Goodnight Brooklyn: The Life and Death of a DIY venue in Brooklyn

During its brief but intense years in Williamsburg, Death by Audio built a name for itself as an iconic underground music venue, hosting performances by the likes of Ty Segall, Deerhoof, Thee Oh Sees, and Dan Deacon. In 2014, Vice Media moved in, putting the dream to an end, but fortunately a documentary has risen from the ashes: Goodnight Brooklyn – The Story of Death by Audio commemorates the end of an era.

In 2007, Matt Conboy rented out the entire floor of a warehouse in Williamsburg, where he and his roommates put on underground rock shows to pay the rent. Thus, Death by Audio was born. The venue also held exhibitions and provided a workspace for visual artists and musicians. In 2014, the eleven roommates were shocked to learn that their home was soon to be taken over by Vice Media. Producer Amanda Schultz, Cinematographer Jonathan Yi, Editor Andrew Ratzlaff and a big camera crew joined forces to create Goodnight Brooklyn – The Story of Death by Audio, which premiered on March 14 at the SXSW festival. Below, Matt Conboy, Death by Audio’s founder, talks with us about New York’s music scene and the story of his project.

How would you describe the spirit of Death by Audio?

There was a period when you could find everything you needed to produce a song here. You could make it all at Death by Audio, from recording the song, to making the album cover, to playing the record release show. The DIY spirit then was about freedom, opportunity and mutual inspiration. The only thing between you and creating something was hard work and finding inspiration. And in addition to all that, we were living there!

How did Death By Audio evolve over the years?

Over the years, we earned quite a reputation. People would seek us out and we had visitors from the West Coast and all over the world. Edan Wilber [Death by Audio’s General Manager] made a point of finding new and interesting music and was tireless in trying to convince the bands to come and perform at Death by Audio. He really cared about the music. The bands that performed there tended toward rock, but very broadly. There were also jazz and classical shows occasionally. We even had a chamber orchestra and a guy playing some kind of classical guitar they don’t make anymore.

What was the music scene like in Brooklyn at the time?

From 1999/2000 to 2008 there was a really thriving community of experimental rock music happening around Williamsburg. Bands like Animal Collective, Tv on the Radio, The Liars or Yeah Yeah Yeahs had some success. The music aimed at being interesting rather than popular. When we started Death by Audio, there were a dozen or more similar places in Brooklyn. All of them had a DIY spirit, so we were just one of many DIY venues.

Why did you decide to make this documentary?

Our landlord told us we’d have to move out because Vice was moving in. I told my producer [Amanda Schultz] the whole story and she said we should do something about it. She was insistent, so we really threw ourselves into this project. The photographer, John, an old college friend, brought a few other people on. We did so many interviews, the recording studio turned into a recording booth for the documentary.

How has Brooklyn’s music scene evolved since Death By Audio closed?

It’s interesting. Most of the venues are in Bushwick and Ridgewood now. It’s a little more complicated there because those neighborhoods are more crowded, whereas Death by Audio was in an abandoned space off the beaten path. There are only a handful of underground venues in NYC now, and more legitimate music venues. In terms of musicians and artists, Brooklyn is not a haven for the arts like it used to be, because it’s more expensive to live there now. And underground music now is more electronic and synth-based. But you know, it’s always changing.

Is there a future for Death by Audio?

I have a ‘normal’ life now and live in an apartment with my girlfriend. But it’s possible. It would have to be the right space and situation. We wouldn’t want to disturb people. But who knows? And if in 20 years our documentary happens to inspire people, that would be great, but it’s really hard to tell right now.