The ALL-AGES Dialogues: A conversation with Shannon Stewart
by Jay Babcock
This interview was conducted by phone in late summer 2006, as part of a series of conversations I was doing with various folks regarding the history of all-ages, philosophy/ethic of all-ages, the state of play of all-ages, yadda yadda.
If I remember correctly, when we did this interview Shannon was exiting her position at Seattle’s legendary Vera Project—where she was co-founder, program director and talent buyer—to start a new advocacy organization called the All-Ages Music Project. In 2010, she published In Every Town: An All-Ages Music Manualfesto, described as “part-history, part how-to,” with a foreword by Kimya Dawson.
This conversation shoulda been published long ago but stuff kept going awry and we didn’t get it in the mag. My apologies to Shannon, and to the readers. Hopefully this piece will be of use to present-day readers. — Jay
Previously in this series:
Interview with John Sinclair (MC5 manager, activist, poet-historian)
Interview with Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag, Chuck Dukowski Sextet)
Interview with Calvin Johnson (K Records, Beat Happening, Dub Narcotic Sound System)
Interview with Greg Saunier (Deerhoof)
Arthur: What do you think happened to all-ages shows? Why did so much music become restricted to the over-21 crowd?
Shannon Stewart: Well, you have to look at the relationship of the music industry to alcohol. That’s the easiest answer to it. Those things are easily tied. Since the drinking age in this country is 21, therein lies your answer. Because those industries have become co-dependent, or I guess the music industry has become co-dependent on alcohol at least in terms of spaces.
When did that happen, though? Because it wasn’t always that way.
That’s probably something I’d leave up to you to answer. I think it’s changed with the drinking age and the tightening liquor laws and the rules about youths not being able to be in a bar at all even if they’re not drinking. Every state has a different poilicy on that. Up in Washington State, until about four years ago, young people just couldn’t go into bars at all. It sort of loosened up a few years ago so that you can have separated areas, so there can be like an all-ages area and there can be a big wall or else some sort of rented gate system where you can herd up all of the drinkers sort of like cattle behind the all-ages area, and have all-ages shows that way. But still the venues are losing a lot of money because a lot of the ticket sales go to guarantees, and they’re trying to pay their bills on the bar sales, which is why I think there’s a burgeoning movement of nonprofit all-ages venues.
Tell me about that.
There’s a lot of different versions of it. Like one version of it would be the teen center that the city starts to try to bring youth in and engage them in a way that’s meaningful to them that is moderately successful depending on who’s running it. There’s a ton of them. The old firehouse in Redmond, Washington, which is actually—when you talk to Shannon Roach you can ask her about that, because she used to work there. And in the Midwest there’s a bunch of them. Usually in affluent areas where the taxbase is such that it’s not inconceivable that the city would spend the money on a music space for teenagers. That’s sort of the bottom line of it.
The other spaces that are getting the most momentum behind them are spaces like The Smell [In Los Angeles], these fly-by-night, making-it-up-as-we go-along but somehow they’re still existing ten years later even though it seems like every time you go there, they should be gone [chuckles] or be on their way down or something. The other ones around the country are the K Cafe Collective in San Diego, and ABC NO RIO in Manhattan, and Gilman’s in Berkeley. Those are the ones that have managed to scrape by for decades and have been really influential, I think, in this generation of new all-ages organizations, which are a lot more younger people forming collectives and starting their own spaces out of makeshift places and art galleries and stuff like that. If you ask a lot of those folks who influenced them, a lot of them will reference these old punk institutions that I mentioned before. They find out about them through D.I.Y./internet.
The final piece of that are spaces that are becoming big non-profit institutions, and communities that maybe started out with a small gaggle of people working to just put on their own shows but had some really savvy business people involved who were like, ‘We should get money for this’ and then secured foundation grants and federal/state/local money in order to make their space sustainable. The Vera Project is an example of that. AS220 in Providence, Rhode Island is an example of that. The Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, Michigan. They’re generally between 200 and 500 capacity, which is about the size of your average competitive music club in urban areas.
In suburban areas of major metropolitan cities there’s not so much a feeling of competition from other clubs because I think a lot of times people will just do two shows. So artists will have two shows, a 21 & up show and it’ll be at a bar in the city and then they will have an all-ages show and it will be on the outskirts in the teen venue.
What kind of pressures, if any, are these spaces under from surrounding communities?
The pressures from the surrounding community depend on how conservative they are. They are real and a lot of those spaces have to fight for their funding, and are usually really under-staffed and have to fight. Also there’s pressure to be sort of your conventional youth program with terms of supervision and rules and regulation about how you’re supposed to interact with youth. That definitely impedes the organic nature that goes hand-in-hand with being part of the show-going culture. And there’s so many rules about who can be a volunteer and who can’t be a volunteer and what age you have to be to go there. And how money gets handled, and dealing with the cash basis that artists need to deal with is really, really hard. There are a million little tiny things that get in the way that people have to weigh out—the pros and cons of either being affiliated with the city and having some security in your facility and your funding source versus being totally on your own and not having to deal with all those little regulations.
In the older DIY institutions in the country, the issue is just one of staying relevant and staying young and connected to the constituents that are looking for all-ages places to go and see shows and being able to also stay solvent and keep track of financial records and keep an accurate archive/history of what’s happened there. All that stuff is really challenging because most of those spaces are organized all-volunteer, collectively run, with the exception of ABC NO RIO… well I guess Gilman now has a coordinator too, but ABC NO RIO has a director of the space that actually is in charge of doing that administrative stuff now, but that’s fairly recent.
There is something that is totally fine about the culture of all-ages shows: that is, you get a lot of energy from young people who gather and get together and do their own thing for a while and burn out and it’s over. That is a huge piece of the all-ages music scene: spaces can come and go. It’s kind of okay because people pass through that time of their life, like you come and go through youth too, and so like at your point in time when you’re a young person going to shows there will be a space, and then it dies off about the time you’re old enough to go to bar shows, and then another space will bubble up and it’ll do the same thing. I don’t think that’s necessarily healthy or fair, especially to the spaces that really do want to survive but just can’t make it, but I also think it’s just something that is the natural cycle of space, and youth music stuff.
You’ve said you think all-ages spaces are going to be increasingly hip-hop–oriented.
I don’t have statistics to back it up, but just looking at the changing demographics of generations…of the young generation of the United States right now and what has been becoming more popular over time, I would go as far as to theorize that the majority of youth are into hip-hop in one way, shape or form. As they get older and want to go to shows and be part of the hip-hop music scene, they need outlets. A lot of spaces that are just putting on indie rock bands that appeal to the 30-year-old bearded guys or whatever aren’t necessarily doing it for them. I think definitely in cities and urban areas there’s a movement towards youth organizations that focus on hip-hop. I’d go so far as to point out that there’s actually a generation called the hip-hop generation and that’s very much about how young people in the US today are really interested in hip-hop and that’s a big part of their cultural identity. I think that’s going to start to take over all-ages music spaces as years go by.
What about these all-ages ‘emo places,’ what do you think about those?
This is just me personally but I really associate a lot of those emo places with the suburban teen centers for some reason. I see a lot of those kids coming out of these affluent areas where they happen to have pretty cool parents that empower them to use their garage as practice spaces. That could just be a gross generalization on my part but that’s how I’ve experienced it this far.
There’s the Chain Reaction in Anaheim, the Showcase Theatre in Corona…? I assume there’s a bunch of those all over the country?
I don’t know if there’s a bunch of those. I’d say it definitely is region-specific. I think that some spaces have these ‘Bbig! All-ages! Venues! We are the hottest all-ages venue in this city!’ and sometimes those are emo and sometimes they’re are metal and sometimes they’re ska and sometimes they’re punk. I don’t know how long the Chain Reaction has been around but I sort of see those as part of the come-and-go spaces in some ways. I guess I’m just not versed in emo. It does seem like there are a ton of those shows because it is really popular with a certain section of the youth population but in terms of spaces that are explicitly emo…
The door price at all-ages show is still generally low, right?
There’s a few reasons for that. One is that some really foundational people in the all-ages movement—if we are to say there is one—set it up that way. Like Ian Mackaye or whatnot, with the $5 door, $8 record cover. There is the economic reality that in a lot of these areas, youth don’t have disposable income but there a lot of places where there is a healthy rock all-ages scene, you’re actually dealing with people who do have disposable income. Whether or not the ticket prices need to be a lot lower than your average 7 or 8 dollar show that I would go and see, or probably $10 now, if I wanted to go and see a show in San Francisco, I don’t know if it has to be lower. I think it really depends on the economic climate that you’re in.
My project is looking at pretty much commercial-free spaces, nonprofits and collectives and whatnot, that are doing all-ages shows that have a big youth-run component: either they have all staff that are people under 25, or they have youth membership with voting power, or they have some piece of high-level youth involvement in their governments and running the organization. I’m looking at where these spaces exist and where they don’t exist and why. And the importance of having a space that is somewhat commercial-free and a cultural space for youth to come together and have their part in the music scene, and have a place to build community with one another. I’m almost looking at the civic engagement piece of that: if young people have a space like that where they’re engaged in, where the artistic medium is culturally relevant to them, then they’re likely to build skills and tools and relationships that help them start their own things on the outside, and also get involved in their community and become community leaders. That was definitely a piece of the Vera Project and I’m sure Shannon [Roach] will talk to you more about that. I’m looking at these venues like churches of young people that are secular.
Youth autonomy zones. Chuck Dukowski was saying it was very important to him not that youths have their own space but that there’s a space in which all ages can mingle, because otherwise the younger ones don’t benefit from the wisdom and experience of their elders, and the elders don’t benefit from the energy of the youth.
I would just temper that statement, which I absolutely 100% agree with, with also the notion that because most of our spaces in this country are set up to cater to adults, it’s important that all-ages spaces have a priority to catering to youth, just to combat that feeling that you get when you’re a young person and you walk into a space that’s full of adults… that feeling that you don’t really belong there, you don’t feel welcome there, you’re not really being treated like you belong there. I think the emphasis on youth, on having a high level of youth involvement is really important in all-ages spaces, just to combat that general societal problem. I am not a fan of cut-off ranges of ages, like ‘we only serve 13 to 19 year olds’ because I think exactly what Chuck said: there’s a disconnect between what it means to be an adult that has lifestyle that’s maybe a little different from what you think or what you’re told it’s supposed to be.
There are lots of communities that have been segregated by age. It might not be geographic, though. I’m going to go to this convention tomorrow, the national hip-hop political convention, and I really want to network with other folks that are gonna be there and probably a lot of that networking will take place in bars. But I am bringing someone who is 18. And it’s just a problem of I want her to be able to network with me, but there’s this cultural phenomena of adult organizers that you go to bars to do this, with because that’s a sort of set-up space for you. Youth don’t have that. Or, there is no place where it just naturally is both.