Chicago’s DIY scene makes space for geniuses, freaks and weirdos

It's well past midnight on a broiling summer evening. The crowd at the Co-Prosperity Sphere, a long-standing DIY space operating on a faded stretch in the city's Bridgeport neighborhood, is in outfits that are barely there. And I'm stranded.

The door-person has vanished, and I've been dragooned into checking people in and handing out silkscreened bags made for the occasion. Behind me, a local band, TRS-80, is pounding, a swirl of electronica through the fog. There are too many people, too few bags and — wait, why am I doing this again? Ed Marszewski, the space's owner, ambles over to me with a drink in his hand, and says, "Fun, huh?"

It's a lesson in Chicago's DIY scene. There's a show every night in Chicago, regardless of the season. Under-the-radar concert spaces range from massive warehouses to old department stores (like the Co-Prosperity Sphere) to people's basements. Punk out and you'll miss the next cool thing. But it comes with a price: You will get involved.

Marszewski's space, commonly called the CoPro, is at the center of the action, and he has proven to be a man with a knack for getting people involved. One of the oldest continually-operated DIY spaces on the South Side (Heaven Gallery in Wicker Park is believed to be the oldest DIY space still standing), the CoPro lives in a gray area between public art and performance space, having occupied a series of buildings over a 25-year period before settling in its current home in 2006. "I've become The Man," he says wryly. "I'm now the jagoff I was making fun of 15 years ago!"  

A massive DIY network: "The neighbors probably didn't even know we were here in the beginning," Marszweski said. "But we were part of a wave of artist activities in this hood. There always had been art in Bridgeport — many of them lived on Morgan Street in storefronts — but since it was so dangerous, nobody noticed. That was a decade ago."

Co-Prosperity Sphere

CoPro currently programs art shows, concerts, readings, "happenings" and week-long festivals, and it is hardly alone. Chicago is riddled with speakeasies, loft parties, gallery shows and boutique concerts — a massive network of DIY spaces in that serves both a public hunger for music that isn't sated by the fare at local clubs and a private hunger for artistic live-work spaces.  

As it happens, two other spaces — the Learning Machine and Fat City — line the same stretch of road as the CoPro. Rancho Huevos and Archer Beach Haus, among others, are just a short walk to the north. Crossing the river brings another handful, and you can go on and on from there.

Countless musicians have cut their teeth at underground venues like the CoPro before "graduating" to the club circuit. Chance the Rapper played house parties before going on to book (and sell out) Sox Park this fall. Oozing Wound played nearly every DIY space in the city before inking with Thrill Jockey Records and hitting the road.

Fat City/Facebook

Personal space: A dizzying array of underground music continues to emerge from this Chicago scene, whipping from the tense electro of Dar Embarks, to the double-drummer psych-rock of OnYou, to the creepy feminist folk of Homme. Even country is finding its place in the basements.

"It really reflects the culture of music access, because we live in a culture now where people don't expect to have to pay for anything," local musician Lawrence Peters said, without a trace of bitterness. "Going to a club and paying $12 to see three bands is not as appealing anymore. The nice thing about DIY is they charge less, and the bands usually get more [money]."

Peters, who plays in three bands and holds his own yearly festival in Chicago, likens the DIY experience to the appeal of ride sharing services. "You're still paying like you're taking a cab," he said, "but there is an appeal because it feels more personal, and that's like how many of these spaces are."

But in a city known for its vibrant bar and club scene, one can't help but wonder why.

"I don't think there were spaces that could do this on a continuous basis — and if there was, they were culturally or financially out of reach," Logan Bay, who programs the CoPro with Marszewski, said. "In a bigger institutional space, you needed a longer runway to get things started. In a club or bar, you could interfere with their revenues even if they could charge a cover. So, having a space was kind of a grey area. Before the internet was as huge as it is now, a lot of these spaces could exist with less scrutiny and you kind of had to know people to get in the door."

"The whole point of running a space is to encourage experimentation and support artists who do amazing work," Marszewski said. "We're just lucky to be around these people — geniuses, freaks and weirdos — who basically make your quality of life awesome.

"But DIY spaces have a cycle," he added. "When we ran [Marszewski's earlier DIY venture] Buddy, we had a three-year lease and then the landlord kicked us out early. We just figured out that if we didn't buy [a space], we were always going to have to move. I remember telling people, 'Buy your space,' and everyone thought I was an a**hole."

As dicey as it can be for the people who run these spaces, the DIY experience can be a gamble for performers, as well. For example, Noah Leger, the drummer for Disappears and Electric Hawk, noted that while the spaces can be awesome, they come with challenges.

Faintlife performs at The Observatory Gallery.Instagram

"You'll get a contact at a space one month, and then by the time you can play, that person might be gone. These spaces are constantly changing hands," said Leger. "That said, there are places that have been happening for a really long time that are cool. The Observatory in Lincoln Park is incredible — except for the fact that it has eight flights of stairs, so it's the most brutal load-in in the city!

"[Camp Gay, which closed in 2005,] had a fire pole from the second floor down to where the bands played, so every now and again you'd be playing and someone would come flying down this pole," Leger said, listing off the venues his bands had played at. "There were spaces where, if your gear was too nice, it would blow all the power, and then the crazy art kids would be scrambling to get the show back on."

Leger recalled another space that was run by brothers who worked at a beer distributor. "They would just back a truck full of beer up to a loft and hold shows," he said. "I love it. I love how these spaces can be made into anything by the people who run them."

"I love it. I love how these spaces can be made into anything by the people who run them." —Noah Leger

Staying underground: But, like all underground scenes, Chicago's faces an uncertain future. DIY spaces have always been itinerant, constantly dodging exposure and complaints over noise and crowds. But in recent months some major underground venues were closed. And then there's a controversial new attempt by Cook County to tax live-music venues. Based on a judgment that rock shows and hip-hop concerts are not "fine art," thus exempting smaller venues from the 1.5% tax on gate revenue, the county is attempting to rake in "back taxes" from the clubs.

The crowd at the CoProCo-Prosperity Sphere

This has the DIY scene retrenching. A half-dozen venue organizers refused to speak at all for this article; others would only speak off the record. It's a far cry from just six months ago, when two well-known websites posted show listings at DIY venues in the city, and Eventbrite was crowded with solicitations for underground venues. Concerts have gone back to being more word-of-mouth, furtively advertised on Facebook pages with calls to DM requests for the address.

It's a familiar story. "Rents have gone up, and it is harder and harder to find a space big enough to accommodate bands where people can also live," Peters said. "It's not just DIY spaces, it's any space in this city. Nowadays, to open a bar, you have to have three or four partners just to do it — a guy to handle this permit, a person to handle another one — and then all the money it takes. It's just real hard to start something cool, legit, inexpensively now."

Bay agreed: "A lot of the alt-spaces up north have closed," he said. "No one is going to tolerate them because it is expensive up there. Even our presence here is something we have to think about because art is used to lubricate real estate deals and capitalism."

In fact, Marszewski and Bay — having pulled off the quixotic feat of securing an FM radio license and antenna for a new broadcast station at the space — are now in the process of receiving a Chicago Public Place of Amusement license for CoPro.

"The 'hood has changed, and there is a lot more activity here, and I think that more people are now paying attention to our activities," Marszweski said, deadpan in his delivery. "Someone who doesn't like us complained a lot and that's how we entered the byzantine system of Chicago business affairs."

Despite the recent hiccups, the DIY scene isn't going away. Finding underground shows can feel like chasing shadows, but it was obvious the shows would continue to go on. All it takes to run a space is a group of kids with some room and some moxie. Listings may have gone dark on social media, only talked about in whispers, but the talk is still there waiting to be found out.

"One of the kids you know will know where the shows are," Bay said with a smile.