The first big DIY show I went to changed my life. That might sound cliché, but it's only because DIY shows so often have the power to change lives. All-ages DIY shows can make us think about the ways we’ve been living from a perspective that’s different from what we’ve been taught.
Shows can carve out safer spaces for folks who otherwise have to spend every day in an environment that is hostile to them, or provide a less judgmental and more accessible space for folks who simply struggle with socialization. They can, too, be lighter -- a place to hang out, a time to make and see friends, a break from the omnidirectional pull of our hectic 21st century lives.
The bottom line is this: shows are important. They don’t just exist for a commercial value, and they definitely don’t just exist as an excuse to get fucked up. To paraphrase Ian MacKaye, the value of music transcends any business interaction; it always has and it always will.
At the time of my first DIY show, I was 15 years old. I wasn’t old enough to drink, I wasn’t old enough to vote, I wasn’t even old enough to have a drivers’ license. For at least two years before the show, I had wanted to get involved with my local scene, but due to the fact that I was living 20 minutes north of Boston in a town without any sort of public transportation and didn’t have any friends who were very interested in punk, I wasn’t too mobile. Finally, I found a show that someone I knew with a car was willing to let me tag along with him to. I still remember the line-up: Paul Baribeau, Dessert First, and Long Ride Home at The Democracy Center in Cambridge, MA. I had no clue what to expect; I hadn’t been to a show in any venue beyond my friends’ garage (which, by the way, is a completely valid and awesome type of place to do shows). I didn’t have any clue what would happen, or if folks would treat the show like a party that I wasn’t welcome at.
Looking back, it’s funny that any of those conceptions even crossed my mind. Everyone was extremely respectful, and the volunteer-run space was treated well. I remember assessing myself as one of the youngest in the room, but I felt more than welcome among the older folks (even if I didn’t know them) and there were no problems with my getting in. I came home feeling inspired, like there was something beyond the highly commercialized lifestyle I had been told I had no other choice but to live.
I am eternally grateful that show spaces like The Democracy Center exist in a world that has become so heavily commodified. As many of my friends have pointed out, spaces that exist for purposes other than business are rare. (And are becoming more and more scarce as the world around us weeds them out. RIP Death By Audio.) It is a risk financially (and otherwise) to run an all-ages space in the USA, especially in cities with high rates of gentrification, and rural areas with a smaller counter-culture community base. But all of these spaces are crucial to younger folks who attend shows at them, and must be upheld.
Music communities, especially those based around DIY ethics, usually pride themselves on being inclusive. This is not to say that artistic communities are always inclusive, as their varied histories do include some problematic ideologies, and domination of scenes by folks who look the same and experience the same privilege as other dominant members. But by and large, music and other DIY communities mainly attract folks who feel alienated from mainstream culture, or who have something different to say than what’s already being repeated by dominant narratives, and therefore are open to being more inclusive than most other places. DIY and punk are communities that were created, and are still being upheld, by outcasts and for outcasts (for lack of a better term). We can’t forget that younger folks can also be these outcasts, and in fact, are legally and ideologically outcasted by society.
Young folks are legally prevented from making many of our own decisions due to the perception that we don’t have any sort of agency, but at the same time we are expected to take heavy responsibilities when it is convenient for older folks. Likewise, we are barred entrance from a variety of different locations due to distrust about our decision-making capabilities and assumptions made about our intentions. Couple these systemic problems with a restricting and judgmental high school community, and feelings of isolation are imminent; I sure felt alienated due to a combination of these factors.
Usually there’s a point in a music fan’s life where this all clicks: punk is a space where you can be welcome if you’re unwelcome elsewhere (and even if you are welcome elsewhere). After decades of feeling alone, finally a connection is made with an artist, song or album. It can make you hungry for more - to want to feel this belongingness; to want to know everything about this new favorite band, and eventually to want to be part of the local scene.
It happens differently for everyone. For me, finding Bikini Kill when I was 13 led to discovering riot grrrl, which led to an interest in music made by women and queers, which led to getting into newer bands like Libyans, Little Lungs, and P.S. Eliot, which led to discovering more bands, which led to my exposure to more ideas and so on.
Throughout this process, though, I always craved some sort of community. I was intensely alone in my interests. No sort of spoon-fed afterschool activity offered in my town felt interesting or welcoming. The opportunity that I had to attend shows was crucial for my development, and I have heard the same sort of report from friends who have gotten involved with their local scene at a young age. Punk gave us a place to belong, a place to grow intellectually, and a place to be heard -- something many of us aren’t offered from the get-go.
Of course, there are older folks who don’t want us in their spaces. Sometimes, their reason is due to business: in order for their venue to stay in business, they need to sell alcohol, and they just don’t have that sort of a customer in folks under 21. Some of these folks contend that they care, but there is just nothing that they can do. I understand this argument; we live in a capitalist society where, no matter your personal opinions or values, money does matter. Rules do matter. It’s more important to have a space with restrictions than none at all, yes. But this all being said, nothing is black and white. Nothing is unchangeable. There are ways for venues, even businesses, to open up their doors to younger folks, all of which are legal and won’t lead to their demise. If you care at all about young folks, you can take some action.
Some folks who want to keep teenagers out of their shows, though, do so without regret. There is oftentimes a perception of teenagers that perpetuates the myth that young folks either a) are so innocent that they can’t be trusted to make their own decisions, or b) are so mischievous and dangerous that they can’t be trusted to make their own decisions. In reality, teens have agency, and are completely capable of making “adult” decisions if given the opportunity. Sometimes, if a young person doesn’t “rise to the challenge” of making their own decisions, or behave “appropriately”, it’s because we aren’t given the chance to (or aren’t used to being given the chance to) fend for ourselves. If there is no space to develop further, growth will obviously be forced to stunt.
If you don’t believe me, do your research. Go to an all-ages show at a respected space, and watch how young folks act. If you’re met with chaos, then you can talk (hint: young folks usually make less of a commotion than folks over the age of 21- and no one usually gets in the way of someone else’s fun provided they know to respect the space).
It for sure sucks to see DIY musicians play shows with age restrictions. I understand, though, that a lot of the time it’s just a matter of taking what they can get. Some folks will even offer to help young kids get into shows, or offer to play an alternative show without an age restriction. If you have the ability and resources to, why not start a dialogue with them and talk about the options and alternatives?
Age discrimination isn’t something that should be normalized in the world of shows, and there are ways for everyone to fight against it, and to change the existing structures that uphold it.
All-ages music spaces are relatively (and regrettably) rare. If you are a young person who is fortunate enough to have an all-ages space in your area, don’t take it for granted. Go to shows there. Help out. Sometimes being present is the best thing that you can do. It can be hard to get to shows (as someone who still doesn’t own a car or live close to public transportation, I know this all too well), but you can go a long way by reaching out to friends or other folks in your community who share your interests! Take a risk; it’s worth it.
And, for folks of all ages who don’t have a space near you, but wish you did: work to start one, or work to change the rules! There are plenty of resources out there for you if you care and want to do something. One great one is In Every Town: An All-Ages Music Manualfesto, The All Ages Movement Project’s book, which I read in preparation for writing this (thanks, Kevin!). Obstacles can be moved, and restrictions can be changed as long as folks are willing to make the commitment to doing so. Remember: being present is one of the most important things you can do.