House shows are a Seattle staple, as any musician who’s lived here can attest. And that’s not limited to rock musicians: Seattle-area hip-hop and electronic musicians throw down in houses, too. As a rock drummer who has been invited to make an ungodly racket in the homes of friends and acquaintances, though, that’s my main area of expertise.
In any case, Seattle musicians spend lots of time setting up and using drums, amps, and speakers in living rooms and basements, and they take up a lot of room. They also make a lot of noise, which is the whole point. Of course, noise bothers the neighbors—that’s the main reason playing live, loud music in houses is semi-illicit behavior.
“A Craftsman home with a basement is a perfect, perfect setup for that,” says musician and producer Eric Padget, who has managed, lived in, or co-operated DIY performance spaces and recording studios across the city. He also runs Noise Noise Ouch Stop Records.
“Especially those houses that were very overbuilt—stuff from like the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s—because their daylight basements have, like, really good sound isolation relative,” Padget says. In other words: The quintessential style of Seattle home is the ideal venue for a DIY rock show.
That’s a good thing for DIY musicians, since Seattle has much more land zoned for single-family homes than most cities in the United States. Though increasing demand for single-family homes has imposed some limitations—not least rising rents—on musicians, there are a lot of houses in Seattle to play shows in. Besides, it’s just hard to play a rock show in an apartment, especially one where only cheap, new drywall separates tenants.
“It seems like the vast majority of places that are doing house shows are literally old Craftsman homes that have just been kind of neglected or ignored,” Padget says.
According to Padget and others, what’s most important for a house venue to flourish is a blockwide state of mind verging on benign neglect. Everyone living near a repeat DIY venue needs to be indifferent to details like loud noises and crowds of strangers, many of whom may be under the influence of one substance or another.
The most successful house DIY venues make that neighborly agreement explicit, in one way or another. Greg, a musician who lived in and co-operated a house venue for several years, says that he and his housemates worked with their neighbors to make the place viable.
“With the neighbors, [we’d say], ‘Hey, there’s gonna be people walking in and out of our house at 9 at night,” Greg says. “It is in your own home, so you can do whatever you want in your space, but it is cool that you also need your surrounding people to be on your team to even make it happen. Because if you have a house show and your neighbors just call the cops first thing, you’re not having a fucking house show.”
That attitude is, understandably, hard to come by in plenty of neighborhoods. Greg agrees that a block populated by families with children would have good reason to complain. That’s probably why the University District, and neighboring parts of Wallingford and Ravenna—with lots of transient residents, people who attend or have middle-term affiliations with the University of Washington—are the parts of Seattle with the most DIY house venues.
The U District has lower rents and a higher noise tolerance than much of the city. Compared to some Greek Row outbursts, or even standard-issue college partying, a punk show barely registers. A DIY house is probably a better neighbor than a college party house, and a house that wants to put on shows for a sustained period of time has a vested interest in staying under the radar.
“The U District is so young, ’cause of the college kids,” Greg says, laughing. “It’s just like parties and shit. People would just be drunk, yelling.”
That manic energy wore Greg out after a while. He recently moved out—having a house party several times a week was tiring.
“Most of the places nowadays that are operating as house venues specifically, there used to be places like that that would do three or four shows a week. Now, you’re seeing like three, four shows a month for most of those spots,” Padget says. I asked him why he thought that was the case.
“Because isolated noise complaints are easier to get away with than chronic noise complaints,” Padget says. If the city figures out what you’re doing, he added, it presents long-term problems.
With official scrutiny comes a series of headaches for the residents of a venue, Padget says. “If the city catches word that you’re throwing these events, they’re going [to ask about] zoning. If it’s zoned residential ... at the end of the day, it comes down to whether or not a place is insurable.
“If a place gets caught and gets reclassified as an art space or multi-use space, then they have to have proper fire code, sprinklers put in, all that stuff,” he says. “Usually that money comes out of the people living there, more so than the negligent landlord.”
That’s one reason the Josephine, a well-known Ballard DIY venue and housing co-op, shut down—residents said that the city covertly investigated the space, and then sent a cease-and-desist letter to the landlord.
The tenants producing events were never evicted or prosecuted, but the city was able to impose code-compliance costs on the owner of the property that forced their hand. Tenants eventually pitched in their own funds and incorporated a nonprofit to keep arts going in the space, which is now known as the Woodland Theater.
That level of organization is an extreme example, and it wasn’t a structure that the Josephine sought out. But every DIY venue requires some sort of intentional community. A more typical arrangement is an semiformal co-op arrangement. One of the longer-running DIY venues, whose members passed on an interview request, works under that model.
“They’ve been hosting for a while. They have different people who’ve lived there over the years, but they’ve still been a house venue and a co-op living space,” says Hannah Sandle about the space. Sandle performs guitar, bass, and songwriting duties in Baby Jessica, a band based in Seattle. She estimates that Baby Jessica’s performances are split evenly between houses and bars.
“You have to be down to live a certain lifestyle if your house is gonna host shows,” Sandle says. “It’s a big part of keeping the DIY community alive. Regardless of who is living here, we’re inheriting communal living, and also hosting shows because we have the space.”
The communal and underground aspects of the DIY scene make them better places for unconventional art—Padget described one performance in which chain-smoking audio performance artists made BLTs and a sound collage at the same time—and people who don’t feel the most comfortable in more mainstream music venues.
“In general, the DIY scene tends to be male-dominated, which has a lot of implications. But especially in Seattle, I see a lot more people who are not men participating in both playing house shows and putting them on,” Sandle says, adding that the the long-running co-op doesn’t count any cis men among its residents.
Sandle says that Seattle co-ops almost always operate with an intersectional set of rules, sometimes posted, naming racism, homophobia, misogyny, and the like as reasons to kick someone out of the house during an event. Still, though Sandle didn’t name names, she did say that sound engineers in both bar and DIY contexts are equally likely to ignore her technical requests.
“Playing at DIY venues, or bars and clubs, as a woman, I have a hard time getting people to do the levels that I want for vocals, if [the engineers are] men,” Sandle says. “I’ve spoken to other women who’ve had similar experiences.”
Due to their semi-illicit nature, DIY spaces have an obvious incentive to avoid law enforcement, and unsavory characters can sometimes take advantage. In 2017, I co-reported a story in which a Shoreline man allegedly organized DIY raves and concerts in his home as a means to drug, and then rape or sexually assault, dozens of women with the help of party drugs.
Even worse, a mass shooter killed seven people in 2006 at a house on Capitol Hill connected to the then-burgeoning rave scene. That incident was less about DIY events, though, and more about the mundane evil of mass shootings. Even Mark Sidran, a former city attorney who was legendarily opposed to certain DIY events, took pains to blame a lack of gun control for the tragedy, rather than raves.
But those, like the Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland, are sinister outliers—though the search for low-rent spaces can result in a lot of people crammed into unsafe buildings. Fortunately, Seattle’s DIY scene has avoided that sort of catastrophic event, and mainly worry about the same mold and busted plumbing that plague other downmarket renters.
Indeed, people in the DIY scene might feel safer at a house show than a bar. After all, a DIY house venue should not be a scary place. It can be intimidating, in the sense that any new social scene is intimidating. But DIY houses are homes to well-meaning, idealistic people. They’ll let touring bands—or a friend on hard times, with no money—crash for the night. Throwing your home open to strangers for free is a radical act of kindness. Especially when, with services like Airbnb, you can monetize every unaccounted-for hour of your spare bedroom or broom closet.
The residents of house venues sometimes use their homes for ragers, to be sure, but as many events are the result of a sincere, unpretentious desire to create art. House shows are analog: They gather dozens of people, some of them strangers, for a live event in the time of Netflix. A concert in a living room or basement is a direct descendant of a rent party or block party, fading rituals of urban America that predate talkies.
A house venue requires a kind of neighborhood discussion that would have taken place before social media, and lacks the paranoid, abrasive overtones of a thread on Nextdoor. Indeed, what you need for a house venue, above all else, is trust. Trust that your friends and their friends will respect your space, that your neighbors won’t call the cops, and that the band will play a little harder and better than they would in a bar.