DIY (Do It Yourself) music and art venue Unit-E is situated on the second story of a nondescript building on the corner of 12th Avenue and Santa Fe Drive in Denver. The far off sound of bass and a low din are the only signs announcing its existence from the street. After spotting those clues, go around back to the alleyway, look for the tour buses and cigarette smoke, climb the fire escape-style stairs, ignore the dentist office sign and enter Unit-E.
The thing that is so striking about the place upon first inspection is how clean it is. The bathroom, while covered in graffiti, isn’t smeared with the indescribable filth which always seems to permeate the surfaces of most DIY type venues. It’s a new breed of venue, like the recently opened Seventh Circle Music Collective, that toes the line between traditional and experimental.
On my first visit to Unit-E, a pre-party for the Blacktop Music Festival was taking place. One of the major players in the management of Unit-E and prior occupant Thadeaus Mighell and the venue’s booker and Rubedo bassist Gregg Ziemba sat down and talked with me about Unit-E and DIY’s past and exciting future.
The point of the DIY movement has always been to avoid paying lots of money to create great art, thereby putting the power of creation back into the hands of the people. Originating in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it began with the emergence of early anarchic punk rock like the Sex Pistols and Dead Kennedys, which was associated heavily with an anti-consumerist ideology. Since then the DIY ethic has expanded from punk to all types of experimental music, and even to different forms of art like guerrilla filmmaking.
With newer technology like the internet, digital cameras and computers, DIY has been able to translate into other art scenes such as film and photography. Artists and bands are now able to produce and market themselves without outside help. DIY is no longer underground, and it is becoming a baseline for anyone intent on creating, despite the absence of financial means.
The original ethic continues to this day, but its essential underground quality is beginning to fade with multi-purpose venues such as Unit-E at the forefront. Everything from art shows to free yoga classes are now held there on a daily basis. Mighell gestured to the stage and explained that just a week prior, it had been a totally different setup for a fashion show.
Mighell strongly believes in the necessity of DIY venues like Unit-E.
“For certain types of genres, there’s just not a good stepping stone to get up to where they’re self sufficient,” Mighell said. “To that, everyone standing around listening nodded in agreement. For most people involved, the appeal of DIY is the combination of the necessity of an outlet for varied art, an exhaustion with the current media structures and a community of like-minded people.”
From there, Mighell moved on to discussing the Blacktop Festival which was taking place that Saturday. The Festival started out in exemplary DIY fashion: everyone involved was going to learn to crochet and sell their products to raise money for the Festival. Reality set in, according to Mighell, when they were only able to raise about $100. What saved the endeavor and made it stand out from other DIY festivals was the involvement of the Denver theater district. Then Ugave (a soda company), Subculture (a sandwich shop) and Belco Credit Union put their support behind the event.
It’s difficult to nail down why something like a credit union would get involved with the more experimental side of the performing arts, but Mighell gave some insight on this anomaly.
“Advertising traditionally doesn’t work anymore for kids [of] our age group so people’ve started hosting events instead,” Mighell said.
This is the paradigm shift, the act of watching the underground scene poke its head above ground. And it all ties back into what Unit-E is in its essence. Along with Seventh Circle, it is making Denver DIY a legitimate base for smaller bands, introducing them to a wider audience than the typical minority interested in a more radical side of the music.
It’s still maintaining that “house party environment,” said Unit-E frequent Ryan Pearlman, but it’s also doing major things traditionally thought to be out of the grasp of DIY and underground.