924 Gilman has been a community-run venue for music lovers of all ages to enjoy and be a part of since its establishment in 1986. The organization that operates it considers itself to be a “multi-generational independent collective,” according to their website. Many well known bands, such as Green Day, Operation Ivy and The Offspring played some of their first shows there. Despite the combined success of these bands and others, the West Berkeley music venue has been run by volunteers as a non-profit organization since the beginning. Thanks to supportive community efforts and its reputation for hosting talented musicians, The Gilman has been able to continue operating, and volunteers there express optimism for the organization’s future.
The corner of Eighth and Gilman in West Berkeley is the home of the Alternative Music Foundation, more commonly known as The Gilman, or by the address, 924 Gilman. When I walked into the front door, the first thing I saw was a sign asserting the rules of the club: No racism, sexism, homophobia, alcohol, drugs, fighting or stagediving. I was greeted by some delightful punk youths who were eager to inform me of the club’s membership policy. After stamping my wrist, I entered the venue. The room itself isn’t very special, but it is interesting to gaze at the black walls which are covered with colorful stickers and graffitti. Every inch of the room has been painted, scratched on or sharpied by the patrons at one point or another. The only seats inside are a couch in the back and a few chairs and a table for the merchandise booth. Tonight, the volunteers at The Gilman are friendly and happy to be there. Each of the volunteers I interviewed was glad to give me their perspectives on their favorite Berkeley music venue.
Despite the optimism held by volunteers, there are threats and obstacles on the horizon. The shifting economic landscape in West Berkeley has been stressful for some volunteers at the venue. “I think that the neighborhood is definitely changing economically to a point where it’s not viable for a grassroots organization like us to remain open every week,” said Otto Christianson, who has volunteered at 924 Gilman for over three years. Because of gentrification in the area, he worries for the future of The Gilman. “It’s rapidly changing. There’s more money that is going to be flowing into the neighborhood, and that’s money that we can’t really compete with.”
Like any non-profit, fundraising is a major issue for the Gilman. The organization has had a long term goal of raising money to buy the building, which is becoming more and more difficult as gentrification ensues and housing prices increase. “Buying the building is probably the biggest issue,” according to Lev Jaramillo, another three-year volunteer. “Even an old warehouse like this on the corner, developers could swoop in and put a hundred apartments or something.” The Gilman’s fundraising board is always busy behind the scenes keeping the venue afloat. “We write grant proposals, those come in every once in a while. We sell membership; you have to buy a membership to get in and all that money goes to the venue,” says Jaramillo. The memberships are only $2 a year and allow patrons to attend a monthly democratic meeting which addresses issues regarding the club. Everyone who attends a show at the Gilman must become a member.
At present, it does not look like The Gilman will purchase the building any time soon. Although originally a punk establishment, those at The Gilman work hard just to keep the lights on. “I did see somewhere the rough yearly operating costs, and it’s like, they make like $300 more a year than it takes to keep the place open. I mean, it’s just the skin of their teeth; it’s just a bunch of goofy ragtag punk kids, but there are a lot of clear eyed, disciplined, passionate people who make sure that everything that needs to happen is happening when and where it needs to happen.” says Eric, a long time Gilman volunteer who declined to give his last name for privacy.
Veteran volunteers at 924 Gilman face a changing local culture associated with the economic changes in the area. “I would also say that the music variety has definitely gone down since I have started coming, because pop punk, indie and melodic hardcore are really popular right now, especially amongst the younger crowd,” said Jaramillo, recalling how the variety of music has shifted over recent years. “Our bookers definitely pursue bands, a lot of bands call in trying to get booked, but we’ve got all sorts of music here. All sorts of different punk, metal, we’ve got hip hop shows every once in a while.” “The gentrification might affect [variety]. There are a lot of hipsters coming here,” says Ayana Sueshi-Hague, who has volunteered at 924 Gilman for over a year. “We have a lot less of the music I would personally enjoy. I don’t know, I’m a bit jaded. We’re glad to have you here, we would just also want, you know, more grindcore shows,” says Jaramillo.
The Gilman does not discriminate based on musical genre. In fact, the venue does not tend to discriminate at all. This has landed the venue in trouble with its own community in the past, with long-time members boycotting The Gilman for the bands they chose to book. “Well, some bookers and staff were booking bands that weren’t so — I don’t like to say immoral — but had done some rather immoral things, and people were getting frustrated, and then Fang got booked, and that was sort of the fly on the elephants back,” says Jaramillo. The community outrage following the booking was not unfounded. “[Fang’s] singer killed his girlfriend. Yeah, he went to jail for it, he got out, he made some apologies, and they kept playing, and they got booked here. So that kind of drove a lot of people away, a lot of bands, a lot of people quit, but now we’ve got a whole new crew of bookers, we’ve vetted bands a lot more … There’s a lot more conscious effort into making sure the bands we book are, you know, not assholes. We’ve had almost no problems with bands since I’ve been here, besides the boycott,” says Jaramillo.
The Gilman has proven to be a vital community resource for many who feel at home in the Berkeley punk music scene. On the rainy night I visited, the bands playing were the jazz duo Rice Kings as well as the four-piece rock band Copy Slut. Each volunteer has their own reasons for being there that night. “To be quite honest, my impetus tonight was that I’m homeless as fuck, and this is a place where I can be warm and get WiFi … And, if I’m lucky, I’ll hear a band I like,” says Eric, while working the back door. “I’ve always felt welcome. Even if I show up in a baseball cap sideways and baggy pants, or if I show up with just long hair … I never felt like I don’t belong here.”
For some, volunteering at The Gilman has been a learning opportunity. Many of the volunteers are young adults who can benefit from the experience, and leave The Gilman as stronger leaders and more mature adults. “In the beginning of my involvement here, I started out as this irresponsible punk, just doing my own thing, leaving and coming back, but lately, in the last couple years I’ve taken on a sort of administrative role … Basically I think that The Gilman has helped me become a more mature, responsible person, and I have gotten sort of deeply involved with the organization, so it has kind of shaped my adolescence more or less,” says Christianson.
For others, volunteering is a great way to make friends and be a part of a welcoming community.
“All my friends [volunteer] too, So I just thought, oh, I’ll make more friends volunteering here. And I did,” says Sueshi-Hague.
“I came to a couple shows, and it was cool but I didn’t want to spend all my money. I was fifteen, but I found out I could sweep at the end and get in free, so I started volunteering,” says Jaramillo. That’s right, if you want to see cool free shows, all you need to do is come down to The Gilman and make some friends while you’re at it.
However if you don’t feel like sweeping up after, shows are typically $5-10 at the door plus a $2 annual membership fee. You can go online at http://www.924gilman.org to see the upcoming shows, or pay them a visit just two blocks below San Pablo on Gilman Street any weekend night around 7 p.m. and be pleasantly surprised. If you want to donate to the Gilman, you can find their fundraising website at http://www.helpgilman.org.