In 2007, a small Brooklyn-based effects pedal manufacturer opened its warehouse doors and began inviting bands to play shows in the space. Around the corner from the newly opened Glasslands, the block was otherwise uninhabited, the abandoned hulk of the Domino Sugar Factory the only thing obstructing quiet, twinkling views of the New York City skyline as seen from Kent Avenue. Death by Audio was not the first venue of its kind; its operations blueprint was drawn from the DIY model upon which basement parties and loft shows flourished, but did it on a scale that was slightly more accessible, and grown straight out of a community of bands that already practiced there, already used DBA pedals. The all-inclusive domain name for the space’s events page said it best: entertainment for everyone.
That’s exactly what Death by Audio offered: rowdy punk bands, experimental noise and drone acts, electropop that bordered on performance art. In that way, it acted as an important cultural incubator for the diverse sounds that would come to typify Brooklyn’s music scene. Along with existing spaces like Monster Island Basement and Silent Barn, DBA provided a framework for DIY venues to come, from Market Hotel to Shea Stadium to the much-lamented 285 Kent, which operated on the same block and closed last January. Many venues, DIY or otherwise, have come and gone while DBA endured. On Saturday night, Providence noise-rockers Lightning Bolt, longtime supporters of the DBA collective, were the last band to ever grace its low wooden stage before the venue closed its doors to make way for “counterculture” media conglomerate Vice, which purchased the 60,000-square-foot building that housed DBA.
Throughout its last week, a top-secret show schedule saw acts like Thee Oh Sees, Future Islands, and Ty Segall return to Death by Audio, with fans and friends of the space lined up around the block to get in. The adjunct spaces surrounding DBA’s main showspace were open to the public, with hand-built arcade games populating a smoky, cement-bricked interstitial area, opening up to a bi-level space where people literally hung out in a huge cargo net; this was where a number of Brooklyn-based musicians once made their homes. A hallway was turned into an art gallery, with an exhilarating photo wall capturing some of DBA’s best moments. That the founders and patrons and residents of this collective put so much heart into the venue’s closing — from carefully curating the final bills to inviting Brooklyn into their actual homes and studios — was indicative of the kind of venue Death by Audio was: Even when it was running on fumes financially, its enthusiasm and welcoming spirit were boundless.
On its final weekend, the mood was more celebratory than anything. There was a sense something important had been built within Death by Audio’s walls that no one would be able to dismantle. On Friday, Metz headlined a raucous bill that included Detroit’s Protomartyr, newly minted Memphis garage supergroup Nots, and DBA fixtures Sleepies, whose bassist, Josh, worked at the venue. As expected, things got pretty wily, with Metz frontman Alex Edkins tearing tiles from the drop ceiling and flinging them into the crowd, and a reminder that come next week, we’d all be someplace, but it wouldn’t be Death by Audio. It left a lot of conjecture open as to whether or not DBA would still be standing after Saturday’s final show. As it turned out, mostly industry folks and friends of the space populated its final hours. Only 80 people were let in at the door; some who had been in line as early as 5:30 p.m. were turned away (though that was partly due to the bulk of latecomers skipping the line to stand with earlybird friends). A hired crew worked the door so everyone affiliated with DBA could have this last night off to get a little wild.
As expected, Grooms went on first. They were one of the first bands to release an LP, 2009’s Rejoicer, on Death by Audio’s imprint (it would later be re-released by Kanine). Vocalist Travis Johnson introduced the band, saying, “We’re Grooms, you’re beautiful, and this space is beautiful. Let’s make sure it stays that way when Edan hands over the keys tomorrow.” He was referring to Edan Wilber, who managed the showspace with Matt Conboy and ran sound for nearly every show at DBA, often Instagramming in real time from his board. It was also a warning not to tear the place to pieces, as Edkins had attempted to do the night before. Bassist Emily Ambruso lived at Death by Audio and said she’d practiced in the space since it opened, effectively seeing the entire life of her band pass inside its walls.
Nashville’s JEFF the Brotherhood played next, their psych-infused garage punk spooling into riff-heavy jams. The crowd-surfing, at this point, was like watching the Olympics; stage-divers mimicked swimming motions and did flips atop the crowd, no small feat in the low-ceilinged space. While A Place to Bury Strangers fine-tuned an elaborate stage setup, the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to Oliver Ackermann, the band’s vocalist and founder of Death by Audio’s effects pedal company. Then the lights went out, and APTBS’s ear-shattering noise-rock/shoegaze hybrid came blaring through the speakers, a cloud of fog obscuring all but outlines of the trio in the flashing strobes. The strobes went surfing, too, hoisted above the crowd’s heads and passed about for the last few songs of the fervent set.
Lightning Bolt finished things off. Drummer and masked vocalist Brian Chippendale expressed some disbelief at being asked to be the final band to play at DBA. “Where do you go with that?” he kept asking, his rapid-fire attack on his kit stirring an already excited crowd to its max. A DBA regular in a banana costume started the circle pit, but it was Chippendale who started chants of “Hashtag Fuck Vice” while someone threw stacks of the magazine into the crowd during the first of two encores. It wasn’t long before people began shredding their pages, littering the floor with scraps of Do’s and Don’ts. During the previous night’s shenanigans it seemed like the venue itself was in danger of destruction, but instead the last attendees of Death by Audio destroyed the thing that was seemingly destroying what they loved. In the hallway, someone had restored a previously painted-over “artwork” with a “Fuck You” to Vice CEO Shane Smith, who has a reported net worth of $400 million.
Wilber is not worth $400 million, but when he left his soundbooth for the last time it was as a hero, crowd-surfing all around the room during Lightning Bolt’s final songs. No one who built Death by Audio into what it became, no one who worked there or played there or rehearsed there or lived there or made art there is worth that kind of money. But for a pretty wide swath of Brooklynites, they’re worth something that Vice can’t appropriate or monetize. When Vice opens its own Red Bull- or Converse-sponsored venue in the space that was once 285 Kent, Glasslands, and Death by Audio, know there was once a time when real people, not faceless corporations, were responsible for giving music enthusiasts some of the best memories of their lives. Brooklyn’s live music scene will find a way to thrive in farther- and farther-flung places, but that, too, will be thanks to Death by Audio paving the way, doing DIY how it should be done forever and ever.