I’d been booking gigs and playing in bands for a few years, but still felt like my city was adrift in an endless swirling feedback loop which seemed to shut down possibility at every corner. So many gendered expectations! A super-limited scope of “acceptable” bands! Boring! Thinking back to my list of excuses for not attempting to make my own noise, prior to stepping over the line and getting into it finally, I knew that something had to give in order to create some real space for the shy, the freaked-out, the clueless, the dabblers, the ‘oh I used to play once’, the uncertain and the terrified. Punk’s untapped resource for cool new ideas – people who aren’t busy doing ten bands haven’t spread their ideas super thin already! Everyone you meet is a potentially bandmate! The best way to do that seemed to be to build momentum around the truth that it was, at some point, everyone’s first time. I wanted to celebrate demystification and spread the secret I’d been handed by a select few dreamy angels: anyone can make music. Punk is a weird archipelago that simultaneously fetishizes lack of skill whilst silently judging genuinely raw and intuitive players. This is more or less of an issue depending on which sonic cul-de-sac you operate in, of course, but fancy shredlords playing at ineptitude is my number one bugbear. You played yourself, riffmeister. Hey. Though. What if there was a space where you HAD to be new to your instrument, and/or a marginalised person in order to play? What would a gig feel like where there were no ‘seasoned’ musicians to measure yourself against and an atmosphere of unconditional ‘you can do it?!’ What if instead of mystically inaccessible, workshops could show you the basics of guitar, drums, PA operation or keyboards in an afternoon?
Not Enough Fest had started in Portland and spread to New Orleans, I think, and I knew super genius zinester Osa Atoe had been involved, so I had a peripheral awareness that these projects were doing some good in the US of Eh. These were gigs where bands that all contained women, trans and queer people would play their first gigs. In 2013, First Times The Charm was taking off in Philadelphia, and your dearest content coordinator Grace and I were in the early stages of our world-dominating friendship while she was living in London. I wanted try and piggy back these ideas, see how London would receive them. These were scenes with a much stronger presence of organisers and I had my doubts that anyone would be interested, I thought I might as well try to mimic these amazing initiatives and see what could happen. First Timers was born!
A season of workshops and socials that culminate in a gig, where every band plays their first set!
To sign-up to play at First Timers, your band as a whole need to be able to say YES to at least TWO of these statements:
1) One or more of us has never played in a band before.
2) One or more of us identify as one (or more!) of the following: woman, trans, non-binary or gender-non conforming person, LGBTQIA+, person of colour, person with a disability (visible or non-visible)
3) One or more of us is playing or doing something in this band that they have never played or done before.
In the first year of trying this out, I didn’t explicitly include people with disabilities as one of the criteria, because I was pretty sure I would struggle to find an amenable venue with flat access for something of this scale and worried endlessly about encouraging people to start a band who might find the venue I could afford to secure totally inaccessible. Of course now we know that these extra barriers make it even more important to be explicit, which is also thankful testament to the discourse opening up so rapidly once the opportunities are there to engage and platform new voices and bands. Similarly, I was unsure how best to phrase ‘people of colour’ in way that british punks would chime with, and whether I should even speak to this as a white organiser, which is funny given that that in five years this has now become everyday terminology in the UK. Incredible black feminist punk band Big Joanie used the 2013 First Timers to bloom into existence in 2013, and It speaks volumes that the only (public) backlash I saw related to First Timers was when Steph, the guitarist of Big Joanie, put a call-out for other black women punks to start a band. Many internet white men (and women) bemoaned that they wouldn’t be able to insert themselves here, that this band was to be intentionally about, for, by black women was just unacceptable to them. People claimed reverse racism and all sorts of other petty rage which of course was thankfully challenged. This was a clear reminder about keeping an eye on where and when backlash is applied and who experiences it vs. who is ‘allowed’ to step up and claim space without reprisal. Big Joanie’s influence has truly travelled right around the world and I’m incredibly honoured to reflect that they first started at First Timers! Indeed, in recent months in 2017, DIY Space for London has hosted Decolonise Fest, a fest by and for punks of colour, organised by some of Big Joanie, and the In-Sight Weekender, which focussed on access and disability in DIY! How times change and progress swings forth like a beautiful wave.
So many people have said to me that their lives have changed as a result of starting a band, whether directly for First Timers or just propelled by the culture of support that has been growing steadily in recent years. Grab it and run with it! On good days it feels like the naysayer chorus is just a distant hum these days. We are not done, though. My logic was utopian: If there was a long list of new DIY bands of every possible genre then surely no one would be able to get away with booking super homogenous line-ups without being blasted into submission, else their obvious sexism be spot lit, right?! Not exactly. While things have progressed amazingly five years on, and there are now DIY bands led by women, queers and people of colour of all genres cropping up all over the country, there is still a lot of gatekeeping, social capital wars and general elitist bullshit. If this much can change in a few years, imagine if we set our minds to seizing the means of production! Recording studios and pressing plants are the next frontier. ‘Book Your Own Fest’ in Olympia was a beautiful example of crashing the gatekeeping of gig-booking and playing the troglodytes at their own game, too. Beautiful stuff.
What have I learnt from First Timers? To change things, we have to change culture, and to do that, we have to create something positive that people can participate in. Oh, and don’t try and run a two-day festival of people who’ve never played in bands before by yourself, you might die. Get people on board with technical skills and ask them to explain their logic, share their abilities! Get pals together and make it happen in your city! Link up with those who might be doing similar stuff locally, even if it is in a genre you don’t care for! Resist gatekeeping! So much of the impulse behind starting First Timers was shared with wanting to start DIY Space for London. FT2013 was a benefit for the as-yet-unfound space, a place of unrealised possibility. Then there was a gap while we took care of the small matter of finding a goddamn building! FT2016 took place within those walls we built at the real, existing space and it felt very special indeed. I was overjoyed when a new collective primarily formed by people who had started bands for previous FTs asked to take up the mantle when I moved to Aus. They did an incredible job of FT2017 and put on more than two full days of bands first gigs, plus an entire season of amazing workshops on everything from synths to songwriting.
2013: The Ya Ya Band, Headline Jar, Yeast Extract, Here for the After Party, Big Joanie, Tilted Acres, Kin Shot, The YuckerFlats, Primetime, Irn Bruise, Pukeahontas, Queerocious.
2016: Lads, Slags, Professor Mooncup, Scrap Brain, The Mooncubs, Life! Death! Prizes! Twink Caplan, Party Traitor, Charmpit, Slab City, Clammy Hands, Shitfone, The Tan, Eden Eden Eden, Charm Offensive, Side Eye, Threat Level Midnight, Bulky Waste, Unapologetic Bitches.
2017: Macadamia Sluts, Downlands Cancara, Magpie, Hysteric, A Film By Kirk, Lane, Panic Pocket, Strong Arm, Secret Power, Cysta Cysta, scared of commitment, Whitelands, Cutlery, Bitch Hunt, Lizard Horse, The People That We Like, Technocrone, FishandTanks, Soft Sevens, Blood Moon, KINSINSKINS, Les Putains, fatberg, Peelers.
I’ve been spending time building resources to help others who want to run a First Timers in other cities and countries, which are up at firsttimers.org. There is that old saying “Each one, teach one” which I think works equally as “Each one, realise there is nothing to be taught that you cannot figure out yourself, or with a few YouTube tutorials and some time.”
More over at: http://www.firsttimers.org