When you think of “DIY venue,” what comes to mind? For some, it’ll be teenagers dressed in jean jackets with spiked hair shoving each other in a basement while a band plays in the corner next to a pool table. For others, it’ll be someone passed out on the back steps, a bottle of whiskey knocked over beside them. For others still, the term DIY venue may be a foreign concept, conjuring nothing at all.
As with the music scene itself, the term “DIY venue” is fluid and unconstrained. It could be a church basement, a barn with extension cords trailing from it, or even an abandoned house. As long as bands are able to play and people are able to gather, have space to dance (or just sway), it’s a DIY venue.
Carport Manor is, currently, Abbotsford’s only DIY venue. Started in 2016, Carport frequently hosts both touring acts and local bands. As with most DIY venues, Carport is nothing fancy. Bands play on a makeshift stage in — you guessed it — a carport. There’s a single light bulb hanging in the middle of the room (along with several coloured spotlights that swirl across the ceiling), and the walls are spray painted in metallic designs.
As with many DIY venues, Carport was created on a whim, though not by Aaron Levy, CIVL station manager and one of the four people living in the house at the time.
“Nobody ever used the garage, none of us drove at the time, so they covered the garage to use as a workshop. I had heard banging for a while and one day I checked it out and it was a stage. [Jesse] was like, ‘Now you’ve got to start booking it.’”
Although Aaron didn’t initially agree to it, the creation of Carport Manor was useful.
“I had been frustrated. I booked about 20 different shows in 20-plus different venues in town. It wasn’t sustainable for bookings. It wasn’t reliable. Every show could be the last show we did at a particular venue because not every venue owner liked every type of music, and not every show did well, and not every band was respectful.”
So, Carport was born. It’s not pretty — the stage is a few boards nailed together at one end of a carport — but what the venue itself is isn’t important, it’s what it does. And DIY venues are designed to strengthen the music community, to put bands in the spotlight who wouldn’t necessarily get recognition from bigger, established venues.
Why else are DIY venues necessary? Because they promote individuality by accepting all acts, not just big name bands that fit into the top charts mould. Hit up a DIY venue and you’re sure to hear a variety of musical styles all in one night; it’s not unheard of for a DJ to open with an industrial noise set that uses refurbished Nintendos as part of the instrument (Ben Jones) followed by a four-piece rock band that has the entire carport groovin’ (MALK).
Obviously, Carport welcomes diversity. Performers like B.A. Johnston, who engages the crowd using humour and props (and almost always ends his set with less clothes than he came in with); Tunic, somehow unnerving and groovy at the same time; Stephen Carl O’Shea with his soft guitar and unhurried vocals; all are welcome.
“You need to give people the opportunity to express themselves and to participate in the cultural economy of their community from a cultural and artistic perspective rather than a financial one,” Aaron said.
DIY venues are also necessary because they breed creativity. With a makeshift stage, a few electrical outlets, and a couple enthusiastic performers, an old barn, an empty garage, or even a backyard can all become a place for people to get together and support the local music scene without having to bend to fit the standards expected from traditional bookings.
Although Carport as a DIY venue is in itself a creative endeavour, there is one ingenious invention that has blossomed within the venue that the entirety of the Abbotsford music scene comes out for: Carport Karaoke.
On New Year’s Eve, Blessed, a band based in the Fraser Valley, team up with Aaron to host “Carport Karaoke.”
“We had this idea where on New Year’s we gave them an opportunity; we’ll learn a song you want to sing and play it with you. And that’s what it was birthed out of, this concept where all these people who always wanted to start bands but were like, ‘I don’t have the time.’ We were like, ‘Well, we’ll learn a song,’” says Drew Riekman, vocalist and guitarist of Blessed and one of the organizers of Carport Karaoke.
Although Carport Karaoke takes a lot of work, there are rewards that come with it. Namely, seeing members of the community overcome their anxiety of performing in front of a group and nailing the performance.
“Watching the people who were really nervous kill it is really fun because there are some people who in the 15-minute break will come up and be like, ‘I don’t think I can do it.’ And I’m like ‘You’re going to be fine.’ There are quite a few people who were really nervous and said they wanted to be in the second half and they totally destroyed it,” Drew said.
Unfortunately, if you’ve never experienced Carport Karaoke with Blessed, you likely never will: New Year’s of 2018 was the fifth and final installment of Carport Karaoke — unless another band is willing to pick up the torch.
“Obviously some of our friends have joked about it. At New Year’s they were like, ‘We’ll do it next year.’ For us, there’s no creative ownership of it. I would even hope that we would get to play on a couple songs. But yeah, we don’t feel protective of it in any way.”
But Drew doesn’t expect anyone to step up to the plate. “I don’t think you can ask anyone to learn 26 songs for New Year’s … It’s a lot to take on, and the reality of it is there’s a management aspect of making sure 26 people are preparing and getting ready and practicing on their own time.”
The reason Carport Karaoke may have seen its last year is mainly due to the amount of work that goes into planning it.
“Starting in November, it was 10 hours a week. And then in the last week before New Year’s, that ramps up to 40 … Next year I just don’t think there’s going to be time anymore on top of the schedule that we’re trying to maintain. And arguably there hasn’t been time already in the previous years.”
Despite the workload, Carport Karaoke had obvious benefits.
“There’s a really flattering aspect where people are like, ‘Thank you for putting in all this work.’ It’s not that there isn’t a lot of work. I do see that part of it, but because of the timeframe we’re able to divide it in a way that I find doesn’t feel too overwhelming until the week of.”
That, and it gives them a chance to strengthen their skills and apply it to Blessed as a band.
“It forces us to learn and play music outside of our normal scope and where we’re comfortable. It forces you to look at songs differently, and I think it’s a helpful creative exercise, almost that there’s a benefit we get out of it majorly that I don’t think some people consider.”
Though if this was the last year, Carport Karaoke went out with a bang. “A couple of people who are typically not as rambunctious or on the quieter side this year really killed it … In other years it’s been really good, but this year I feel like everyone really gave it,” Drew said.
Although there are often no set rules at DIY venues, such as there would be at a bar or club, there is a general understanding among those who attend that they should maintain a certain level of respect — for the venue, for the bands, for each other. That means no fighting, no drugs, and no inappropriate behaviour.
However, Carport does have rules — they’re posted on Carport’s Facebook page, and Aaron ensures everyone is responsible for themselves and knows what’s expected of them.
“On New Year’s I’m telling people, ‘Hey, I remember picking you up off the ground beside the house last year. Let’s watch your drinking this year.’ … I go out of my way — sometimes it’s a lecture, or sometimes it’s to point something out, or sometimes it’s just to joke around with somebody, but make the point.”
On New Year’s, and at every other show at Carport, Aaron keeps an eye out from the beginning for people who may cause trouble.
“You identify people as they’re entering the space, you evaluate their coherence and their likelihood to be a good customer or respectful person. If you have any concerns, you may approach them first and let them know some things, or ask some things.”
It’s not that Aaron wants to be the one responsible for the safety of everyone there, but someone has to do it.
“I don’t like being in that position, being responsible for that. But nobody else is really responsible for or comfortable with it. And then if somebody was comfortable with it, I’d wonder if they’d be tactful about it.”
And that responsibility is a lot more than some may think. “There’s a lot of things to keep in mind. You’re opening your house to people. You’re the host; you’re responsible for what happens there.”
And conflict of any kind isn’t entirely avoidable. When something does arise, Aaron has a strategy: if he wants someone to leave because they’ve been disrespectful or for any other reason, he asks them to come outside with him for a cigarette.
“We talk outside, and then they can’t come back in. Ever since I was working in the bars, if someone needs to go, I invite them out for a smoke. If they don’t want to go for a smoke, tell them you need to talk to them outside — get them outside, then tell them they can’t come back in. You don’t have to push anybody out.”
New Year’s was no exception.
“I kicked two people out on New Year’s — or I denied one and I asked one to leave. We’ll have conversations every time I tell somebody leave or that they shouldn’t come. I say ‘Well, we can get coffee and talk about it another time, but now’s not the time.’”
Fortunately, though, nothing has ever turned violent. “I’m pretty pleased that it hasn’t come to blows at any time. It’s pretty essential that it hasn’t — I don’t think it’d be sustainable if it ever did. If there was ever a fistfight there, I think that would be the end.”
Of course there are concerns when it comes to DIY venues. The venue hasn’t been checked out by the city for maximum capacity, and there are possible fire hazards. There won’t necessarily be anyone on site trained in first aid, and if something goes wrong — a fire does start, someone breaks an arm — the venue isn’t always equipped to deal with it.
At least not in a way that a business license would expect. There may not be an evacuation plan or a first aid kit on site, but nearly everyone there has a phone and common sense. If something does go wrong, they know to call 911 and tell the organizer. Just because the venue hasn’t been approved by the city, doesn’t mean it’s any more dangerous than a verified venue.
Drugs, especially, are a topic of concern to Aaron and others involved in Carport. “Outside of when the shows are, we as a group — those of us who are aware and concerned — have had discussions about drugs: who’s doing drugs, what kind of drugs are being done, what should we be looking at or thinking of doing in order to discourage drugs.”
Though there are things to worry about — drugs, inappropriate behaviour, conflicts — the benefits of having Carport outweigh the risks; namely, exposure for bands who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to play Abbotsford.
“We get tons of bookings that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to do. [For traditional bookings] there has to be the right venue, the right day, the right style of music, the right potential for a crowd. I’ve never said I’m not going to do a show to my knowledge. There are two shows in the past two years that have not been done.”
And this exposure brings bands from all over the world. “I’ve got somebody booked from France, somebody was asking from Florida last week, a band’s coming from Portland next week, Jan. 15, The Hague from Portland and David Ivan. We had that band from the Czech Republic. We’ve had a band from England, we’ve had a band from Spain,” Aaron said.
Aside from that, DIY venues are important for a number of reasons. According to Aaron, having DIY venues, as well as other spaces to book bands, is important for the community.
“It’s important for artists, for people like you and I who live here and are performing, we want to be exposed to different types of music. We want to have those opportunities. I didn’t have those opportunities growing up in Toronto, in my community. It’s important for the city of Abbotsford.”
How can you support local and touring artists, and keep DIY spaces open? According to Drew, all you need to do is show up.
“The $5 that you give to a band from Toronto, that goes so much further than I think people who aren’t participating in the music industry believe. If you can think about the fact that you and four friends showing up is the difference between a full tank of gas, that’s pretty extreme.”
If you know a show is happening and you decide not to go because you think one person can’t make a difference, you’d be wrong.
“When shows regularly have under 50 people, everybody counts. I don’t think people give themselves enough credit who come to every show … that goes so much further than I think people believe. That really counts,” said Drew.
Despite not initially agreeing to the creation of Carport Manor, the last few years have been great.
“Did I want to live in a venue? No. As roommates we had talked about that and I said no, I don’t want to do that. That’s not what I’m looking for in life. That’s not the lifestyle I want right now. I do shows already, I don’t want to live shows. But it’s worked out,” said Aaron.
DIY venues aren’t glamorous; sometimes the light fizzles out and the band is left to play in the dark, and sometimes beer gets spilled on your shoes, but it’s all part of the experience. You get sandwiched between a bunch of sweaty bodies you don’t know and get knocked around but you also get exposed to bands you never would have heard of otherwise and meet people who become lifelong friends.
Image: Kayt Hine/The Cascade