The Not-So-Secret Reasons 285 Kent Worked

01/22/2014 10:45 AM |

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For a solid month or so, the talk of the Brooklyn music world (and the wider NYC-based media who’ve come, fairly or not, to conflate that subgroup with the American music underground as a whole) has been consumed with pre-emptive nostalgia and big event excitement over the closing of now-closed Williamsburg independent venue, 285 Kent. Its last ever shows were this weekend, as you no doubt heard, as the occasion was marked by absolutely everyone. The New York Times and The New Yorker both affirmed its cultural import. Pitchfork, who were involved in organizing closing shows featuring bands like Fucked Up, DIIV, Wolf Eyes, Deafheaven, Dan Deacon, had a eulogy ready to go days before the time of death could be officially called.

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I saw many shows at 285 Kent, but can’t really claim membership to the crowd mourning it deeply now as a second home and the defining social hub of city-spent youth. (I went to shows at Luxx and Northsix, for fuck’s sake.) But it’s always sad to lose viable independent spaces in a place that’s increasingly owned by corporate concerns. 285 Kent wasn’t certain to have the best lineup of any show in Brooklyn on any given night, but it well might. In a New York City increasingly dominated by the official Bowery Presents ladder of upward band mobility, that was something. And all credit given for continuing the not totally commercial booking policies it started with, even as it become a coveted destination for big-name touring acts, is well due.

But, really, the coverage wouldn’t be coming so thick and heavy from such mainstream places if the whole story of 285 Kent was its deviation from the norms of the New York City music business. The risks that it minimized allowing bigger acts to play a DIY venue were, in a lot of ways, just as important as the risks it took in booking smaller acts. Not to diminish the experience of anyone who discovered their favorite band, or their best friends, or their ex-girlfriend there, but bad bathrooms and cheap beer and a charming dollop of outlaw ambiance are things that make a spot memorable, not the things that let it exist. It was a big room in the middle of Williamsburg, run by experienced, talented, connected people (most-prominently booker Ric Leichtung and founder Todd P.). That’s an concept that should have worked, and did for as long as it could have without becoming something else.

Overshadowed in the coverage has been the huge importance of two obvious things…

Location: It’s almost bizarre that in 2010, there was wide open space to be had adjacent to the Williamsburg waterfront. I mean, that seems pretty late in the metamorphosis from underused hip wilderness to money-drenched European vacation spot that the neighborhood has become over the last 10-15 years to be finding an oasis from interested parties, right? So, credit where credit is due to Todd P. for pulling that off (even if Todd stopped tomorrow, his overall impact on NYC music will be remembered for a long time). But the centrality of 285 Kent, a couple blocks from already established spots like Glasslands and Death by Audio, right smack in the middle of the area where everybody already was, wasn’t some insane, unprecedented, outside-the-box thinking. To open another big DIY space there was a proven idea that was well executed.

Starting from scratch in the middle of Bed Stuy, say? A focus on good, challenging art, and commitment to an all ages ethic would likely build a similar community over time. I’m sure someone is working on it now. But going from your first Oh My Rockness listing to a gushing New Yorker profile in two years with it is still pretty unlikely.

…and second,…

Capacity: This is the unsexiest, most matter of fact reason why 285 worked on the level it did. The community spirit that’s poured out over the end of the space feels super genuine, but it was able to become a big deal primarily because it was a large, central space that could accommodate events likely to draw big crowds. Again, it seems crazy that not only was there any wide open room available in Williamsburg as late as 2010, but one this big. What made 285 pop in a way that even a heroic space like Death by Audio can’t quite is that it wasn’t too risky, business-wise for a bigger name band to play there. Around 400 people could catch a show at 285 (350 ticketed, 50 guest list, more or less). That’s less than the number of people who could pack into the Music Hall of Williamsburg around the corner, but not that much less. It still had the potential for a decent-sized, paying crowd.

In the wake of recorded music’s utter collapse, in a climate where its been settled that aggressive touring is the primary way to make a little money in music, bands have been signed early by booking agencies who can slap a dollar amount on buzz and promise at the exact moment a handful of songs makes that evident. It happens earlier and earlier in band life cycles all the time, well before they become bands who can headline a 285-sized room.

It’s way too absolute to say that known artists like 285 alumni A$AP Rocky, Odd Future, or Fucked Up, who can draw a big crowd, will never take a smaller paycheck to play an unconventional space out of admiration, adventurousness, or personal connection. But really, good booking agents don’t let it happen as much as you might think, unless there’s a sponsor in the wings making up the difference on a band’s typical asking price. To play a show in Manhattan at Bowery Ballroom or Irving Plaza, bank that guaranteed check, and then grab a second, smaller but not that much smaller, check for a second night in Brooklyn isn’t exactly the world’s bravest business decision. Give a band the option to play for overexcited kids in a cool-seeming graffitti-ed room, instead of a room with the same ownership, maybe even the same floor plan as the one they played last night, without too much of a hit? Why wouldn’t they? 285 was successful on that bigger level, because it was plausible, flexible. You could make the money work for a big-deal show, offer the guarantee that secured the big booking.

285 Kent was well positioned to get even bigger, if more sanitized. The decision to end the venue while it still resembled itself, rather than take an infusion of corporate investment much bigger than any show-to-show situation would demand is an admirable one. (The opinion that the creep of sponsored shows, primarily those funded by Pitchfork advertising dollars, had already compromised the whole thing is expressed with the usual bomb-throwing aplomb in Chris Ott’s latest Shallow Rewards video, posted last night at 1:30 AM.)

Most summaries of the venue’s closing come to the conclusion that 285 Kent’s end is an unsurprising and normal event in the lifecycle of do-it-yourself culture, and they’re right to a point. DIY will never die, because there are always kids looking for a way to do something, anything, and that desire to connect and be heard is way stronger than the compulsion to ask for permission. But to say that the next 285 is right around the corner is probably wishful thinking. Unless anyone’s got a mostly cost-effective, but giant space that no one’s ever heard of right in the middle of perhaps the most documented music scene that’s ever existed in the history of humanity to offer up?

Let us know in the comments.