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

By Jake Reed

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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 [email protected].