Q&A: Nick Owen on how the Democracy Center is using lockdown to reconnect with its values
As a self-proclaimed 21st century meetinghouse, Harvard Square’s Democracy Center is a refuge for artists, families, students and organizers. It’s also a bright spot in the Cambridge music scene. But as other venues rushed to live stream shows during the coronavirus lockdown – and the center does offer artists opportunities to broadcast performances from its space – the center instead focused on its own mission, acknowledging that its vision is a work in progress and using the time to reevaluate what being a pillar of the community means for when it’s back to booking live shows.
Its policies already look out for vulnerable populations, beyond just taking precautions to keep concertgoers safe from physical violence: The center has worked to reduce emotional harm to show attendees, prevent drug- and alcohol-fueled incidents, remove financial barriers and improve venue accessibility. Nick Owen, of The Democracy Center’s in-house Showbooking Collective, spoke about attempts to revolutionize live music culture by prioritizing the safety and comfort of concertgoers. This conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.
The DC’s website says you’re still closed for coronavirus.
Yes, we hosted our last show pre-Covid in early March. We had a great mix of benefit shows lined up for the summer and a few touring bands slated to come through, but the pandemic put that on pause.
What does being a “21st century meetinghouse” mean in terms of a music venue?
It means ideally having a space for new ideas to be expressed and experienced by people, where the focus is music and not drinking; I have played shows in other places where it feels like a college party and the focus is not on music. Additionally, it means connecting artistic expression with causes, which is why the majority of our shows are benefits for local organizations. It also means having shows be places of germination for community.
How is your environment set up to counter the atmosphere at nearby venues such as The Middle East, where allegations of sexual assault may intimidate concertgoers?
We encourage bookers to work with artists who are not always heard in punk/indie circles. We also make an announcement at the beginning of shows to express the importance of respecting one another. I think the presence of organizations tabling and speaking during the shows is part of this, as well as doing our best to hold each other accountable.
You have a strict policy against drugs and alcohol. Has that been a barrier to booking musicians?
People tend to be understanding. I think a lot of people enjoy having the option to go to a space for a show where people aren’t drinking – I personally do.
The DC’s goal is to be an inclusive and supportive space, and everyone who attends or plays a show is asked to be conscious of their language. Does that zero-tolerance of racist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, ableist or otherwise oppressive attitudes extend to the types of music allowed at the venue?
We try our best to make sure that artists are in line with our mission statement, and we aim to make each show a welcoming and enjoyable space. We’ve hosted a wide range since I got involved a few years ago – hardcore punk, indie rock, experimental hip-hop, spoken word, noise and more.
Your concertgoer policy states that no one is turned away from a show due to inability to pay. Is it true anyone can see a show regardless of financial circumstances? As ticket prices skyrocket at larger venues, do you plan to keep this policy in place?
Yes, it is true. We just collect a suggested cash donation at the door. It’s an important thing to do, and it’s pretty wild that we’ve been able to. I don’t think we have any plans to change it.
I notice The DC is only partially wheelchair accessible, which is out of line with your mission statement. It looks like that issue is being addressed though, correct?
It is being addressed, from what I understand. It is out-of-line with the mission statement, so it’s important that we try to be creative with solutions and honest with people about that so everyone is aware.
How are disabled artists accommodated in the space, given these constraints?
We ask bookers to state the partially accessible status of The DC on flyers and event pages. The restaurant next door also allows people to use their wheelchair-accessible bathroom. We set up the equipment for shows with an area sectioned off so that anyone who needs to can access the adjacent ramp. If someone brings something to our attention, we work to solve the problem. Like creating a safer space, this too is an ongoing process.
Do you think there can be a completely safe space in live music? If not, what does a realistic safe space look like?
It’s something that we strive toward with each show. I would also hope that people can come to shows and carry the goal of respecting all people with them.
How do you think venue owners and operators can help create a safer live music scene?
I think venue owners and workers can treat each artist with respect. During shows, there can be point-people that attendees can talk to if there’s an issue. Being honest, accountable and respectful are three ideals. It’s certainly an ongoing process, though.