This guide will always be a work in progress. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with suggested additions or changes. This guide is cursory in nature, and individual points will be expanded as separate articles.
Parties are hard to keep safe, and bad things can happen to them at any time. Last year’s Ghost Ship tragedy in Oakland is — if we do it right from here on out — the most stark reminder of this simple fact we’ll get in our lifetimes.
In the wake of that stunning tragedy, a lot of the official talk around the event focused on how Ghost Ship was an illegal show space. It wasn’t up to code, it wasn’t zoned for living and performance, etc etc. And a lot of us in the scene had a tight feeling in our chests for weeks after, muttering to each other “this could have happened in the space we were in last night.”
And that’s true. What makes the underground music scene beautiful is that it thrives in the face of the fact that conventional structures in society don’t account for us and what we make. It’s called home by people who couldn’t rightfully call any other setting home, and is a haven for art outside of structures of fads, arbitrary norms, or capital.
At the same time, finding this alternative way beautiful is really and truly just finding beauty in marginalization. We are left to fend for ourselves and when it all burns down, we’re met with finger wagging, lawsuits, and 4chan vigilantes. It led to one of those moments when we realized that because we improvise an alternative way of life, we don’t have the clearest ideas on how to really make it safe or sustainable.
It’s another flash of harsh reality, like when we find out about serial predators the complicit let roam, or about the drugs killing our brightest or youngest. These bad things happen in our scene. They destroy people, they strain the mesh of this stressed net that holds out communities up. They can happen any time and in fact they happen often.
This is an important point. The worst thing you can imagine is always around the corner. So we must be prepared.
On the topic of fires, there was one at the current Silent Barn in Brooklyn back in 2015. Silent Barn was zoned for performance, up to code, and insured. Those compliances didn’t stop an electrical fire from taking the upstairs apartments, nor the torrents of water sprayed by the firefighters from incurring substantial water damage.
But good fire safety practices prevented that fire from turning into a disaster and robust community support helped the Barn bounce back. We can and should treat all threats to the well-being of our family members in the underground music scene as preventable, while being versed in how to deal with crises when they inevitably arise.
What follows is a list of links, resources, and thoughts on running a safe party space. This is by no means the official rulebook for running a safe party and should be a launching point for your own research and conversations with collaborators about the shows you’re involved with. It will be added to whenever something relevant comes along.
Fire Safety In Venues
THUMP did a great run-down last March on some key points for fire safety and accessibility. Start there and then research anything that is relevant to your situation.
Read up on DoDIY.org
DoDIY.org put together an amazing comprehensive Google Doc for DIY venue harm reduction. The “ACTIONS TO TAKE – FOR VENUES & PROMOTORS” section has a lot of particularly keen, actionable points. Here are a few links from the “RESOURCES” section that are particularly excellent:
- A Guide To Fire Safety in Industrial Venues
- Event Safety Tips: Electronic Music Alliance
- Creating More Accessible Events
- What To Do Instead of Calling the Police
- Come Hell or High Water: A Handbook on Collective Processes Gone Awry
If you are running the venue, always remember you have a right as a tenant to a safe building. You have an obligation to your guests to enforce this right through your landlord.
Talk to your landlord about the electrical work. Your landlord knows how old the wiring is and what kind of shape it’s in. If you’re just moving into a new place, make sure your landlord is bringing in electricians to inspect old wiring beforehand. If you have anything fishy happen with your electrical at all, get in touch with your landlord and make sure they do something about it.
Read your lease and your city’s or state’s building and fire codes. Again, this is for dealing with your landlord. Do some specific research about features of your venue that may be vulnerable, such as a roof space that you let people smoke or gather on. Pay attention to the parts about fire code, and if possible work to abide by the codes for places of public assembly. Here are fire or building codes for some states and major cities:
- New York City
Consider hiring a professional and deduct costs from your rent. If your landlord won’t bring in an the electrician, you should. Do it before your first show at your new venue. Save the receipts and send a copy to your landlord to give proof about what you’re deducting from your rent that month. Many states have tenant’s rights laws allowing for this. With that said, contact a local tenants’ rights organization before you undertake this process to make sure that it’s a legally protected move in your city, as well as to perform every part of this process correctly. Expect to have an unhappy landlord.
Seek tenant’s rights counseling if landlord is non-compliant. HUD has some resources, but you’ll have to do some Googling on this one yourself since there are so many law firms out there. There are tenant’s rights layers working pro bono just about everywhere.
If you are playing or attending a gig:
- Note all the exits.
- Alert people running the show if anything seems off.
- Follow up with the venue or promotors if you think you witnessed some electrical incident, such as strange PA behavior, damaged gear, or sparking.
Medical and Drug Safety at Your Party
Be comfortable with first aid. Of course, this means have a first aid kit around. Knowing first aid doesn’t hurt either. Be aware that some legal liability comes with administering CPR, especially if you don’t have an active certification.
Know how to handle someone who’s too drunk. That includes laying them down in their side if they need to fall asleep. This article on Go Ask Alice covers the topic well.
Know best practices for psychedelic harm reduction. MAPS is doing amazing work building out resources for helping people through bad drug experiences at music events, usually EDM festivals. That said, their guidelines for psychedelic harm reduction apply to all scenarios and are essential reads for anyone running a music event. Start with their training manual.
Have Naloxone on hand. This was mentioned in that THUMP article but it bears repeating. It’s sold as a nasal spray under the brand name Narcan and can be purchased in just about any drug store. Here’s how to administer it:
Preventing Sexual Assault
Know bystander intervention protocol.
RAINN has fantastic, accessible resources on this.
- Your Role in Preventing Sexual Assault
- Steps You Can Take to Prevent Sexual Assault
- Help Someone You Care About
The New York Department of Health has a very useful PDF with plenty of links too.
Inform your attendees about consent and bystander intervention.
Have some literature available as handouts or hung on the walls in highly trafficked areas. Have someone give a talk between sets. Quiz people paying at the door with a question or two about best practices.
Chicago’s F12 has a great selection of literature for this exact purpose.
Use your venue to host a forum or workshop.
A sure way to establish your space as one where people can feel safe from sexual violence is to do the work to prevent it in your community. Get those conversations started.
Chicago’s F12 has also designed curricula for such workshops.
Be honest about the assaulters and abusers in your scene.
Believe the stories you’re told and act on them. If someone tells you they were assaulted by a person or views a person as a threat, do not ignore that. Your responsibility as a scene builder is to keep the community healthy, diverse, and engaged. None of those goals can be accomplished if known abusers are given as pass because they’re friends or influencers. For a great article on this phenomenon, check out Baltimore City Paper.
Exclude known abusers and assaulters who are not actively seeking third party help. Do not invite them to play your shows. Do not organize events with them. Do not borrow gear from them or hit them up for favors. It’s ok if they’re your friends. If you want to be a real friend, push them to get better. Acting as an enabler means you directly are putting others in danger. You inaction puts others in danger.
Not sure how to confront an abuser? Here’s one set of guidelines for holding people accountable.
Have you been assaulted and are seeking a therapist?
RAINN has a great guide for that.