Taking a Stand: Avant-Garde Musicians Come Together

Organizing Matters

Volume CVII, No. 6June, 2007

Marisa Friedman

Click for larger image.
Activist and performer Paul Bartlett protest the closing of Tonic, the last avant-garde music venue of its kind. Next to Tonic stands the Blue Condominium, the latest sign of gentrification to hit the neighborhood. Photo by Barbara Celis.

After nine years, the Lower East Side’s last large venue for experimental music, Tonic, closed on April 13. But the musicians who played there did not let Tonic go away quietly. Instead, they organized a concert and demonstration the day after the club’s official shuttering.

The event and subsequent press conference attracted the support of City Councilmember Alan Gerson, who represents the Lower East Side. He says he will propose legislation that would provide property tax abatements for music venues.

At the farewell concert, dozens of performers – including Nora Balaban, Rebecca Moore, Butch Morris, Jim Pugliese, Marc Ribot and Matthew Shipp – played to well over a hundred fans, even as movers were dismantling the stage.

The demonstration culminated with the arrests of Moore and Ribot for trespassing after they refused to leave once the police ordered everyone out. The police were considerate enough, however, to let Ribot finish playing the classic labor anthem “Bread and Roses” before arresting him and Moore.

The song was a good choice. Its name comes from the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Mass. Workers came up with the slogan: “We want bread – and roses too!” In other words, it’s not enough to have the basic scraps of existence – we also need beauty and culture.

Even as demonstrators acknowledged that they couldn’t save Tonic, they wanted to draw attention to the numerous music venues – including CBGB, Sin-é, Fez, the Continental and Luna Lounge – that have closed in the past few years because of rising rental costs.

Tonic was one the last venues in the city with a capacity above 90, presenting concerts on a nightly basis. It was also the only such venue to pay musicians 75 percent of the door.


Click for larger image.
802 member Rebecca Moore was arrested for protesting the closure of Tonic. Photo by Barbara Celis.

In addition to being members of Local 802, Moore and Ribot are members of TakeItToTheBridge, a federation of avant-garde and experimental musicians and their supporters, which organized the rally.

On the group’s Web site – – Moore writes that the closing of Tonic “is not just about the loss of one more music space … it is about all the theatres, galleries and performance spaces we have lost already and will continue to lose.”

And for Moore, Tonic’s closing was an even more personal one, as she has lived a few blocks away from Tonic for years.

New York City has a long history in avant-garde music, but the closure of these venues deprives musicians not only of their income but also of places to display their talent.

This means that these musicians that tour in Europe – where music venues, including jazz, are greatly subsidized by the governments – may no longer be able to perform there for lack of visibility here.

So, the indie scene in New York is in danger of collapsing along with the closure of local venues.

As Ribot points out, “It is both culturally barbarous and economically short-sighted that the internationally and critically recognized value of this music should be without an adequate showcase in its place of birth.”

Even if Tonic reincarnates in another borough – say, Brooklyn – musicians fear that the lack of passersby will ultimately mean fewer paying customers.


The musicians are requesting that the city intervene to protect its cultural and musical heritage.

To that end, there is a petition on requesting that the city provide “funding sufficient to allow [venues] to withstand the explosion of commercial rents, or legislation forcing landlords to restrict rents of culturally valuable venues.”

Organizers also demand that the city “make available a comparably sized and centrally located space” for experimental new music.

As Allegro goes to press, 1,569 people have signed.

Local 802 lent its support to the musicians. The Organizing Department was out in force at the April 14 rally, and Harvey Mars, one of 802’s lawyers, has donated legal representation to Ribot and Moore, who have to return to court. (See Mars’s “Legal Corner” column in this issue.)