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.”
The soaring cost of housing has far outpaced wage increases, resulting in older, whiter, wealthier people domming the American Dream of owning a home. It’s pretty impossible to start a band in an apartment, and the rising cost of renting is making it harder to find practice spaces, not to mention venues. Writer, Bandcamp senior editor, and vocalist in the band Daddy’s Boy, Jes Skolnik started going to shows in Washington, D.C. in the ’90s, when they were a preteen. “It was a whole lot easier for small businesses to run, which meant that there were also spaces amenable to you hosting a punk show there in the evening,” they said of the time. Skolnik theorizes that the difficulty of finding housing and places to book shows started “right after the housing bubble started to pop, in like the mid-2000s, and we were sliding into the Great Recession.”
There is, unfortunately, little data on the closure of punk houses and other forms of collective living, but anecdotal information indicates that there are fewer of these spaces now than before. In Chicago, where Skolnik lives, the underground show space/DIY house Rancho Huevos shut down in 2020 after sixteen years. And other spaces have had to make big concessions to keep operating, such as Albion House. “It is insane to me that you can go to [Albion] House where you can see like nine grindcore bands on a Sunday, and it’s 21 plus,” they say.
Damon Krukowski, drummer in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s dreampop act Galaxie 500, and now the guitarist/Damon in Damon & Naomi, says he has watched it become nearly impossible for bands to make a living over the past few decades. “We’ve lost a lot of access to collective spaces in our cities, affordable rents that are near one another, affordable rehearsal spaces that are near one another, time that everybody can clear in their schedules, when everybody is a gig worker and constantly juggling several jobs.”
Living and making art cheaply, in the face of shitty housing options, started having physical effects on the types of music that got made in the 2000s. Flexibility became important too, with rotating lineups built in, like in the experimental pop group Animal Collective. There’s been a cultural shift away from bands, toward smaller, one or two-person outfits at the levels of both the underground and pop alike.
One of the reasons for this move to smaller, more flexible band models is the freedom of remote collaboration—like in the case of 100 Gecs, who write mindblowing pop blends of rap, metal, and ska by sharing audio files digitally—but there are also economic motives that are encouraging the shift from bands to smaller acts. “I think there are a lot of pressures on bands to not work collectively that way because it’s hard to afford,” Krukowski says. Especially after the mass migrations caused by Covid, it’s way more likely to find bands where members don’t live in the same city.
When I suggest that rock music, once dormant, actually seems to be coming back—look at Olivia Rodrigo—Krukowski fires back: “But almost as reference rather than actual lifestyle.” He reminds me that some of Rodrigo’s music might sound like rock, but it’s made entirely by a single producer (Dan Nigro) and her. “The reason it sounds like rock to you is that he’s steeped in ’90s grunge stuff. So he pulled from all of that. ‘Cause he’s an older guy, he’s a total rock generation dude. And a lotta the ’90s revival that’s happening now is stylistic, but it’s not lifestyle.”
“We’ve lost a lot of access to collective spaces in our cities, affordable rents that are near one another, affordable rehearsal spaces...when everybody is a gig worker and constantly juggling several jobs.”
Azerrad echoed the idea that gone are the days of traditional rock economics. “With what the music industry euphemistically calls ‘the new paradigm,’ artists make vastly less money on recordings, the proceeds of which are split among band members; the fewer band members, the greater the individual proceeds. For the same reason, touring has become a much bigger component of musicians’ revenue, and the fewer people in the band, the more money they make. And touring is much cheaper when it’s two or three people traveling in a minivan rather than six in a tour bus.”
What iconic bands will never be formed because real estate and rapacious capitalism has foreclosed on the possibilities? As Azerrad notes, “What eventually became Nirvana started rehearsing in an empty apartment above Krist Novoselic’s mom’s beauty shop in Aberdeen.”
However, this doesn’t mean we need to pine for the olden days, praying for the arrival of the next Nirvana or Crass and romanticizing day-drinking in crumbling infrastructure. We have to imagine something different.
Skolnik is working on a book about, as they put it, “the ways subcultural spaces are reactive to mainstream A&R coming in and plucking things out of them; how that shapes sounds, and how all of that has changed with the digital music industry.” Their research includes looking at “music that calls itself ‘indie rock’ but has no connection to the practice of moving and working in independent spaces.” Skolnik isn’t just a scholar: they worked with a collective to try and open a nonprofit, all-ages space in Chicago. They raised a shit ton of money and spent five years looking at literally hundreds of spaces.
“There is a Cook County ordinance that allows commercial real estate landlords to take a write off if a space remains unoccupied, so they are much more willing to leave that space empty than take a chance on something like our collective,” Skolnik says. “We were finding that the only spaces that were interested in renting to us were spaces that wanted us to put tens of thousands of dollars into bringing the place up to code. Stuff that was totally uninhabitable. It was really heartbreaking.”
Joey DeFrancisco, who plays solo as La Neve and is a member of Downtown Boys, lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she helped run a DIY space called Spark City—until they got booted out in 2016. DeFrancisco is also an organizer and co-founder of the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, an organization that pushes for reforms in the music economy. This includes Justice at Spotify, a campaign that demands industry transparency and increases in streaming payments to artists. As UMAW points out, based on the current Spotify model, artists need to have hundreds of thousands of streams in order to make rent for a single month.
UMAW also pushes for a much-needed social safety net for musicians. “Amongst many things that need to happen to get ourselves out of the housing crisis, we need really expanded, robust, affordable public housing, at the state and municipal levels,” Joey says. “Supporting those efforts of people who are already doing this housing organizing is key, because no matter where you are, there is some organization on the ground who’s been pushing this kind of work for a long time. Part of the purpose of UMAW has been to organize musicians and music workers into this kind of broader organizing world. A lot of musicians have simply not done this kind of organizing.”
From 2015 to 2017, I lived at a punk house in a converted industrial loft in Brooklyn. A graffitied hallway on the second floor, stinking of cigarettes and the fumes from the factory downstairs, held years of tags and tributes to the dead. The apartment, where I lived, hosted noise, techno, and rap shows. It had all the messy problems of unorganized collective living —mostly dish and toilet related—but it served as a sanctuary for those who couldn’t afford New York’s rents. I wouldn’t have been able to move to New York if it weren’t for the building, but mostly, for the friends who lived there. After years of back and forth regarding eviction, the owners managed to force out the current residents.
One of the things about underground culture is that, if a place or party becomes permanent, it risks becoming an institution, thereby losing the function, and perhaps the spirit, of being underground. But this isn’t always the case. Dial House, where Crass lived, remains a self-sustaining space with some protections as a national heritage site. C-Squat in Manhattan's Alphabet City—where since the early 90s Leftöver Crack and innumerable other bands have practiced and played—was eventually converted into a co-op owned by the tenants, with the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space on the first floor. Independent spaces shouldn’t be forced to forfeit massive amounts of cash to continue operating. Housing should be made affordable, subsidized by the wealthy, and maybe, just maybe, the band will survive.