The Story of Death By Audio
(Documentary, Runtime: 1 hour 23 minutes, Director: Matthew Conboy, Starring: Oliver Ackermann, Edan Wilber, Matthew Conboy)
Matthew Conboy (left), Edan Wilber (center), Oliver Ackermann (right)
The documentary follows Oliver Ackerman, Edan Wilber, and Matthew Conboy during the final days of Death By Audio, the influential Brooklyn music venue they ran.
Start Your Own Fucking Show Space
The first half of the film is spent defining the importance of Death By Audio to the people who conceived and maintained it, as well as the greater community it affected. The warehouse space, located in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, NYC, was originally rented to house Oliver Ackermann’s Death By Audio guitar effects pedals company in 2007. To save money, he and a few friends would also live there. The warehouse was raggedy, but the deal with the landlord was that they wouldn’t complain about the condition of the building if he gave them complete freedom within the space.
To help offset the rent, Ackermann and the other tenants decided to start running shows. What was intended to be a short-lived, occasional thing, soon exploded because of the popularity of the events. Well-curated line-ups, eager audiences, and the intangible factors of “place” and “time” quickly jelled together to put Death By Audio (the venue) on the map.
Over the next seven years, bands like Ackermann’s A Place to Bury Strangers, Thee Oh Sees, Dirty Projectors, JEFF the Brotherhood, Future Islands, Pissed Jeans, and countless others played the tiny room. Artists began to show their work there. The guitar pedal business exploded with popularity. The surrounding community evolved from run-down and undesirable to a major cultural hub with national buzz.
Things were going pretty good, right? Wrong.
Enter Vice Media.
As the neighborhood expanded and developed, the once undesirable little warehouse soon represented a lucrative source of rental dollars for its owners. A deal was brokered. DBA was out and Vice Media was to occupy the space.
For the uninformed, Vice magazine was launched in Canada in 1994. It was designed to be a politically incorrect voice in media. Vice solidified its name by covering topics deemed inappropriate by other publications. “Deviant” sex, drug use, politics, and burgeoning culture were the subjects of the day. The magazine soon exploded into an empire that grossed over $1 billion in 2015. They are now partially own by monoliths such as Disney and Hearst. So, the voice that used to defend cultural movements like DBA, was now displacing it.
Oh, the irony…
The last half of the documentary focuses on the final shows before the closing of the music space, all while construction begins on Vice offices on the floors above them. This literally and figuratively brings Death By Audio to its knees.
I recently wrote a review of a Floco Torres show at It’s A Kling Thing!, a DIY space in Akron, Ohio. It had been a long time since I’d last attended a house gig. I’d forgotten how exciting, how important, they are. Grassroots shows are sometimes tumultuous, sometimes elicit, but always exciting. It allows people to stretch their wings and learn who they are as artists. Acts that are green or so sufficiently avant-garde that they might not be able to get booked in traditional venues are able to find bookings. Believe it or not, there are many acts who aren’t looking to ever play traditional venues. DIY spaces represent a place for art to develop unhindered and are essential to the cultural ecosystems of neighborhoods and cities.
The soul of the story is Edan Wilber. He was the sound engineer, talent booker, and overall Jack-of-all-trades at Death By Audio. The footage of him completely lost in the music during various performances is so fervently enthusiastic that it is inspiring. And the shots of him in tears during the final night of operation, as well as the day everyone moved out of the warehouse, are heartwrenching. The notion that there are still people around who pursue their passion just “because” is noble and galvanizing.
Culture isn’t what we are, it’s who we are. Our literature, art, and music not only help us deal with the realities of life but also provide us with inspiration, hope, and joy. It offers context and richness to the often mundane grind of daily existence. It allows us to connect on an intimate level. In some cases, it leads to immortality. The loss of spaces like Death By Audio isn’t the merely the loss of a decrepit warehouse, it’s the loss of ourselves.
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