, develop their craft, and meet the other budding musicians, artists, filmmakers, graphic designers, managers, sound engineers, and more that will help them develop their careers while making connections with like-minded people on tour who stop to play a show. For decades, all-ages DIY music venues have catalyzed a wide-variety of spaces into places be it on a temporary or permanent basis. Rental houses with music scene residents, community centers, underutilized warehouses, arts studios, the back rooms of restaurants after hours… the permutations are endless.

"All-ages DIY (Do-It-Yourself) music venues are the incubators of music scenes."

Although a vast network of these nationwide venues largely operating off the radar still exists, since the 2000s, many all-ages DIY music venues have evolved beyond their punk roots into more formalized institutions that host and promote shows (incorporating a wide variety of musical genres from hip hop to folk), facilitate events in other arts disciplines like theater, fashion, and spoken word, provide space for rehearsing and recording, and offer classes in entrepreneurship, audio engineering, and screen printing, among other topics. Some of these venues like The Vera Project in Seattle, Washington and Flint Local 432 in Flint, Michigan have been formally addressed through local policy and received significant funding from the City of Seattle (The Vera Project) and the C.S. Mott Foundation (Flint Local 432). Both of these venues have also earned 501c3 status.

This emerging model of all-ages DIY music venue has two common themes. The first is that operations such as booking, promotions, sound, box office, and security are handled by volunteers who are either participants in or have strong ties to the local music scene. The second is that these volunteers and the bands playing on stage are often under the age of 21 which can exclude them from attending shows at traditional venues where alcohol is served, hence the “all-ages” designation and a strict policy against the use of drugs or alcohol on site.

Other earlier venues like The Metropolis in Seattle or the Cog Factory in Omaha, Nebraska served as stepping stones for volunteers and performers to become major players in the music industry. Numerous globally-recognized bands, record labels such as Sub Pop and Saddle Creek Records, a management company representing multi-platinum artists, and Slowdown, a $10.2 million-dollar urban redevelopment project in Omaha can all be traced back to the scenes and participants fostered by these venues.

Fort Collins does have a healthy all-ages music scene that bounces around amongst house shows that one can find if they know where to look and the occasional quasi-venue that will play host. Until recently, the city had a more established venue tied to the scene, The Downtown Artery, but that unfortunately ceased its music operations in October 2019.

All-ages DIY music venues turn space into place for those entering their local music scenes at square one. These places are where the next generation of performers, industry leaders, entrepreneurs, and fans are developed and form close ties to each other and the communities where they live. Fort Collins continues to succeed as a creative city capitalizing on its ability to use art to turn space into place, especially so with the power of music. The ecosystem that supports the city’s music scene is almost complete… it just needs one more place.

About the Author

Dr. Michael SemanDr. Michael Seman is an assistant professor in the LEAP Institute for the Arts’ arts management program at Colorado State University. His work primarily examines the intersection of music, entrepreneurship, and economic development on the urban landscape.  Dr. Seman teaches both undergraduate and graduate students and is currently writing a book about music scenes and how they can transform cities. Before joining Colorado State University, Dr. Seman was Director of Creative Industries Research and Policy at the University of Colorado Denver College of Arts and Media.