Mar 10, 2015
Talking With Stuart Solomon, Zack Wheeler, and Olivia Russin of Aviv, a Greenpoint-based DIY Venue
Since late November Brooklyn’s newest DIY venue, Aviv, has hosted some of the best local bands in town and, increasingly, touring acts as well. The Greenpoint venue opened just in time to help fill the gaping hole left by Glasslands, Death By Audio, 285 Kent, and other recently deceased DIY spaces and quickly built a loyal showing. Stuart Solomon, Zack Wheeler, and Olivia Russin, all steeped in the local music scene, opened and operate Aviv with their own resources.
BK: How might you assess the current state of Brooklyn culture, specifically in your own sort of scene? I’m not implying that there’s a definitive “Brooklyn culture” or anything, but just in terms of the specific music and DIY scene you know well?
Zack: It’s a constantly evolving place and the music and venue culture is very different now than it was in the heyday of 2007 to 2008. And there are definitely a lot of challenges. Stuart and I used to run Showpaper [popular biweekly show list] for the last year and a half, before it closed down. And that was one of the main reasons why– it was very difficult to sustain.
There isn’t as much of a community as there used to be. But as far as the very young and excited person who is, for no recognition, willing to go out in the middle of winter and pass these papers out, it’s not quite the level of excitement that it used to be.
Stuart: I definitely feel like the cost of everything has a lot to do with it. There used to be a shit ton of spaces because it was cheaper to live in a warehouse than live in an apartment. So there were a lot of places where people just got it and just realized they could do whatever they wanted, kind of like with Emet [Stuart’s former Bushwick-based DIY venue, one that was significantly smaller than Aviv]. But it’s not so possible now.
Here we have to run this somewhat like a business because the rent is so high and our overhead in other areas is so high. So we can’t really just fuck around.
Olivia: We definitely have to think a lot more about who wearing booking. We don’t throw as many shows as other venues–right now we’re on a weekend schedule, which is cool because we can curate stuff, but it’s stricter.
Zack: But we’ve booked a lot of bands who we have to negotiate their payment and our main concern here is creating a good place to hold shows and to pay bands as much as we can.
Stuart: The fact that everyone is just hustling all the time has definitely decreased the sense of community. People can’t show up and help out all the time. Everyone has so much to do and is so beat afterwards. The cost of a rehearsal studio is insane right now and because it’s New York, you can’t play in your basement because everyone can hear as if they’re standing right next to it.
Olivia: I guess on the silver lining side, one of the really positive things about running this place like a business is that we work our shows to pay our bands the most. I feel like we’re creating, in the small, most minute sense, a mini-economy, you know? And we’re not saying to do it for the love of the thing, but to do it for the love of the thing and we’ll make it worth you’re while. And we’re going to make sure if you work with us or come play with us, you’ll at least be able to pay for the gas home and we’ll cover dinner. I mean no one’s working for free here.
Stuart: Except for us.
Zack: But it’s also been a very steep learning curve for us because Stuart ran a much small place and I would book much smaller places once in a while. And running a show like that versus running a show at a 350 person capacity venue is a very different vibe.
Olivia: It feels like some huge responsibility was thrust upon us because I guess we didn’t realize when we started that this [large] capacity came with responsibility, we knew we had a responsibility to fill it and we realized there’s a lot of power there.
Zack: We didn’t realize that Death By Audio and Glasslands would be closing down either and leaving this big void of show spaces. I guess it was good for us in a business sense. In a way, it’s given us more attention. But it breaks my heart–I don’t want success at the expense of them. So it’s been challenging to be thrust into that position.
Olivia: We have to make sure we’re curating with the bands’ interests in mind. We feel bad turning people down, but it’s for everyone’s good that we throw a big show every show.
BK: So it’s just the three of you who run this space? Is that hard?
Olivia: Um, yeah. Now we’re finally starting to pull ourselves out of the debt hole we got into.
Zack: I also run a rehearsal studio. People don’t have garages here so it’s hard to casually be a musician but it’s becoming more and more difficult just to be a musician. What I’ve noticed is a lot more musicians are well-off when they come in to this. Because you almost have to be. Being an artist in this city takes an immense amount of resourcefulness or money because I run a relatively inexpensive rehearsal space that’s $550 a month. and that’s considered very cheap.
And having that on top of your apartment plus your day job, having the energy to be creative still is very, very difficult. So I’m noticing that the artists are spreading more and more out to the fringes [of the city].
Stuart: The idea that you can be a musician in New York City and go home in the evening and catch up on Netflix or maybe try to date someone is just not possible. If you want to be an artist it has to be every moment of your life.
Zack: Or you can be a hobbyist if you just have money. A lot of people who come from wealth are able to do it. I’ve seen a lot of bands become successful and it seems like a lot of the bands who are also breaking out of the real circuit and gaining real attention. they all have to hire publicists and it’s very hard to do it DIY with any real success, at least on the band level. We’re really fortunate, we’ve had a lot of luck, skill, and a great community to be able to make this work and that’s pretty much what you need to have for any DIY project, including your band and it’s a lot easier to create that community when you have a space as opposed to having your own artistic project.
Stuart: It’s kind of an ongoing debate, but one of the biggest bands to come out in the past year, the girl who’s in it, her parents are very rich. If their music sucked, it would be a very easy conversation. But for now, it’s like—I guess that’s cool for them. If they can do it, great. But on the other hand, no one else has the resources to do that.
BK: Do you think that kind of thing effects the quality of the music though?
Stuart: On an individual level, I don’t think it does. People who are going to make good music are going to make good music. But on a community level, totally. Because like, the more voices the better. The more people who are making music, the more they’re going to be able to collaborate and have ideas and intersect and make some crazy shit.
Zach: A sense of community fosters excitement, which feeds into it.
BK: But don’t you think a concern with money and survival in New York City hampers experimentation? Aren’t people more reluctant to do weird shit?
Olivia: That’s one thing we’re really against here. It’s not like ‘Fuck conformity, man!’ But yeah, fuck conformity [laughs]. I feel like you’ll go to a show at any DIY venue and you’ll watch like five bands and sometimes you can’t tell them apart. Everyone’s doing the same sound. And we’re trying to make sure our bills are exciting and have something you can think about and bite into.
Stuart: It’s hard because I’m really big into experimental music and I want to show some really truly experimental shows here and I dunno, we’ll lose money and they’ll lose money. Because it’s a very difficult line to walk and it kind of sucks we have to walk it.
Zack: And a show like that just wouldn’t be fun, regardless of all the financial concerns. In a space like this, if you had a show with less than 100 people, regardless of how good the music is, the show is just going to feel lame. Even if the best musicians are there you aren’t going to say: ‘It was like they were playing a show to me.’ People are gonna go: “Man there was no one there, no one to flirt with, and it was really cold!”
Stuart: Maybe the third or fourth show at Emet we had maybe 15 people there and even [in that much smaller space] it felt empty. But it was one of the best shows. I remember it super fondly. But that was because we had no overhead there.
BK: So with the bigger space and just the three of you running it, how do you juggle everything now?
Stuart: As far as not having a life outside of this, Olivia is the best at this, she has a nine-to-five, and this, and she’s starting a magazine, and she has a boyfriend.
Olivia: I have a boyfriend. I can have it all!
Zack: I will just never sleep.
BK: So given the bleak outlook for the future, and the way things are now, I guess the big question is, why do you guys stick around?
Zack: We do it for the money.
Olivia: I moved here when I was 17 for college and just stayed. And you know, like there’s all these venues that have closed and ones that eventually will close. And what happens after that in two to five years, Brooklyn’s going to look just completely different. There’s actually no telling how it’s going to change, like it could just be another economic collapse or something. There could be some kind of weird catastrophic event.
Stuart: I was here in 2008 and that economic crisis doesn’t seem to have slowed anything.
Olivia: I guess the rich got richer. But the thing is, at a certain point the bubble’s going to pop. You can’t have a city with no poor people in it.
Zack: You sure can, you can keep crystallizing the wealth.
Olivia: Well, yeah I don’t want to stick around then if that’s what it’s going to be. I’m from LA, and I wouldn’t want to move back to LA necessarily, but there’s a great DIY scene in LA and it’s fuckin’ nicer there.
Stuart: I still love it here because [recently] I was back in Oakland for a week and even though it’s easy to do stuff there, you can just rent a warehouse and the cops won’t care that much. As long as nobody’s getting stabbed outside. But no one does it man.
Even after all this shit, [in New York] there’s still a show I want to be at every night. That’s something I tried to actually do for a second and it’s a bad way to live. But still, there are so many great things happening that you’re bound to miss out on some of them, which is not true anywhere else I’ve been. It just sucks that it feels like we’re self flagellating in a way to keep doing it, you know?
Zack: I came from Seattle, which has the Teen Dance Ordinance and it would be absolutely impossible to do this there. Basically it makes it so there’s no nightlife for anyone under 21.
Olivia: What? Fuck everyone.
Zack: So when I came to New York and saw this vibrant all-ages community, it was really exciting even though I’m well over 21. I just really like that art isn’t used simply as a way to sell booze. And it makes the all-ages shows a hell of a lot more vibrant than any bar show I’d ever gone to in Seattle.
I stay here because you couldn’t get away with this there. And I’m still doing it here because this space is fantastic, we got very lucky. And I’m running what I think to be a fantastic venue with my two best friends. I mean honestly I feel like I’m living the dream right now. I got very lucky, and the vast majority of people couldn’t do it because they haven’t had good fortune, which sucks. But I’m still here because I’ve been able to make it work.
Olivia: I hope that luck translates to being able to live comfortably eventually.
Zack: Who needs heat?
Olivia: We make a lot of sacrifices to have this space and other people have hundreds of thousands of dollars in capital to start their, like, nightclub or something. And we literally just did the opposite. It’s DIY to the core here.
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