It might be hard to tell during the COVID-19 pandemic, but Kalamazoo’s Vine Neighborhood is usually a popular place for live music shows. Often they’re held at informal house venues. You might assume that these are out-of-control parties, and in some cases, you’d be right. But many musicians and fans are working hard to create a different, more respectful culture – one that’s centered on the music.
In Kalamazoo’s do-it-yourself music scene, it’s the house show that reigns. While they’re not all the same, these occasions tend to look something like this. The audience fills a dimly lit basement. Listeners sway to the music, seemingly unbothered by the volume that borders on deafening.
These venues sometimes get a bad rap – as a nuisance, but also as a potentially hostile space for would-be fans.
“There is this one venue that I know where like, one of the people that lives there will just run around naked. And the venue that they had before that, they would have all this porn up of only women on the walls,” said Scott Dumas, a music student who runs a D-I-Y venue.
But Dumas says that anymore, that house is the exception. He says many house venues care about being inclusive. And that includes the one Dumas runs with his roommates. Events posted on the venue’s Facebook page always include a disclaimer in all caps, “No homophobia, bigotry, racism, sexism, or violence of any kind.”
“We don’t tolerate any of that, and we run the safest space possible because we don’t want anyone to be subjected to that stuff. It’s all about the music, for us, and making everyone feel safe,” he added.
Rory Svekric operated a house venue for seven and a half years, the longest running Kalamazoo house venue they know of. Svekric says that venues can differ drastically in terms of culture and operation.
“Some people want to promote a very specific sort of style or idea. There has been definitely houses that strive to be sober places or strive to be like out-front queer places,” he said.
Behavior isn’t the only factor. Svekric says responsible houses take care to be physically safe – and to not annoy the neighbors. A good venue, Svekric says, will abide by a certain list of “floating guidelines.” These could include logistical things like sound-proofing, noise-dampening, and having clear exits. Svekric advises against running a house show like a party.
“Packing a bunch of people into a crammed space, with usually one very risky exit - you just don’t want to take too many risks, and when you involve serious alcohol or drugs or partying, the risks just become tenfold.”
Despite a few outliers, participants in the scene agree that the culture of house venues has shifted to be safer and more inclusive. Steve Walsh is the director of the Vine Neighborhood Association. Vine is home to most of Kalamazoo’s house venues. Walsh says that he has noticed a change in house-show culture during his 13 years at the VNA.
“I think it has become less, just huge house parties that had bands, into more like the event being the bands that are coming in and the attendees more there for the show to support the community,” Walsh said.
Walsh attributes this shift in culture to the scene’s tendency to police themselves. He says house shows have made the neighborhood a more tight-knit community.
“We’ve changed what used to be “Neighborhood Watch,” into what is ‘Community Cares,’” he said. “I think it just speaks to an overall change in tone within the neighborhood. I think that those shows were natural bridges to connecting with other folks and to really breaking down some stereotypes.”
Of course, like everyone else, the musicians in Kalamazoo’s DIY music scene have had to hit pause because of the coronavirus pandemic. Dumas said all concerts listed on the DIT Kalamazoo page are canceled for the next two months "or so."
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier web version of this story said that a virtual house concert was planned for March 26. Dumas says that is not the case.