In celebration of Independent Venue Week, running from July 12-18, Consequence asked the initiative’s official Artist Ambassador, Bartees Strange, to share his thoughts on how formative independent venues have been to his career. He also discusses returning to the stage after a year without live music, and the importance of safeguarding hubs of arts and culture. Read his op-ed, which has been lightly edited for clarity, below.
You can also help support independent venues by picking up one of our Protect Live Music shirts. Proceeds benefit NIVA (the National Independent Venue Association).
I grew up in Mustang, Oklahoma, right outside of Oklahoma City. We didn’t have venues or places to catch shows outside of church when I was coming up. And to be completely honest, there weren’t many huge shows that came through Oklahoma at that time that really caught my interest. The moments that meant most were sweating it out in venue parking lots, or in the back of thrift stores, watching my friends play.
These shows became a bigger and bigger deal to me as I got older and realized what was happening around me. I began to realize that these venues were my new church, they became a pseudo-sanctuary. I could be myself. I could choose who I wanted to be around. And I could begin to see a new world of possibilities upheld by venues, staff, and locals who just wanted to be part of something real.
As I got older and started making friends who could drive, smaller places that would host bands became the only place we could find other people like “us” from across the state. These places are where I saw my first deep cut favorites, and began to think more about trying to make things myself. Places like Bad Granny’s Bazaar, The Conservatory, The Opolis — these places became my home away from home.
I met John Calvin Abney, Samantha Crain, and Mike Hosty at these shows. Some of these artists are still close friends, and artistically have influenced me immensely. I’m [now] 32 years old, and I still remember watching John Calvin play the Deli in Norman, Oklahoma and have men twice his age bawling their eyes out, hooting and hollering. I don’t know if I would have seen something so powerful had Big Red Cup night not existed.
I think experiences like those go straight to the core of why independent venues are increasingly important. Not only did they give me people to look up to and support, but these venues also helped me begin to see where I fit in. When I moved to DC and eventually to New York, spots like Bushwick Public House, Muchmores, The Footlight, and the Silent Barn became the places I found myself as an artist. I began to realize that all of the people I looked up to were a lot more like me than I realized. I went from a fan, in awe, to a person on stage. Over the years, those experiences helped me find myself offstage, too. These places and the magic they hold are truly powerful things.
As we come out of the last year of being shuttered away, I want to remind everyone of how important these places are. Not just as places to see a show. Independent venues are where people realize that they can be more than themselves. They can be part of something larger. I always compare these places to churches, because in my heart I feel like they have major similarities. Like-minded folks, coming together to feel something real, to remember that we’re all a lot more alike than we’re different.
That’s something I feel like we should all hold close as we crawl out of our little shells and visit these places again. I feel lucky to be this year’s Independent Venue Week artist ambassador. I’m so grateful for the new attention and new fans I’ve gained in the last year. But I’m most grateful to the places and people who keep this little world of music turning. See you all very soon.