'If You Build It, They Will Rock': A Guide to DIY Venues in West Virginia
"It wouldn’t be considered commercially viable [as a traditional music venue]... and that’s what makes it unique.”
And for today’s interview, we’re turning the focus from the artist to the venue, specifically non-traditional, do-it-yourself venues. From coffee shops to houses, DIY venues create transform unconventional places into unique spaces for artists to practice, create and flourish.
But how does a local band get themselves into a DIY venue? And how do these venues differ from more traditional spaces? We spoke to some of West Virginia’s popular DIY venues (including Huntington’s Porch Unplugged, Logan’s Hot Cup and Cleveland’s Jerry Run Summer Theater) to tell us what’s up with non-traditional venues, and why they are assets to the West Virginia music scene.
How does a DIY venue get started?
Some DIY venues start with happy accidents. As Huntington DIY music organizer Joe Troubetaris explains, “Porch Unplugged began on a humid June day in 2011. We had a monsoon thunderstorm and had to unplug all our equipment as fast as we could, and all the musicians ended up playing on the living room carpet as the audience gathered round. So we kept the name Porch Unplugged. My home never was intended to become a venue, but over time that what it is.”
Others, like Logan’s Hot Cup, found a home for DIY performances in their brick-and-mortar business. As owner Michael Cline explains, “The space we reside in served as many things over the decades, including a drug store and a gun-safe shop. Before I even opened Hot Cup a half decade ago in October 2011, I knew I wanted it to be a venue for all local art. Painting, music, comedy, literature, poetry... all of it.”
As for the Jerry Run Summer Theater in Cleveland, West Virginia, the venue was a Field of Dreams moment thanks to co-owners Dusty and Renee Anderson. “It was built on a shoestring budget with the vision of it being a space for live music. We opened in 2003, but it took Dusty over seven years to complete the project, from designing the space on paper, building a model, clearing the land, laying the foundation, framing, building and raises trusses, roofing and finishing/furnishing the interior.”
What makes these performance spaces so special?
“Every venue is different,” says Porch Unplugged. “They are unique in their own way. Porch has all ages in performances from a beginner who is in middle school to a seasoned artist who has retired, and they are all sharing the same platform and telling their stories. It’s a good mixture of styles, talents and sounds.”
“The thing that separates us [from traditional music venues] is that, although our venue is a coffee shop, it’s deceptively large inside. We allow bands to bring their whole rig instead of requesting a stripped-down acoustic version. So gigs can range from people sitting and listening to a small acoustic act to a standing room-only, full-on rock gig.”
As for Jerry Run Summer Theater, “The physical building is a one-of-a-kind space with lots of rough lumber, recycled fixtures and vaulted ceilings. Theater seating, which has everyone facing the stage in a darkened room, puts the spotlight on the music makers with little audience conversation. Performers appreciate not being background music. Also, the fact that our location is relatively remote, far from any population center? That wouldn’t be considered commercially viable [as a traditional music venue], and that’s what makes it unique.”
How have the local communities reacted?
“It was more difficult when I first started than it is now,” says Porch Unplugged. “Neighbors didn’t like their parking space occupied or would call the authorities because they saw people hanging on the front porch. Over time, I made porch unplugged into a more acoustic, inside-the-home kind of venue to limit exposure. Now the neighbors come over and always love who they get to hear or see play. This part takes some time and a little learning to do it right.”
As for Jerry Run Summer Theater, “Neighbors, visitors to Holly River State Park, travelers to Webster County and folks from farther locales react positively to the different genres that we have, as long as they view the genre favorably or have an open mind toward something not in their comfort zone. A diehard bluegrass fan who did not ‘read the fine print’ and comes to a show like Iron & Wine or an Americana act may leave early. A country band with drums may not appeal to someone who enjoys acoustic folk. All in all, reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, and Webster County natives often proudly bring visiting family and friends to the theater to catch a show.”
What are the values of a DIY venue?
From money and music to time and location, the biggest value of a DIY venue is the sense of freedom, which allows artists to take their art to a level that a traditional venue might not allow. Hot Cup agrees: “Every form of music is welcome, as long as the lyrics aren’t bigoted or racist in any way. We don’t take a cut of the door money. Whatever the band collects at the door belongs to them. We truly just want local art to thrive. It’s not about the money for us.”
As for Porch Unplugged, it comes down to three things: “passion, respect and love.” But more than musical food for the soul, there’s literal food for the stomach. “There’s always a potluck. Please bring food or drink you don’t mind sharing. Also, donate to the artists traveling.”
“Our philosophy is to help make life in our neck of West Virginia better by bringing live music to live ears in a space with good acoustics,” says Jerry Run Summer Theater. “Luckily, we do not have to depend on theater revenue to make a living. By keeping our overhead low (no AC or heat, doing a lot of the work ourselves or with family, etc.), we also keep our admission charge low, usually $5 and not more than $10.”
What kinds of acts can you expect at a DIY venue?
DIY venues act as springboards for eclectic acts to grow, so expect any type of music from anyone. As Porch Unplugged recounts, “A memorable moment was when an artist rode his bicycle on tour from Boston. His name was Leo Lydon, but we called him the Forest Gump for Music. Other favorite acts have included Coyotes in Boxes (with their CD release party), Jared Mahone, Michael McArthur, Frances Luke Accord, Christopher Vincent and Bradley Jenkins, just to name a few.”
“So many great local, regional, and national artists have given their best to our audiences on our stage,” says Jerry Run Summer Theater. “And they reaffirm our vision of having a welcoming space for live music. Two highlights of national significance include the evening that Jerry Douglas played dobro with his father John's band the WV Travelers to celebrate his 80th birthday. And of course, that incredible 2014 show by Sam Beam/Iron & Wine, where he kept the audience spellbound while cameras captured the performance for his Dreamers and Makers are My Favorite People documentary.”
“Having Meet Me in the Matinee play is always a huge deal for us,” recalls the Hot Cup. “They draw a crowd, and those guys are so much a part of the Logan music scene. Other standouts are Tim Browning & The Widowmakers (Americana on steroids), The Big Bad (horror punk at its finest and most passionate), Let The Guilty Hang (the purest metal you’ve heard), The Jasons (think The Ramones, but literally all songs are about scenarios in the Friday the 13th film series, and the guys all wear Jason masks) and The Allegheny Ramblers (100% pure Appalachian folk and bluegrass played by awesome millennials). Tyler Childers also played here before he became a West Virginia household name.”
And how can you get your band booked at one?
Don’t be afraid to reach out! Getting booked at a DIY venue is easier than it sounds. “I used to go to all venues, open mics from Charleston to Huntington and ask the artists if they would be interested in playing a house show,” says Porch Unplugged. “Now, artists Facebook or email me (porchunplugged @ gmail dot com), or a friend will let me know of an artist to contact to play.”
As the Hot Cup tells us, “It’s as simple as contacting the Hot Cup’s Facebook page, getting on the phone (304-752-6500) or the boss’s favorite way: in person.”
Just remember that to have fun with it. As Jerry Run Summer Theater explains, “Having your own take on a particular genre, original songwriting and good rapport with the audience are what draws us to a group. Having an in-person or phone conversation with a member of the band is how we meet most of our acts. Email and Facebook are not our preferred way, as you don't really get a feeling for the personality of the band until you have a direct exchange. Once that connection has been made, then hearing them on YouTube or in a press kit/CD is a good way to appreciate their talent.”
How important is the West Virginia music scene to your venue?
“The WV music scene is our core,” says Jerry Run Summer Theater. “Although we do feature several out of state groups, the overwhelming majority of groups hail from the hills of West Virginia, be they Morgantown folk sisters Whiskey Victor, Charleston's Carpenter Ants or Hacker Valley's own bluegrass teen siblings Marteka & William.”
“I think the #WVmusic scene is important to every venue or DIY component because that means the community is supporting the music and the arts, which makes the area prosper,” says Porch Unplugged. “Our local community is continuing to grow with music, which helps impact the state. That’s why we’ve taken on the motto that Porch means ‘Passion on Real Community Harmony.’”
But let it be said that this line of work is not a moneymaker, which is why community involvement matters in booking, promoting and supporting DIY culture in these musical homes and businesses. “We would survive without the DIY performance component of Hot Cup,” says its owner. “I can’t even say it helps us that much financially, even if we might sell a few more coffees. But I want local artists to have a place to play and call home, especially in Logan, West Virginia. I had two goals when I opened Hot Cup over a half a decade ago: 1. Serve the most kick-ass coffee in the cosmos. 2. To shove a little class and culture down Logan’s throat, whether they knew they wanted it or not.”
Final words of wisdom?
“Play shows, reach out and follow-up,” states Porch Unplugged. And above all else, remember that small scenes are the seeds that grow into bigger ideas and opportunities. The next time you see your favorite band perform at a stadium, remember that they started out with this DIY work ethic.
Hear more #WVmusic on A Change of Tune, airing Saturday nights at 10 on West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Connect with A Change of Tune on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. And for more #WVmusic chats, make sure to go to wvpublic.org/wvmusic and subscribe to our RSS / podcast feeds.
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