Illustration by Caetano Santos.
Illustration by Caetano Santos.

A couch is pushed against the wall, amplifiers are hooked up and a guitarist plugs in. This is the scene of a house with rugged walls that will soon rattle with reverb and hum with hushed voices. The beating epicenter coming from the Santa Cruz home goes unchecked until local law enforcement launches into action.

Despite a recent amendment, the Santa Cruz noise ordinance is forcing independent musicians to channel their creative forces into constructing a network of noncommercial venues and homes, where Do-It-Yourself (D.I.Y.) can flourish without being encumbered by commercial ties or municipal restrictions.

“My ultimate goal is to have a sustained community of people who put on shows, people who play shows and people who go to shows in a local setting that can operate within the confines of the Do-It-Yourself [music scene],” said Eli, a member of a Santa Cruz household that puts on at least one D.I.Y. show a week. He asked his full name and address to not be listed here for privacy reasons.

D.I.Y. shows have been a staple in underground music culture since punk rock hit the airwaves in the ‘70s. D.I.Y. creates an alternative to consumer trends by independently recording, manufacturing albums and merchandise, often booking tours in residential or noncommercial venues.

A breaker to the local D.I.Y. circuit is the Santa Cruz sound ordinance #9.36.010, legislation passed in 1980 which requires all “offensive noise” to cease from 10:00 p.m. until 8 a.m. the following morning. The ordinance allows the Santa Cruz Police Department to cite noncommercial venues for noise violations, often a step toward their complete shut down.

“Essentially you can’t have any noise that would disturb other people within 100 feet of your residence,” said Officer John Bush, a 15 year veteran of the Santa Cruz Police Department. “There’s also a separate ordinance for [issuing citations for] offensive noise during the day, depending if you’re doing constructive noise that’s offensive to somebody… or if somebody’s got a loud band and they’re playing next door in the middle of the day.”

Last October, a federal judge threw out a portion of the ordinance that was ruled to be too vague “to pass constitutional muster.” Although this narrowed the prohibition from “all offensive noise” to all unreasonably disturbing and physically annoying noises, neighbors can still end a house show with a phone call to the authorities.

“That’s the biggest thing we have to fight against, ducking around the sound ordinance. Creativity through censorship, that’s all it is,” said local D.I.Y. show promoter Nick Bane and owner of Santa Cruz production company BaneShows, which has garnered a huge following in Santa Cruz’s D.I.Y. scene.

Because of the enforced ordinance, the life expectancy for noncommercial venues is short, and the D.I.Y. circuit thrives in obscurity.

“Some people have houses that are secluded enough that nobody knows a show is going on,” said Mike Connor, a former writer on the Santa Cruz music scene for Metro Santa Cruz. “Others simply cram mattresses over their windows and keep the doors shut.”

For most D.I.Y. acts in Santa Cruz, only a scattering of renovated warehouses and residential venues comprise the framework for supporting DIY shows. Bane said an advantage to these venues is they confer great artistic freedom on bands, along with the ability to reap the rewards of self-promoting and producing.

“There’s no one making money off your back anymore … it’s crazy, I’m booking some of the biggest bands ever, but I’m still going to put them in that spot, where you’re no bigger than the audience, you’re going to be playing with the audience,” Bane said.

However, the size of the audience often presents more of a problem than a band’s inflated ego. City council member Don Lane said the city worries about larger unlicensed venues going unchecked, especially in light of recent events like the nightclub fire in Santa Maria, Brazil on Jan. 27, which killed over 230 people.

“I know that’s not common,” Lane said. “But if you’re going to have a big crowd in a warehouse, do you have a fire safety system or good exits? The city will pay more attention to those [unlicensed venues] and they won’t just let that go casually.”

Within the last decade, larger venues have increasingly dominated the local music scene by following city guidelines which often come at high cost, including proper sound insulation and safety measures to accommodate large crowds. Although the D.I.Y. scene has thrived in Santa Cruz for as long as Connor can remember, a decade ago many Santa Cruz locals were still looking to commercial music venues like the Attic and the Blue Lagoon for live, independent music. However, Lane said if a building isn’t containing its sound, local law enforcement has probable cause to investigate whether or not these regulations are being met.

“Whether it’s a very innovative musician or an old-fashioned marching band, if they’re too loud, then they’re too loud, and the city has to enforce that equally,” Lane said.

As a result, many local, smaller venues are unable to afford staying in Santa Cruz’s commercial districts. The remaining behemoths like the Catalyst and the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium have a greater financial incentive to book big bands with established followings in the community.

“In this system, lesser-known bands – and sometimes entire genres of music – are left in the lurch,” Connor said.

With the disappearance of Santa Cruz’s formerly diverse collection of performance spaces, D.I.Y. promoters like Bane have to often work with the few large licensed venues left unaffected by the ordinance to avoid fines.

“There were like, fifteen venues in Santa Cruz, all down Pacific Avenue … I grew up in that, but then all the venues started shutting down, you know, sound ordinance,” Bane said.” It sucks, because every light post in town had a flyer on it. That’s how you knew about shows. Imagine how beautiful this town was!”

Despite an overbearing municipal government, D.I.Y. musicians and promoters band together in a network of house venues and practice spaces to support the independent music community. Although seasoned D.I.Y.ers welcome the curious participant, they still endeavor to keep their scene under wraps. Flyers are selectively posted in punk-friendly spaces like SubRosa, a local Anarchist community space, and many shows are promoted exclusively through word of mouth. This cautionary approach prevents overcrowding at the houses, a factor that show organizers like Eli take into account to avoid citation.

Although many of the touring bands draw crowds of up to 80 people into Eli’s living room, many D.I.Y. bands typically lose money on tours and don’t receive the financial support necessary in traveling long distances. D.I.Y. promoters keep these bands afloat by not only providing a spot on their playbills, but a bed and a warm meal as well.

“You get to be a big fan of these really cool, if not local, smaller bands from other states, like this band [Good Luck] is from Indiana,” Eli said. He remembers seeing Good Luck in San Jose at a venue called House of the Dead Rat and being the only person there.

“I’ve seen bands that have come from New York and no one’s come to see them… but those are fun in their own way, like, these people came from far away to play a show for my housemates,” Eli said. “We’ll contribute to them even if no one comes. Even just with a place to stay, and dinner and stuff.”

D.I.Y. promoters and musicians like Bane and Eli organize and play shows with the hope of sharing music with a larger audience, regardless of monetary gain or loss. Bands go on tour, Eli said, with the intention to produce new, better material on a D.I.Y. platform, both in-house and online.

“Put your record online [on a D.I.Y. platform like Bandcamp] for free,” Eli said. “If someone sees a flyer for a show here, or ends up at a show here, and they see a band they like, 99% of the time they can go and find the album online.”

Guided by D.I.Y. principles, commercial success does not have to be the be-all end-all to a band’s creative authenticity. Although they have frequented the Catalyst since their rise to fame, Bay Area conscious-rap duo Zion I is no stranger to the thriving underground of local independent music, having gotten their start rapping and producing in local ciphers in the early 90’s. To strengthen the autonomy of independent music, they still uphold their original D.I.Y. tenets by producing their own merchandise and albums on their own label.

“We maintain and sustain the idea that you can be who you are, do it independently, and successfully doing what you love to do. You don’t have to cave in to commercial interests or pop sensibility,” said MC Zumbi of Zion I.

Zumbi holds that independent music is best served following the canon of D.I.Y. “You have to be active, dropping music, giving out free stuff, interacting with your fans directly.”

When asked about Zion I’s musical evolution into commercial success, he said, “It’s still the same thing, it’s always been the same music. It brings people together, it makes people feel things emotionally, and it tells a story of being a human being.”