One of the coolest things about punk is the sense of shared purpose and aligned goals you can have with someone you’ve never met before, thousands of miles from where you are, making their world a little bit less shit by creating shared spaces that thrive of collaboration and people power in the face of a world that says the only way is division and competition. It’s become crystal clear these last few weeks that whether its punk or the left, wherever we ring fence and we gate-keep, we fail. The most solid foundations are on common ground.
Brian from The Black Sheep, in Springfield, Illinois, got in touch with some answers to my questions about running a DIY all ages space in the midwest:
When did The Black Sheep first open?
Black Sheep opened in 2005 by a group of four people looking to start an all ages show space. By the end of the year all but one of those owners was committed to keeping the space going, and that was Kevin Bradford who has been sticking to it from the very start up until recently. I was not involved in the opening since I was just 15 years old at the time, and had just started to going to shows. The space is also next door to Skank Skates, which started in 1988 and was also housing punk shows before Black Sheep came along.
What was the process like for actually securing space and what are the financial pressures?
From what I understand the first few years were very shaky, there was at least one point where the city shut us down for not being up to code and a lot of construction and changes had to be done. Staying open has always been a challenge even as our space carries on in our tenth year- right now we are trying to make things work with our insurance cost tripling after one company dropped us for finding photos of crowdsurfing/moshing online, then we had to pick up another company and file as “high risk”. Running on a standard of $5 shows to split between touring bands and the venue running costs and not selling drinks is incredibly tough. More often than not those of us who run the venue are having to shell out from our own pockets to cover expenses here and there. Recently we have been pushing to launch a new non-for-profit organization that will be more focused on restoring the old buildings that make up our block and hopefully help things overall. From what I understand filing for that alone is going to take over half a year.
Being part of a whole ‘DIY’ block sounds like you have really built a community, how has this happened?
There definitely is a huge community aspect to our setup, and to me that mainly has to do with encouraging others to get involved in whatever way they see fit. It’s great seeing those who are not booking shows or playing in bands also getting involved housing bands, bringing food to potlucks, making zines, or volunteering at the record store. We have this nice lady Apryl who is also a preschool teacher who loves to bring lots of vegan/vegetarian meals for bands and show goers. We also have a lot of high school aged kids going to shows here, Springfield is definitely not a college town, so this is the introduction to any sort of music scene for them. We think it is pretty important to encourage whatever new ideas or creativity that they might bring.
Who’s involved on a day to day basis and how do you split tasks and make decisions?
For show booking, one or two of us runs the main email, but anyone is welcome to set up their own shows and we encourage a lot of younger bands to do so. Some of us have pretty big tasks, like I am in charge of organizing our big summer fest- Dumb Fest as well as organization for Black Sheep and Dumb Records. Brandon Carnes runs South Town Studio where he is constantly recording bands. Brandon also lives in the studio which doubles as an apartment, and I live above the record store so organization roles are easy for us since we are always around. Clare Frachey is going to be the one taking on the creating of the new non-for-profit organization. We try to hold meetings at least once a month where we encourage everyone to come out so we can discuss new ideas. These have been great in the past and have lead to new projects like the construction of a new stage, Dumb Fest, and the creation of our record store. The skate park and skate shop also have separate owners and are ran more separate from the businesses relating to music.
Whats the best and worst/most challenging things about working collectively?
We never really get to the point to where we are butting heads or disagreeing over anything. If anything I would say the biggest challenge is constantly pushing to get more people involved in running things. Usually the core group of business owners for the venue, record store, and studio are always too busy to take on anything new and it is hard getting new people to take initiative in new projects.
What other spaces are you been inspired by?
As far as spaces like this that have existed in the past in Springfield, the last all ages space was a place called The Asylum and was around 1997-1999 as far as I know. Some of the original founders of Black Sheep may have been trying to match what The Asylum was in some aspects, but now we are to the point where we have been going for so long with our space and we have tried so many different things that we know what works best for us based on our own venue’s past experiences. The opening of our record store was much inspired by Error Records, which is a music/venue combination in Urbana Illinois except their setup is inside a mini-mall type area downtown and close to a college campus. Nathan Landolt who runs Error Records really encouraged us to open up our own Dumb Records and helped get us started.
Best show or event so far?
Kevin would say in the ten years he had been running the venue his favorite show was when Ian MacKaye came with The Evens in 2007. In more recent years for me some shows that stand out include Una Béstia Incontrolable coming here with Iron Lung last summer and based on the show calling Springfield “the capital of punk”. Both of the Dumb Fests we have put on in 2013 and 2014 were also unreal, especially seeing Gas Rag play on the ramp of Skank Skates followed by a surprise Cal & The Calories set in the basement of the record store.
What part of town is the space in, and role if any do you think DIY spaces can play in gentrification and displacement, if such a thing is an issue in Springfield? How if at all have you tried to counter this?
Springfield is pretty unique in that it is not at all anything like bigger more populated cities such as Chicago or St. Louis. The issue with gentrification is the money that follows the “hip” crowd, but Springfield is a bit backwards in that regard. Without a constant ebb and flow of a large university or large city, there isn’t a lot of young wealth. Springfield is also notorious for dumping money into the specific parts for specific interest groups, but none of these are ever for the “arts”. Displacement is an obvious concern for many cities though. Old, historic neighborhoods similar to ours are uniquely fruitfully and intrinsically “interesting.” That makes for excellent venue spaces for both punk establishments AND Chipotle’s. In our case the issue of displacement is more of a concern when talking about upcoming construction of a high-speed rail just a block down the street from where we are located. The city has basically already seized up some property closer to where construction has began so a lot of families/individuals that own property don’t stand a chance, and it is a matter of time before construction for that begins down the road from us.
What kind of lifespan do you see it having?
We’ve never have looked too far into the future of the lifespan of our space and group of businesses, and with this type of thing everything is constantly changing that you really can’t. There has never been a five year plan or anything like that, and I have never heard of any spaces like ours continuing for as long as we have. With that being said though I would like to think that since we have made it a whole ten years and have gotten so much community support especially recently that there would be some sort of outcry and drive to keep going if anything were to happen that would seriously threaten our space. I would also like to think that I am committed to trying to keep the space around for as long as I possibly can during my time in Springfield.