If You Don’t Have A Space Like Death By Audio, Start One
I remember the cold on the night of November 22, 2014. The line to get in to Death By Audio was unusually long; it snaked around the block with people huddled together for warmth, invigorated by the collective hope that they’d have a chance to say goodbye. It was the beloved DIY space’s last night ever, and the Williamsburg waterfront wind had never felt more bitter, or more relevant. I watched this scene unfold again in the opening seconds of Goodnight Brooklyn, the film that documents Death By Audio’s final days, and it was like watching a reel of my own memories. I couldn’t escape the familiar faces of friends, or nostalgia for the many shows I attended there (some of which included bands I’ve since shared a stage with). I quickly realized that my story is a Death By Audio fairy tale — and it’s not the only one.
Goodnight Brooklyn, directed by Matthew Conboy, charts the entire seven-year history of 49 South 2nd Street, from its chaotic beginnings as a pedal-making studio and ad hoc art space to its blossoming as a successful underground music venue. But mostly, the film is about the people who made it all happen. Conboy was there from the very start, as were Jason Amos, Oliver Ackermann of A Place to Bury Strangers, and later, Edan Wilber, who started out working the door and eventually ended up running the place. “We were looking for a place to make as much noise as we wanted to,” Ackermann recalls. The name “Death By Audio” came from the pedal company, but if there’s anything I remember most clearly about my favorite spot to see music, it’s the sheer loudness of the place. (“This film should be played loud,” viewers are advised in the doc’s opening credits.)
Death By Audio wasn’t just home to the people who worked there, but also to the bands it welcomed with open arms: Thee Oh Sees, Protomartyr, Jeff the Brotherhood, Future Islands, Deerhoof, and Ty Segall were just some of DBA’s regular acts. The film’s vivid concert footage is transportive: The sense of community and camaraderie that Death By Audio fostered becomes, once again, entirely tangible.
“How can you claim to be a cultural entity and want to shut down these places?” Segall pleads around the film’s halfway mark. And yet that’s precisely how Death By Audio met its demise — in a cruel twist of fate, all thanks to a brand that had initially supported and heralded the space.
When Vice Media started buying up real estate in Williamsburg, no one, especially not Conboy, felt the need to panic. “It sounded like the perfect fit,” he shrugs in the film. In a 2013 article, Vice’s music site Noisey called Death By Audio “our favorite live music venue in Brooklyn.” Then Vice bought up the building that housed Death By Audio for its new headquarters, forcing the musicians to leave. In fall 2014, as the final run of shows began, “Fuck Vice” became a frequent slogan — it was scribbled onto walls, depicted in art, and realized fully as fans shredded their copies of Vice Magazine to bits.
The film’s most touching moment arrives as Edan Wilber recounts the friendships and memories he collected while living and working at Death By Audio. “I’m so much more wealthy in so many ways than those people will ever be,” he says, choking back tears. Ultimately, there’s far more joy than sadness to be found in the story of Death By Audio, and the many spaces like it. The notion of DIY — experiencing and creating art for yourself and your friends, without anyone else’s permission — continues to exist long after the places themselves are shut down. When a building is demolished, the values and ideas that flourished inside are passed on from artist to artist, friend to friend. The conversations around preserving DIY spaces feel even more important now after Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire, in which 36 people lost their lives. How do we safely support and sustain our artistic communities? We keep talking about them, for starters. We keep the discussion open, even when the doors around us close.
I remember the smell inside Death By Audio. The sounds, the sweat, the graffiti in the bathrooms, the ringing in our ears that lasted for days. Every space that meant something to someone leaves a legacy behind, and Goodnight Brooklyn is a reminder that art can exist anywhere, at any time. The film ends with a message: “Every great city has a space like DBA. If yours doesn’t, you should start one.” It's the sort of sentiment that finally gives the tale of Death By Audio a happy ending.