God, Taxes and Punk Rock in Alabama

Katy Otto
December 3, 2007

(Editor's note: This is the fourth of a ten-part series produced by the All Ages Movement Project, in which the leaders of community-based youth organizations share tips and tricks of their trade. All stories are researched and written by members of organizations using indie music -- punk, hip-hop, rock, noise, electronic and more -- as a vehicle for social change. Be sure to catch the last feature and sign up for our newsletter to read the next one.)

Southern Hospitality Represent

My first experience with Cave 9 -- a volunteer-run, all-ages music venue in Birmingham, Ala. -- was in the summer of 2003. I was on the biggest tour I had been on in my life with my former band, Del Cielo.

Nestled on the street corner at the edge of a residential neighborhood, Cave 9 is surrounded by several other warehouse and industrial spaces. We showed up on time for load in and played with two bands from New Orleans, Rat in a Bucket and A Hunger Artist, and a larger national touring act called Jet Black. The volunteers and board members greeted us warmly and explained how the night would work. After years of touring, my mind was put at ease knowing that there was a person in charge of sound, an arrangement for money, and an order to and schedule for the show.

Too Much Heart: A Primer on Bare Bones All-Ages Show Promotion

Cave 9's board of directors essentially functions as the staff would at a for-profit club, only they do it voluntarily and with "too much heart," a line that also doubles as the name for a recent documentary by Joey Brown on Cave 9. Roles are roughly split up between booking, sound engineering, running the door and doing whatever else needs to be done.

Cave 9 Vitals:

Located: Birmingham, Ala.
Founded: 2003
Org Type: All-volunteer nonprofit collective (501c3 as of 2006)
Org Structure: Five-member board of directors who manage everything about the organization
Music Genre of Focus: indie rock, punk, hardcore, metal, occasional hip-hop
Goings On: All-ages shows and occasional internships
Fees: Shows cost $5-$7
Where the money comes from: 35 percent split of the door, sporadic individual donations and benefit concerts
Founding Story: A few Birmingham music enthusiasts in their early 20s saw that there was a lack of accessible music gathering spots, especially for young folks.
Claims to Fame: Putting Birmingham on the indie music map.
The Local Scene: Birmingham is the cultural center of Alabama with a population of 250,000. Its main musical influences are blues and country, and the stereotypes about Southern hospitality and omnipresent Christianity are true.

Cave 9 holds up to 300 people and feels comfortable for both small or large audiences. Putting the emphasis on youth inclusion, shows at Cave 9 start at 7 p.m. and usually end before 11 p.m., making it possible for younger folks to see, volunteer and play there.

The venue consistently plays a wide range of genres. At the show I attended, an acoustic punk band named the Judy Garland Death Squad played a set upstairs following a night of metal, heavy rock and a dance-y electronic band.

Cave 9 takes only 35 percent of the door so that they can pay rent. They use their relationships and resourcefulness to do everything else they need to survive from publicity to bookkeeping. Technical staff, nice equipment, food and drinks are the sorts of things that are usually underwritten by alcohol sales, sponsorship or higher ticket prices at other venues.

Because Cave 9's booking and show production approach is different than traditional nightclubs, its website tells bands exactly what the venue can offer. It politely notes that it is unable to respond to every email requesting a show, that it has a simple PA and that payments are small.

A Rock Oasis in Alabama

In place of the usual club perks, Cave 9 offers something else. "You can't really understand it unless you are a part of it," explains co-founder and Cave 9 board member Aaron Hamilton in the documentary, referencing a hard-to-pin-down feeling of growing and changing through new relationships and a commitment to a space, a scene, and something that doesn't exist anywhere else. "I've met a ton of people that I wouldn't have had the opportunity to [meet]. It's become a family. It's helped me grow as a person," he says.

(see video below)

In speaking with circles of people in traveling bands up and down the east coast, I heard over and over from people -- who had never been to the space -- how they hoped to play there some day. Bands on a national and international punk touring circuit remember and speak about the space. Even stalwarts Against Me! recently played Cave 9 despite the fact that could have played a larger venue. I had the opportunity to personally experience the effort the space put into their shows, and it propped up my morale amidst a long and exhausting tour.

Putting Birmingham on the Map

In order to bank on more than their charm, Cave 9 community members are undertaking their own projects to publicize the space and to build up the local scene.

One such project is the zine God and Taxes. Board members, volunteers and show-goers collaborated on the zine. It serves as documentation of creative ideas coming out of the space and is taken out on tour by the few local bands that are hitting the national circuit. "That is something we really hope that the space can spark," explains Will Butler, a Cave 9 board member. "Birmingham bands are taking what they are doing on the road, because very few bands from here tour much."

Taxes and Politics at Cave 9

Cave 9 as an underground all-ages venue is also unique in its legal standing. I mention this because it is uncommon for a DIY punk venue started by a group of friends to take the legitimacy leap in order to establish itself as an institution. Unfortunately, at the end of going through the grueling process of becoming an independent nonprofit, the IRS came after Cave 9 for $6,000 worth of back taxes owed for the years of operation without incorporating (insert knowing smirks and groans here).

The outpouring of support has been tremendous -- by accepting donations online and reaching out to the community it has served in the past four years, Cave 9 has managed to cut this debt in half.

Even with this care, Cave 9 is scraping by as sort of an outsider youth arts venue and continues to struggle with its nominal monthly payment plan. "Unless, you have 'sponsored by the church of ... ' somewhere on your flyer or in the mission statement, it's usually not immediately liked," Aaron says, illustrating the local lay of the land.

I asked Aaron and other board members about the role the space played in youth political engagement locally or otherwise. "This isn't a space that is about proselytizing -- that is kept to a minimum. However we do have some left-related benefit events and some bands with left-leaning politics that express their views when they play. Really, though, this place is about respect and an emphasis on thinking for yourself," he says.

Board members later added that they had several voter registration drives in the space in conjunction with shows. In one month, they collected and mailed off over 100 voter registration forms.

The Culture of Cave 9: Best Friends Forever

At its inception, Cave 9 founders Aaron and Angelica Hankins wanted to establish a long-standing space in Birmingham that was open, inviting, and free from pretension and exclusivity.

I experienced this personally in the willingness of the three board members and slew of volunteers I met who took time to talk to me and tell me about future plans for Cave 9. As we held an informal meeting in the space before the show, younger show-goers were pulling up in cars. One mother with her children came up to the door and obviously knew the board members Will and Aaron, greeting them and asking what time she should come back. The friendliness with which Will and Aaron responded really stood out to me. I often think that nontraditional spaces for shows can be intimidating at first and serve as a gatekeeper that determines who has access to the venue.

When I asked questions about conflict, board members said there had been more conflict earlier on, but that now the members' roles were well-defined. Yet, having a tight-knit friend group running a community organization can pose problems in the long run. Aside from the challenges of working through interpersonal rifts amidst organizing, it can be hard to fit new people in. But Cave 9 has more self-awareness about inclusion of new blood than most indie spaces. The initial friend circle grew, and now the organization relies on 15 core volunteers that are dedicated to growing this community space.

"We have kids coming here starting as young as 14," Will says. "Some might come on a night where they don't necessarily even know the bands because they don't feel comfortable in other settings, maybe at school or at home, and this is a place where they are given permission to be themselves." He talked about kids over time meeting new people and forming their first bands with others they meet at the space.

Renee Clay, another board member, also mentioned that, when they started the space, often only five girls would be at a large show, and recently those numbers have risen. Because Clay plays such a strong role in the space's organization, girls see that women organize and run spaces, put on shows, play in bands and have a voice.

Given all of these community-oriented characteristics, it makes sense for Cave 9 to see itself as similar to other public charities. The nonprofit status has not only established a formal structure that has helped to institutionalize and sustain the organization longer than most DIY spaces but has also helped to legitimize Cave 9 as a part of the local arts community.

While Will noted that phrases such as nonprofit youth center might give people the impression that it was either religiously affiliated or boring, he claims it couldn't be further from what Cave 9 actually is. As images of audiences writhing, bands wailing, friends goofing off, and stencils being hung up as art and then covered up in a cleanup effort flash in the "We've Got Too Much Heart" documentary, volunteers explain how the value of Cave 9 can't be summed up in a nonprofit catch phrase. For young people under 21, it's important, because it's the only public, social place they've got. For some folks over 21, it's the only place that allows them to be a part of underground culture. For the woman who had never been to Cave 9 but sent in a $25 online donation anyway, it's an opportunity to support the next generation of local artists.

Katy Otto is the development director at Men Can Stop Rape. She runs her own independent record label, Exotic Fever Records, and has taught workshops on direct action around issues of violence against women, community response to sexual assault and animal abuse. She has been a member of Positive Force D.C. -- a punk activist collective promoting youth development in Washington, D.C. -- for the past decade, and contributes to the zine Give Me Back. She has toured the country several times, playing drums in her former band, Del Cielo, and now plays with the bands The Bow Shock and Problems.

Photographs by Jess Martin and Ryan Russell.