A new collective looks to rebuild an all-ages music scene 

The number of big-name shows at the Top Hat and the Wilma, plus upcoming summer concerts at the Big Sky and Kettlehouse amphitheaters, gives the impression that Missoula is rich with music. But when it comes to smaller independent DIY acts—such as local and touring punk, noise, lo-fi rock and anti-folk bands—things have been looking a little grim lately. In the last few months, some prominent downtown venues have closed: Stage 112 and the Real Lounge, both located inside the Elks Lodge, are no longer booking bands, and the Palace Lounge, a long-time space for underground shows, is being turned into an arcade bar featuring pool and other games.

This has happened before, and each time the DIY music landscape starts looking thin, a couple of things happen: First, people freak out about it. Second, they do something about it. Recently, a group of local band bookers took action in light of the recent closures. They formed a collective called the Basement Fund and, on Friday, April 28, they signed an agreement with the Zootown Arts Community Center. The collective includes Foster Caffrey, co-founder of the Camp Daze music festival; Ryan D'avid Carr, a former booker at the VFW; and Alexander and Grace Lindgren, who book shows at the Joe Below, an all-ages venue in the basement of Zootown Brew. The agreement allows the collective to take full control of booking the ZACC basement, which has served as a live music space over the years, but hasn't consistently hosted shows.

"By paying a monthly rent, we'll be able to have more shows there," Caffrey says. "And then, in turn, be able to pay less for the space per show and make sure touring and local bands will be able to get more money and just have more shows and more exposure."

The focus of the Basement Fund is all-ages shows not hosted in bars.

"I think the people that show up to all-ages, non-bar shows, they're there strictly to see music," Caffrey says. "They're paying money, and they know they're paying money for a band specifically."

The collective is planning to start shows as early as 7 p.m. and end them around 11. Part of the reason is that a lot of all-ages venues require early shows as a matter of policy, but the benefit is that kids and people who need to get up early in the morning (people with families and jobs and age-induced intolerance for shows starting at 10 p.m.) are much more likely to attend.

"And if you want to go get a beer afterward, there's a lot of options to do that" somewhere else, Caffrey says.

The collective will also continue booking shows at the Joe Below and Free Cycles, and scoping out alternative venues around town. And though they're now the primary bookers at the ZACC, they are open to letting outside bookers host shows there, too.

"I am excited for the future of all-ages music in Missoula," says Kia Liszak, the ZACC's executive director. "I think this group embraces the principles and values of the space, and consistent leadership will help the space blossom as a venue."

click to enlarge Cairns performed at Free Cycles for a recent fundraiser to get a community PA system. - PHOTO BY AMY DONOVAN
  • photo by Amy Donovan
  • Cairns performed at Free Cycles for a recent fundraiser to get a community PA system.

For the last two decades, Missoula has almost always had at least one bar where fans could see punk or garage-style bands—the kind that don't fill up the Top Hat. For many years there was a rock club called Jay's Upstairs and, more recently, the VFW. Over the past five years, the VFW had become a tight-knit space for rowdy or experimental late-night music acts, but the current board is looking to make some changes in the types of shows it hosts. Longtime VFW bookers Marty Hill, of Minor Bird Records, and Carr have both left in the last couple of months. (Carr is hosting one more show there.) Clinton Decker, the VFW's newly elected Jr. Vice Commander, says the bar will still be doing its Thursday night band residencies (where each month a new band curates the shows) and host live music on Friday and Saturday nights, but the venue will be looking for more acoustic acts and bands that appeal to some of the bar's older customers.

Right now, Monk's Bar is one of the only places left where you can drink and see DIY acts. Shawna Lee, who recently stopped booking at Stage 112 and the Real Lounge after the Elks Lodge board voted to do away with live music, says the overhead for staff and sound can be too much for a venue that doesn't pack in a crowd. "I'm booking independently now," she says. "So far, all the shows are at Monk's. I'm buying shows that mean something to me. Music is important to me. I'm not willing to quit doing it yet."

On a recent Saturday evening, the day after they signed the agreement, the Basement Fund hosted a fundraiser at Free Cycles featuring local bands Cairns, Fantasy Suite and Pender. They raised $500 for a community PA system, which they will use to present shows at the ZACC and at the other all-ages venues in Missoula. They're also starting an online fundraiser through Patreon by which people can donate as little as $5 a month to the Basement Fund to keep the organization going, and in return get stickers, buttons and art from local artists.

All the Basement Fund bookers have exciting shows on the horizon: PWR BTTM, Tisper, Free Cake for Every Creature, Adult Mom and Pinegrove, to name a few, along with the three-day independent summer music festival Camp Daze.

Lately, Caffrey has been printing up a monthly shows newsletter—1990s zine-style—which he leaves around town for people to pick up. It's a pre-internet throwback that seems perfectly apt for the current climate. The music scene is always in flux. As it was in the 1990s, and every few years since, when bands find themselves short of places to play, they make it happen.

"We have a great amount of local bands right now," Caffrey says. "And the venues might be weird, but there's still so many good acts to see if we can get younger kids interested in going to shows, forming bands, putting on their own shows—that's the end goal."

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