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The pleasurable and suffocating smell of cigarettes is wafting in from the porch. So is the yeasty tang of vegan mac ‘n’ cheese from the kitchen downstairs. They twirl together in a nasty and nostalgic melange, competing with guitar feedback and evil metal riffs for airspace. It’s 2009, and our band Slashpine just finished practice in one of the rooms at the Firefly we secured in exchange for a 12-pack of Schlitz. The Firefly is a two-story house made of coral rock in Miami, Florida, beloved for its radical library and the shows hosted in a ceilingless room outside. We crack the schlitty beers with the crusty anarchists who just got in after an all-night drive from New Orleans. Their dog, Dystopia, sleeping peacefully near an ashtray, is wearing a camo bandana and matching fanny pack. Afterwards, we’ll go to the Sin Bin, a house just across the small alley behind the Firefly. The acidhead freak-folk electronics kids hang out there.
We’ll have to hurry up with the sinning though, because pretty soon, a massive car dealership—run by billionaire Norman Braman—will replace both houses, and many others, so they can sell Bentleys and BMWs to the real estate developers and finance bros who are determined to change the neighborhood into a luxury investment. Independent music culture is being destroyed—not only in Miami, but in cities all across the country—and the band itself, as a format and principle, is endangered because of the housing crises developers have provoked.
The history of modern music is intimately shacked up with the history of housing and real estate. Living situations—especially the cheap kind—have always been Petri dishes for new forms of art-life. Rent parties fueled the Harlem Renaissance, hippies noodled out on sprawling communes, the avant-garde got free in once-cheap Soho lofts, and punks got punker in free illegal squats. Ornette Coleman, Rashied Ali, and Sam Rivers reinvented jazz in affordable, high-ceilinged apartments that doubled as rehearsal spaces and clubs. Crass evolved DIY punk ethics and aesthetics at Dial House, their 16th-century cottage and collective farm in England’s Epping Forest. And Chumbawamba, disciples of Crass’s anarcho-communist lifestyle, managed to infiltrate global pop charts, then urged their fans to steal their music and donated licensing money to anti-corporate causes.
The perks of this kind of living—the affordable, often communal kind that favors community over profits—were more than economic workarounds for lower-paid artists. It contributed to creation itself. As music journalist Michael Azerrad wrote in his book, Our Band Could Be Your Life, the Butthole Surfers once rented an entire house off the highway in Austin, Texas so they could, as bassist Jeff Pinkus told Azerrad, “take hour-long breaks to do bong hits” while recording.
“[Not] paying for recording time meant they could work at a more relaxed pace and really explore the possibilities of the studio,” Azerrad wrote. “This was something most bands on indie labels couldn’t afford to do.”
When I asked the author about how punk houses have influenced music history, he told CREEM, “One of the big contributions of group houses is that they serve as a kind of underground railroad for touring musicians. Bands who don’t make much money on tour can’t afford motels—but they still need some place to sleep after the show… Sure, they’re often unsanitary and noisy and there’s little in the way of privacy, but crashing on the floor of a group house with your head next to the kitty litter box is still better than four people sleeping in the van.”
Suburban architecture and the cultures they breed have also shaped the actual sounds that scenes produce. Panic, the precursor to Black Flag, “was shut out of the cool L.A. punk club the Masque because the band was from suburban Hermosa Beach and wore T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, as opposed to sporting black leather and blue mohawks,” Azerrad says. Instead, they rented Moose Lodges and PAs and developed “a loud, fast and out-of-control sound… partly out of necessity: they had to play as many songs in as little time as possible before the police would inevitably show up and shut down the show.” The Replacements were just kids playing at their parents’ house in Minneapolis when they started merging loose and fast punk with emotive songwriting. “A lot of their early songs were about being bored in the suburbs, with nothing to do but drink, watch TV, and drive around, and not many places to see live original rock music except arenas,” Azerrad says.
In these cursed 2020s, some things have changed, and some haven’t. Donzii, a post-punk band started by married couple Jenna Balfe and Dennis Fuller, alongside a rotating crew of members over the years, have been trying to make it work in Miami since 2015. For almost three years, they practiced in a studio that Balfe had free of charge at Mana Contemporary, a former mall downtown converted into independent art spaces and artist residencies. In 2021, the residents were kicked out because the cost of necessary building repairs were deemed “prohibitive.” (Moishe Mana, the billionaire real estate developer who owned Mana Contemporary, owns about 70 buildings equaling 1.3 million square feet of Miami’s Downtown area.) Afterwards, Donzii found an affordable studio on Biscayne Boulevard north of downtown—$600 a month but with no AC—but were kicked out within the year when the whole city block was purchased by another developer.
“We actually haven’t had a studio since then ‘cause it’s just been so unaffordable to find anything like that in Miami right now,” Fuller says. “Everyone’s rent has gone up so much, and to be able to afford a studio on top of your personal residence, it’s just become so hard.”
If Fuller and Balfe weren’t married, it would be even harder to maintain the cost of running a band, they say. The couple lives in Coconut Grove, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Miami, a canopied sanctum settled by the Bahamanians who built much of Miami. Gentrification pushed out the hippies and eccentrics in the ’60s, and today, the historically Black West Grove is increasingly being priced out. Fuller and Balfe live in a tiny cottage on the side of a house that’s owned by an elderly Hungarian woman. “She’s basically the only reason that Dennis and I, as Miami natives, are both still here in Miami right now,” Balfe says. “She hasn’t raised our rent. We’re paying $1,350—a pre-pandemic price. And literally everyone I know, I’m not even exaggerating, had their rent nearly doubled.” Indeed, rents in Miami have risen 24% between July 2021 and July 2022 alone.
“It puts a big fucking stress on people,” Balfe says. “And then there’s no venues for a similar reason in Miami, because everyone’s been priced out. It feels like a cultural deficit. Dennis and I live super simply. We have all of our shit crammed into our fucking tiny house, and it makes it hard for us to create, cuz we’re grumpy, cuz we’re squished. We’re grateful that we have a place, but also irritated that there’s no subsidies from this city that’s so rapidly growing and squashing out the very thing that people found attractive initially, which was nature, and the interesting creative weird abundance.”