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Reflections in the Wake of Destruction: Kent Avenue

Graham Johnson

The closure of several DIY music venues on Williamsburg's Kent Avenue pose critical questions about the identity of independent music in the present day.

A particularly memorable piece of music journalism from recent years is Tom Ewing’s “Joe Chip, What’s On Your iPod?”, written for his recurring Poptimist column on Pitchfork. In it, he discusses the decline of music genres and formats by comparing them to death as conceived in Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel Ubik. Ewing writes:

The [book’s] hero, Joe Chip, is caught in an explosion, which he gradually becomes aware he may not have survived: His body and consciousness are preserved in "half-life," a suspended animation state he perceives as a reality subject to sudden and extreme decay. Milk sours, friends age to death, objects regress to older versions of themselves.

I found the terrifying limbo of Ubik helpful as a way of thinking about cultural death. It struck me that we experience cultural death -- of a music genre, say -- as a shrinking reality bubble. Within the bubble we listen to what we always did, we talk to people who listen to that stuff too, we enjoy the unspoken shared experience. But outside the bubble that experience is irrelevant or forgotten. And like the eerie decay phenomena in Joe Chip's reality, conditions inside the bubble can deteriorate rapidly. Radio stations change format away from your music to something else; mailing lists sputter out; fellow fans move away and are not replaced.

The metaphor has since become impossible for me to escape while conceptualizing everything from the state of rock today to the continued relevance of my college’s independent radio station. Most recently, it came to mind in the wake of a local and relative tragedy: the closing down of the Kent Avenue strip on the Williamsburg shore, home to a large portion of Brooklyn’s music scene.

The closures of these venues will purportedly lead to these buildings being replaced by VICE Media office space. The list of casualties includes Glasslands, Death by Audio, and 285, crucial venues which provided exposure and support for a lot of emerging bands in New York City. Now, the fragments left of the decimated scene are being forced to move elsewhere, often up to Queens and further and further from the main island.

This kind of death is a little different from what Ewing is describing, however. Sure, fans are moving away and mailing lists are sputtering out, but the death isn’t so much one of slow half-life decay but sudden collapse. Out from under the heels rugs are pulled violently, knocking up dust and dirt in the process. The entire collapse lasted from January to December of 2014, starting with the closing of 285 Kent and ending with Glasslands’ last shows this past month, though I’m sure the behind-the-scenes were a more arduous and drawn-out process than what is visible on the surface. Milk hasn’t so much spoiled as it has spilled out all over the floor into oblong white puddles.

It’s a natural temptation to try and find a moral within tragic narratives, something of value to pull out of an ending like this. As Ric Leichtung acknowledged in the 285 Kent obituary for AdHoc, Noisey and Impose both pointed out that the underground scene is one of constant ephemerality, a cycle of create and collapse, rebirthing itself from the dust. Kent’s collapse allows for a new wave of DIY musicians and promoters an opportunity to repave the musical terrain and fashion a budding scene from their own visions, albeit in a different neighborhood or borough.

Furthermore, one has to wonder if this kind of gentrification and money-driven takeover occurs in a weird, half-backwards way so as to help solidify the underground’s subversive contrast. The real estate agent who negotiated the deal that effectively extinguished the Kent scene, Drew Connor, mentioned to The Commercial Observer that he “believed the space at these addresses was not fulfilling its post-gentrification potential, especially given the scarcity of commercial space available in the area.”

Look to some of the words dropped in that quotation, combined with the stiff, formal rigidity of the writing style and even the name of the magazine: The Commercial Observer. Upon doing so, it’s almost impossible not to fashion Connor and his cohorts into archvillains against which the underground is locked in constant conflict and turmoil, fighting for all that’s good and beautiful. After all, what is a hero without a villain, if not out of a job?

Underground and independent music’s entire existence is defined by its role as an antithesis and alternative to the major label-run recording industry. The conflict on Kent Ave is just one more skirmish in this larger war, one more establishing of each polar identity, one more event that, in some ways, seems so inevitable it’s a wonder everybody didn’t see it coming from a mile away.

There’s some danger in this kind of identity, surely. It leaves itself at the mercy of the mainstream in a strange and subtle way by deliberately positioning itself as a contrast. This strategy is a little similar to political partisanship, wherein opposition often happens for the sake of opposition, or how a party platform arises because its rival party supports the opposite position.

As in politics, there is value here too, and a less cynical approach to the whole situation. These platforms are created as alternatives, allowing freedom of choice to those who engage in them. Obviously, the underground music scene exists as much more than a reactionary element to the mainstream; it is so wide in breadth, so varied, and so multifaceted that it is is impossible to neatly box up indie and punkhood.

However, identity as a reaction is certainly a significant factor at play. What is interesting here is when these reactionary choices migrate into the world of aesthetics, when a sound or a music choice is sought primarily for the purpose of contrast to an existing or mainstream style. Enter post-pop production, with the sounds of the the lo-fidelity movement and punk. This brand of self-definition brings with it a host of questions, with one key one rising above the others. Given the proclamations of indie-dom’s supposed authenticity and musical integrity, can a genre really be seen as embodying uncompromising self-definition if it operates to some degree at the whim of dominant discourse?

The punk movement experienced this problem somewhat 30 years ago, with the early forerunners pushing innovation and self-expression only to be followed by a wave of wannabes who adopted the punk style and lifestyle, aspiring to be rebellious “Others” but, of course, ending up conforming, stuck fast onto the pre-laid tracks.

At the same time, otherness and alternative outlets are incredibly important artistic options, ones that haven’t always been available and which shouldn’t be discredited, and whose essence is by no means solely defined by reaction and response. They’ve provided for dissent and questioning of dominant discourse. Additionally, they present their own alternative solution to issues which they assault, something that is unfortunately rare in a lot of activist circles, where criticism is easy, solutions are hard, and issues are complicated.

The independent music scene is one of inherent production and creation. Whereas pundits and music journalists like me are free to write all they want calling out trends or industry status quos, while not contributing much constructive to the issue, musicians are doing the exact opposite: they’re writing and recording their solutions, their antitheses, their revolutions.

Splash Image: Titus Andronicus performing at Glasslands. Image taken from Glasslands' website.

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