It seemed likely that Bushwick's Shea Stadium would die the death of so many other adored, dubiously-legal DIY spaces. The country is littered with the bones of all-ages venues that were slowly bled dry by licensing issues and fire marshal inquisitions. Death By Audio, 285 Kent, Market Hotel—there's an expected transience to off-the-books rock 'n roll. They count their history in months, not years, and are remembered in wistful coffee-table books and a particular group of showgoers who happened to be in the right place at the right time. So when the Shea braintrust announced they'd be closing their doors earlier this month, it felt like another part of the cycle.
"Continuing to stack up the inevitable, and frankly expensive, fines while having to navigate the vast bureaucracy of NYC is no longer feasible for us," they wrote in a Facebook post. "We don't take this decision lightly, as we realize it affects the lives and plans of the thousands of people that both play and attend our shows. We hope to reopen as soon as possible to continue being the space that you all helped build with us."
It is around this time—when the constant summons and police interruptions become unignorable—that DIY spaces tend to board up their windows and relocate their stage and PA to a warehouse far away from the newcomer restaurants, residential developments, and daycare centers that are registering the noise complaints; from the East Village to Williamsburg, from Williamsburg to Bushwick, from Bushwick to anywhere else, until options run out. It's the requisite tenacity that keeps music scenes vibrant, but it's also an unfortunate admission that a few hundred people creating a beautiful thing will be consistently outmuscled by the municipal authority. Frankly, this time, that's what makes the Bring Back Shea Stadium Kickstarter so inspiring.
The crowdfund effort launched on March 22, asking for $50,000 to clean up legal fees, pass safety inspections, and secure a bar and safety permits. Six hours later, it was fully funded. As of this writing, they've drummed up more than $86,000, with more than two weeks left in the campaign.
"It was an unbelievable show of love. None of us expected to hit our goal in less than a day—we hoped we would make it in a month!" says Adam Reich, a musician and producer who founded Shea Stadium back in 2008. "Reflecting on it further though, the strength of the community shouldn't be underestimated."
There are plenty of factors at play here. Shea Stadium has the benefit of being at the heart of New York's metropolitan art scene, and it serves as the provincial home for famous bands like Titus Andronicus. It's a lot easier to muster support when national outlets like Pitchfork are reporting directly on your plight. But Shea's Kickstarter could still serve as a model for hundreds of DIY spaces under threat. Crowdfunding elevated a local space into a national issue. Everyone from Matador founder Gerard Cosloy to the Brooklyn Bowl tweeted out the link. It was clear that people were treating this campaign as a chance to support live music as a cause, rather than a product. Like Reich said, the strength of the community shouldn't be underestimated.
"I've always felt like Shea was a special place, even from the first time I stepped into the room. I think crowdfunding can be very useful to DIY venues when it's getting harder and harder to avoid scrutiny from cops and the fire department," says Emma Witmer, a Brooklyn musician who performs as gobbinjr. "I think [Shea's] campaign was so successful because the people who are in the scene know that the Shea crew will put the money to good use and give 100 percent back to the community. If a DIY space can prove those ethics to a scene, then they should definitely give crowdfunding a shot."
The money they're raising is being put towards a long-term, sustainable business plan, with the dream of turning Shea Stadium into a permanent, perfectly legal venue. It makes the Kickstarter campaign feel more like a bright-eyed startup venture than a tip jar for a scenester spot—which is a sort of professionalism that DIY bookers generally try to avoid. That isn't lost on Reich, who tells me the decision to crowdfund wasn't something he took lightly.
"We've always done our best to operate at our lowest possible overhead to give the artists as much as possible, while still remaining affordable for everyone. This has always been a space by and for the community, so it seemed to make sense for us," he says. "When any business climbs into a deep hole financially at the outset, you obviously start worrying a whole lot about where the money is going to come back from. Whether unconsciously or not, I think that kind of pressure often forces you to make decisions about how to run your space that you wouldn't normally make. [The Kickstarter] seemed like the safest way to preserve the ethos that drew the community to us in the first place."
I find this candidness refreshing. I'm sure there are a few DIY zealots who are enraged that an all-ages community space would hinge their future on a public-benefit corporation like Kickstarter, but that's the exact sort of braggadocio that keeps people out of the scene in the first place. Reich wanted to keep Shea open, and he also didn't want to violate his values; he's found a peaceful middle ground.
Still, it's not often that a few organizers are suddenly entrusted with $80,000 to navigate New York City's byzantine zoning laws and get on the good side of the fire department. It's a tall order, and the Kickstarter money alone won't cover all the costs. "It's only one piece of the puzzle, and while we're feeling a little more relieved, in a way there's never been more pressure to deliver," says Reich. "It's going to be a roller coaster couple of months for sure."
I pose the question to him: Could crowdfunding serve as a brand new tactic for other besieged spaces? He demurs. "That question might be easier to answer in a few months."
So for now, god bless Shea Stadium. It's so easy—and understandable—to throw up your hands, book a final week of shows, and skip town under the cover of darkness. Instead they're grinding in their heels for the long, messy fight—because it's worth it.