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November 23, 2015

Is there a better venue for Amherst’s underground music scene?

Maria Uminski/Collegian

Amherst’s underground music scene came under fire this week, and with good reason. When roughly 250 kids packed into a single-floor ranch and its basement on Saturday, March 30, its few exits would have left many in danger in the case of a fire or other hazard. Police responded with $1,800 in fines to the house’s tenants.

One must ask themselves why 250 local kids would want to pack into a small residential home to watch a few bands play. The answer is that the Pioneer Valley is a hotbed for musicians and music lovers alike, but Northampton and Amherst offer few venues that allow admission to under-21s, or abstain from cover charges.

House shows are common in Amherst – undoubtedly there are several each weekend. The main goal of these shows is not to condone student drinking or cause disruption in quiet neighborhoods, but for artists to share their work – hours of effort – in an environment that is accessible to all.

After Saturday’s show, the house’s tenants were accused by Larry Kelley, a local blogger, of charging $5 a head for attendance to the show. He sarcastically called them “entrepreneurs” for trying to make a quick buck by getting as many students to attend as possible. However, the current tenants have never charged for admission, and Saturday’s show was actually intended to be a small show/party for friends. I would know, since it was a birthday party for a friend and myself.

The lack of local venues for free music and for people under the age of 21 has caused the “DIY” music scene to expand in recent years. The Reading Room in the Campus Center does hold shows for students, but admit it – when it comes to fun on the weekend, nobody wants to stay on campus. In Northampton, band’s options are 21-plus venues like the Elevens or the infamous Iron Horse Entertainment Group.

IHEG essentially holds a monopoly over venues in Northampton, refusing to accept unsolicited demos from up-and-coming bands and requiring more well-known local bands, like Who’da Funk It, to promote and sell tickets for their own shows. Northampton is a popular area on weekend nights and it could be a great launching pad for excellent local bands – if IHEG allowed it to be.

Another one of the most important aspects of underground shows is that they allow bands without a local following to gain exposure and play for large crowds. Saturday’s show saw Fitchburg’s Little Brother and Boston’s Buttons and Mindy playing to a (deservedly) larger crowd than they would have at a standard venue (although, unfortunately, Buttons and Mindy was unable to begin their set before the show was broken up).

For out-of-town bands, it is difficult to get gigs at venues that expect bands to pull in their own attendees. When venues require bands to sell their own tickets before a show, it makes playing these shows next to impossible. If a band can promise great music, this responsibility should fall in the hands of both the promoter and the band, something that is rarely the case, even for local bands.

There is no arguing that house shows are illegal, but whether it be noise complaints or over-packing small houses, it’s hard to keep a live music show small enough that no laws are being broken. The trouble is that there are few outlets for up-and-coming bands, local or otherwise, to share their music with all who are interested and without charging a fee.

If more venues in the Pioneer Valley fostered a less hostile environment to bands and their fans, house shows could become a smaller part of the picture. The local music scene is one of great talent and great camaraderie – far from the picture that police fines and local bloggers have made it out to be.

Jake Reed is an Assistant Arts Editor and Collegian contributor. He can be reached at

14 Responses to “Is there a better venue for Amherst’s underground music scene?”
  1. I think you articulated the heart of the issue. No one would argue that the amount of people in attendance at that house was legal or safe. However, an extremely appealing environment to be in. I was at that show. My band, Little Brother, got to play just before the cops broke up the party. It was by far the best audience I had ever played for. Everyone was totally engaged and just loving the music and that goes for every band that played that night. I didn’t see any over-consumption of alcohol or drugs and no one was trying to make a “profit” off of the situation. No, people were coming together for something else. Music.

    I hope people understand that it may be easy to look at this situation from a distance and declare the whole thing a “wanna-be-punk” event. I hope they consider why some one would have wanted to be there.

  2. Brandon says:

    this article makes me miss the grantwood shows of 2009-2010 so hard.

  3. N. says:

    I think everybody knows Larry Kelley is a cranky old fascist whose hatred of students outweighs any sort of honesty or journalism on his site.

  4. FG Stone says:

    The real sad fact is that too many people whine about such great cultural goodness as parties and live music. Like its criminal to do anything but watch TV on pills. I think next time L Kelley’s kids have a birthday party or something I’m gonna call in a noise complaint. Because if we can;t have a good time then why should he?

  5. Larry Kelley says:

    Come on now Jake, you know darn well my article had a link to a music event at that house where a $5 cover charge was clearly advertised.

    As I said in Comments section of that post, I love the traveling Carnival (as do my kids), and I can’t wait until it comes to town next month, but I would be unhappy if they set up in a residential neighborhood. As would the neighbors.

  6. Emily says:

    This is a great article. It is really great to see coverage of the more underground-type of art/music events in the valley. They are so vibrant and its wonderful to have to knowledge and support circulating. However, I do think that it is problematic to be critical of the idea that DIY venues may charge a cover even though they guys at Dad City have not. I honestly think it is a good idea. I think it is a way to support hard working artists and to create a possible alternative to the IHEG monopoly in the valley.

    I definitely do not see it as making a “quick buck” as much as I see it as a possiblity to get a small, or possibly reasonable compensation for important work in this community. I think it would be a great way to establish some form of crowd control too. And maybe even a way to acknowledge the artist and give them more of an opportunity to continue their work without having to spend a larger portion of their time selling pizza to the same college crowd instead. It could maybe make people think about where they are placing their value and enable them to vote for what they want to see more of in their community.

  7. Jake says:

    Larry, the link you posted sent me to a forum post from almost three years ago, advertising a show in July 2010. The current tenants have only lived there since September 2012 and do not enforce a cover charge.

  8. N. says:

    Larry, you might know, if you had ever been to such an event, that people try to raise donations so that bands can fill their gas tanks and maybe get $20 on the side, but “cover” charges at house shows are generally thought of as a “suggested donation” rate and rarely if ever enforced. It sort of goes against the whole DIY ethic.

  9. boris says:

    decades ago umass student union- “the hatch” and others
    hosted incredible bands every weekend…beer was served
    and people came from all over new England and beyond…
    too bad umass put a stop to that….it should be returned

  10. Alisa Brewer says:

    This is the heart of the matter when it comes to people criticizing students:

    “…The Reading Room in the Campus Center does hold shows for students, but admit it – when it comes to fun on the weekend, nobody wants to stay on campus.”

    Why *not* stay on campus? Surely there are a variety of usable spaces available — if alcohol sales are unimportant. It’s *your* campus — what can we do to make it work better for you?

    I really do understand the frustration of not having a good non-corporate venue available in Amherst or Northampton — getting out is awesome if there’s something to do (I think Lit in Amherst tries to do a little of this) — but it makes zero sense to me to complain that you need to go have house parties in residential neighborhoods as a “solution” to the problem. So thanks for teasing out the particulars, and let’s come up with a solution?

  11. Rebecca says:

    20-25 years ago Umass used to have bands in the Bluewall. They were good shows too. It is too bad that those days are gone. There are local bars, like Snowzees, but again not for the under 21 crowd. It is too bad that the local music scene has come to this. UMass bureaucracy should be addressing the issue instead of causing more problems for the Amherst PD to deal with.

  12. Zimmy says:

    So you get to disturb people in a residential neighborhood because “art”? Your sense of entitlement is appalling.

  13. Alex says:

    I live in Albuquerque and currently attend UNM, but I’m working on my application for student exchange at UMASS next fall. I googled Amherst diy scene, curious to see how it was, and this was the first search result.

    The Albuquerque diy scene is close to my heart, and it makes me sad to see youth/young folks expression and culture being stamped out on the other side of the country. I can’t speak for over there, but house shows here are always 5 dollar suggested donation to help fund the touring band. No one is turned away if they don’t have anything. We have neighborhoods by campus where mostly students live, and people hosting house venues often talk to the neighbors about the noise and the fact that there will be shows.

    House shows are important because it provides all ages, free to low cost access to local and touring acts without having to pay way more for larger “legit” venues. The community that develops between people in the scene should be cultivated, because it connects musicians, artists, and people who feel like a minority in their diy ethics. 250 people at a show is definitely too much, but damn, this is sad. An 1800 dollar fine for a single night? Last summer, We raised 4000 dollars to buy recording equipment for a mobile recording studio. That’s a way more productive use of money and time. Local music highlighted through house shows is something special, dammit.

    I know this happened almost a year ago, but it’s interesting to read and consider taking some precautions back here. Thanks for writing this article, and I hope the scene’s recovered alright.

    (I’m so fucking thankful we don’t have our own Larry Kelley trying to rain on what we’ve made.)

  14. Josh powers says:

    It was great to read this article from the perspective of being in a band and trying to get a gig in the Noho/ Amherst area. While I can appreciate venues needing to make money, it seems that they might be better served working at getting known for having good music, rather than insisting that bands try to get their families and friends to come to their shows. That approach doesn’t seem really sustainable as a business model. I agree that overcrowding houses dies constitute a saftey hazard, but ther ought to be a viable alternative for “house shows” that accomplishes the same objectives; offering younger music lovers a venue to hear good music, offering musicians and newer bands the opportunity to play for a wider variety of audiences to actually establish a following that the more commercial venues insist on, and creating an environment if artistic expression/ appreciation that makes for a more culturally diverse and interesting community in general. Maybe there could be a non profit music club that could supply a safe and appealing location for ” house shows” so to speak that would satisfy the “authorities” and at the same time give both the musicians and music lovers a great venue that would promote the local music scene.

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