The Vera Project, photo by Amanda Shoemaker
Venues are sacred spaces where you can escape the world. With music as that conduit, you can see a band you’ve been excitedly waiting for or hear a new song that nails what you’re going through. Venues have birthed all kinds of record labels, bands, and movements, microcosms of a progressive sea change about to flood the world outside. The drawback, however, is that venues can also be echo chambers; walling dominant cultures in and underrepresented communities out. When venues create barriers through action or inaction – racist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic, ableist, and so on – they allow senses of entitlement to fester in extremes from racist band names to sexual harassment and assault at shows. Go to any Facebook event page for a Swans show on their current tour and you’ll see complaints or censorship of rape survivors’ concerns. Michael Gira allegedly sexually assaulted artist Larkin Grimm but Gira head-scratchingly, though predictably, called it “an awkward mistake.” In Toronto, while the Danforth Music Hall, unfortunately, let Swans’ show go on, Double Double Land hosted Noise Against Sexual Assault (NASA) this past weekend to run as a counter event.
Venue owners and managers have a responsibility to continuously foster safe spaces. Save yourself the trouble of looking like a backward dumpster fire in hindsight for not having an inclusive space. I spoke with a number of venue operators, bands, and activists about what can be done going forward. It’s by no means an exhaustive checklist of how to be 100% inclusive—you have to actively listen to your communities, watch over your space, and update your policies. Now that we’ve got that sorted, here’s The Noisey Guide to Making Your Damn Venue Inclusive.
CALL SHIT OUT
PUP, photo by Vanessa Heins
After Toronto punk group PUP played San Diego on their latest tour, two female fans approached the band to share that they were sexually harassed in the crowd. PUP took to their social media the next day to tell any and all assholes to back off. The band’s drummer, Zack Mykula, says venues need to join in call-out culture as well. “More eyes means more awareness. More mouths mean more confrontation of such behavior,” he says. “Advertising an inclusive in-house policy to actively and visibly promote more passive awareness should be a bare minimum in terms of venues acting preventatively. This gives people more courage to speak up. Not just when they personally are threatened, but when they witness any such horrible events.”
The Vera Project, an all-ages venue in Seattle, took it a step further: Vera let their community create both their rules and signage themselves through a Safe Spaces Agreement. The mural was designed by their teen-heavy volunteer steering committee. You can’t take in a show at The Vera Project without seeing messages like “RIP sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, oppression!!!!!” scrawled in graffiti, a reflection of Vera’s mission to elevate underrepresented voices in music – particularly youth, queer and trans people of colour, and women. “We value having a space where people can feel safe. Sometimes during shows, people forget this, and do things that violate what we stand for,” says Jessica Schollmeyer, participation coordinator at The Vera Project. “It’s important to have it be very clear what’s okay and what’s not. It stands as a visual reminder to show goers, artists, and volunteers of what this venue is about.”
Chicago DIY venue The Dollhouse, an all-female run space that was created in response to sexism and assault in the music community, takes a similar approach. “People are extremely respectful of our space because we’re so vocal about our mission,” says co-founder Serena Fath. “We post our safe space guidelines on all of our event pages, have safe space posters, and a giant “Girls 2 The Front” sign hanging in our room. When you walk into The Dollhouse, you already know what we’re all about.”
BE ACCESSIBLE, BE DETAILED
Sean Gray, photo by Megan Lloyd
Saying your venue is wheelchair accessible alone doesn’t cut it for giving fans the confidence to judge how easy it’ll be to enjoy a show. Sean Gray, owner of DC label Accidental Guest, created the venue database Is This Venue Accessible in 2014 after becoming frustrated with venues that didn’t fully disclose how “accessible” they were. Gray, who was born with cerebral palsy and uses a walker to get around, found that many venues don’t think of accessibility past their front door. Gray says the Is This Venue Accessible site data indicates many venues overlook what should be common sense: having accessible bathrooms. “A lot of venues are accessible for their actual show space, but the restroom may be upstairs or the restroom may not even be accessible even if it’s on the same floor,” says Gray. “You’re taking a piece out of the show experience if you’re not allowing people to drink. It could be a deal-breaker for you.”
There is no excuse for venues to not get in the habit of providing details on how accessible your space is in terms of bathrooms, doors, stairs, floor space, and even stages. List this kind of stuff on your site and Facebook event pages, and let promoters and bands so they can communicate it to their fans as well. “If I don’t have accessibility information on a venue, I have to automatically default in my head that it’s probably not accessible and I have to miss that show,” says Gray. “If a venue was to provide information that was very honest and to-the-point, I can make a better-informed decision and say ‘Hey, I wanna go to this show, these are the steps I need to take to make sure I can.’”
GENDER IS OVER, GET WITH IT
PWR BTTM, photo by Andrew Piccone
Having accessible gender-neutral bathrooms tells your transgender and non-binary customers that your venue cares about their values. It can be as easy as covering or ditching your old guy-girl stick people signs. If your venue falls under a zoning law that mandates having separate men’s and women’s washrooms, make sure you have a talk with your staff so they know your customers can use whatever bathroom they choose to use.
Brooklyn punk duo PWR BTTM includes gender-neutral bathrooms for their shows on their rider, which puts pressure on some venues to change. Guitarist Ben Hopkins and drummer Liv Bruce decided to ask this of the spaces they played in after performing at a venue in Philadelphia last year where the men’s and women’s washrooms were labeled “balls” and “boobs.” “Reducing anyone’s gender identity down to a body part is violent, tacky, and oppressive,” says Bruce. On a positive note, one venue even went on to make their switch to gender-neutral bathrooms for PWR BTTM permanent. “If our project holds water as something that is interested in creating a more visible queer platform on a musical level, the space that we take up as a band should be equally as progressive,” says Hopkins. “We can’t talk about queerness and otherness without making a space for that music that benefits and caters to the needs of the other. We need to create a space that is safe for those people.”
Beyond bathrooms, Calgary-born singer-songwriter Rae Spoon emphasizes that trans and gender-identity inclusiveness is a security issue as well. “It can really make a difference in our lives and anxiety levels when we’re attending venues that have these policies,” says Spoon. “If someone’s official ID doesn’t seem to match the sex that you think that they should be, don’t jump on them right away and out them.”
DON’T SUPPORT PROBLEMATIC BANDS
Let’s define what is problematic: has a member of the band drop-kicked a female fan to make her fall off the stage like Parker Cannon from the Story So Far? Is a neo-Nazi rock festival looking to use your venue? Do not support them. April Aliermo of Toronto groups Hooded Fang and Phèdre says bookers need to read up on communities beyond their own to help screen for bands prior to bookings. “Start taking an anti-discriminatory perspective. It will definitely take a while for some of these ideas to be fully internalized but start learning about anti-racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and ageism.” Aliermo contributed to the dialogue on Calgary post-punk band Preoccupations, who formerly went by Viet Cong until last year, through a feature in Exclaim! that powerfully summarized the problem: that naming your band after a group that killed innocent people during the Vietnam War is deeply insensitive to the Vietnamese community. “[Venues] have to consider who lives here,” says Aliermo. “Don't make any assumptions, have an open mind and really think about the humans around you.”
House of Targ, a punk basement venue in Ottawa, made the mistake of booking Black Pussy last year. One year on and the Portland rock group are still perpetuating misogynistic garbage that’s as dated as their ‘70s sound. While Paul “Yogi” Granger, owner of House of Targ, initially shrugged off criticism and let the show go on, the feedback from women of colour in particular who felt unwelcome to House of Targ – and some still do today – spoke volumes. Granger eventually went on to apologize and outlined a plan of inclusiveness at House of Targ to prevent that kind of booking from happening again. “I was not aware of the number of folks who regularly feel uncomfortable, threatened, and unsafe at venues and the details of their concerns – I was somewhat shocked,” says Granger. “Now we work with a wider range of promoters – all of whom we trust because they have knowledge about the acts they are bringing to our venue and can confidently vouch for them.”
TAKE COMPLAINTS SERIOUSLY AND HOLD SAFE SPACE TRAINING
Ottawa's House of Targ, Photo by Ska Jeff
If bands can set up ways for fans to report abusive behavior (like Modern Baseball and Speedy Ortiz’s respective hotlines) at shows and talk it out with someone who cares, so can venues. It’s important for venue operators at any level to value complaints as legitimate concern. “Venues and promoters should always be willing to accept criticism and allow for discourse to occur while also being prepared to moderate comments that are offensive,” says Corrina Chow of Babely Shades, a collective of people of colour in art and music founded in Ottawa. “They should also be communicating with the community and be transparent on the steps that they are taking to ensure inclusivity.“
Set up a complaints space on your website with your phone number and email. Have a designated safe-space contact at your shows that victims or witnesses to discriminatory behavior can approach with the confidence that they’ll be heard. This doesn’t necessarily include a venue’s security team. Skyler Mallahan, co-founder of Chicago venue The Dollhouse, says its venue takes on the role of mediators to de-escalate a situation before resorting to kicking anyone out. “That can mean anything from getting the person or people to a quieter place, offering water, maybe they need someone to call them a cab, et cetera,” says Mallahan.
Your venue mission statement’s no good unless your staff learns how to develop, enforce, and update policies to protect your customers and prevent harm from occurring in your space. The Dollhouse staff went through safe-space training through resources from the Feminist Action Support Network (FASN), an activist group focused on confronting sexual and gendered violence in Chicago’s arts and culture communities. “They offer support liaison training during which they’ll teach you about body language, de-escalation tactics, how to approach victim-offender dialogue, and reading workshops to discuss the models they’re trying to implement like transformative justice,” says Mallahan.
Bruce from PWR BTTM says security needs be included in safe-space training, especially if they’re the ones enforcing your inclusivity plan. “I know a lot of people who have felt unsafe at a show and had their concerns laughed off by security, or just felt like security wasn’t approachable,” says Bruce. “A lot of venues can be better at training security personnel to be more sensitive to marginalized identities and generally a friendlier presence.”
HAVE DIVERSE BANDS AND STAFF
Corrina Chow and Elsa Mirzei of Babely Shades, activist collective, selfie provided by them
Who you staff matters as much as who you put on your bill. When you fail to give underrepresented communities a platform at your venue, these communities’ concerns—including racism, homophobia, and abelism—are also in danger of going unheard. “Having more representation also means that aspiring artists of those certain marginalized groups feel like there is a space for them where their art will be valued and supported,” says Elsa Mirzaei of Babely Shades. “Access to these spaces as artists means that we have an outlet to cope with our experiences, and at the end of the day, it makes an uphill battle a little more bearable. For many people in our communities, art is a part surviving life.”
Too many music genres are dominated by white cisgender men. As you’re going through submissions, consider not just which band sounds awesome, but their makeup’s impact on your audience as well. “It takes a real conscious mentality and subsequent conscious choices to create an inclusive environment but the outcomes far outweigh the small efforts,” says Aliermo of Hooded Fang and Phèdre. “If you're going to put a band from Mars on a bill, you will attract Martians to your show. People will know they are welcome there and can feel like they're around others who have their back.”
CREATE PWYC OPTIONS
Rae Spoon, photo by Foxx Foto
Free shows rule but when they’re not happening, cash-strapped fans can be left out of your community. Whenever you can, as long as everyone putting on a show in your venue gets paid fairly, pay-what-you-can options at your door are great. Extra customers paying a few bucks each is better than no extra customers paying you nothing. Setting a sliding scale for ticket prices, say $10 - $15 instead of $15 straight up, can make all the difference for fans who are counting every dollar. Sure, you could have a PWYC jar, though setting a range will keep you on track to meet your ideal revenue from a show. If you can help it, set a policy where nobody's turned away due to a lack of funds, and spell it out in your event information.
“It’s never easy to ask to come into a show for less money. People don’t do that for fun,” says singer-songwriter Spoon. If they can, Spoon sets aside several PWYC tickets through their Coax Records label for their shows and fans can email for those tickets. Spoon took the initiative after fans without credit cards commented that they didn’t have the same shot at getting advance tickets aka guaranteed entry to Spoon’s shows.
ALL-AGES EVENTS ARE FINE, REALLY
Photo By Julia Wright
Don’t get overly cocky about how loyal your venue audience is if you don’t have entry options or programming for the underage fans in your community. All-ages events give the next generation the chance to absorb everything we’ve gone on about here and foster a culture of inclusion. “Giving younger fans a chance to share music spaces with older fans teaches them how to be respectful show-goers, expands awareness of artists and genres, and creates a plethora of possibilities for partnership, collaboration, and resource-sharing,” says Rachel Kramer, marketing and communications coordinator of The Vera Project. “Once I moved to Seattle at age 18, I found myself barred from most of the shows I wanted to see and missed out on what turned out to be the most important part of music for me: a safe and supportive community.”
The Vera Project started in Seattle in 2001 during a drought of all-ages shows that also saw the city’s then Orwellian-named Teen Dance Ordinance place unnecessary financial burden on venues trying to throw all-ages shows. With patience, room rentals, community support, and persistence, the Teen Dance Ordinance had its last waltz in 2002; The Vera Project had lift-off and eventually a permanent space in 2007; and Seattle had an all-ages music industry. Ease in with the odd all-ages show at your venue. “Start working with promoters who have all-ages experience and audiences – Take Warning Presents, Reign City, Wake Up Presents, and Customs deserve a shout out –and talk to other venues who do all-ages shows to hear about their experiences,” says Kramer. “Take that risk to put in the resources and effort to foster a more inclusive community.”
Jill Krajewski is a writer who lives in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter.