State of the Scene: Oppressed in the Underground

Chris Stillmank | Issue 04

By Chris Stillmank

Chris Stillmank is one of the founders of The Batcave, a basement-run music venue whose ideals are entrenched in DIY ethics and inclusionary morals. In this issue’s State of the Scene, Stillmank gives some insight into what led to the creation of Montclair’s house performance space and the ideals that it runs on, as well as his latest answer to the problem of oppression within the music scene.

I have always been very deeply inspired by DIY ethics. The embodiment of DIY ethics, to me, is the opposition of oppression by respecting everyone and excluding no one. When deciding how The Batcave should operate and how I would go about presenting it, I have always tried to tie everything back to that. I think there is a lot of music that is disrespected and oppressed, music that is being made by people who I believe in their own way are disrespected and oppressed. Oppression is a vast and complex animal to deal with—nonetheless, I wanted to try standing in opposition to it. My dream has always been to create a place where people can gather and not feel disrespected or oppressed. And so The Batcave was born.

Community, music, creativity, ideas—these are things that have inspired me. I’ve always been passionate and driven, but everything I had been putting my efforts into previously just wasn’t making me happy. So I started asking myself questions about how I could get paid to listen to music, when I could start working for myself, and how I could take the skills that I have and apply them to the things that I love, and make a living doing that.

I have always come to crossroads like these, and very rarely have I had the courage to choose the thing that genuinely makes me happy. This time I chose music, and that choice has had a really powerful effect. Music, something that has played such an integral role in my life for so long, has been the driving force behind everything I’ve done this year. From the day I chose music, life has been really incredible but intensely weird.

To me, The Batcave was meant to be a place of freedom. It didn’t really have any rules, nor did it have any policies outside of things that were necessary to keep it going. If something came up that I believed might have threatened its existence, I made sure there was a way that the problem could be solved and allow everything to carry on as usual (e.g. no drinks outside, no smoking inside).

The reason this is important is because I wanted to make sure that The Batcave didn’t systematically oppress anyone’s ability to express themselves. At one show in particular, after having to tell someone who ended up being the drummer of that night’s headliner to stop drinking outside multiple times, I stood in the front door as this person raged on about not letting anyone tell you how to live or where to drink—rules ultimately restrict autonomy. I never wanted to have any real rules at The Batcave, but I did want it to maintain harmony.

Oppression is systemic. Despite trying to create a place of inclusion, the symptoms of the world we live in still leaked into the space I was trying to create. Music, to me, is an expression of the human experience. I listen to all types of music so that I can get a better understanding of that overall experience. This summer, I heard a lot musicians that made a lot of different kinds of music. But the message throughout was largely the same: we are oppressed. All of us.

We are oppressed by the intrinsic systems that define our relationships, the particular ways in which we define ourselves, and the manner in which we express ourselves. I am not an expert on all the different forms of oppression, but I do understand that they are vast and varied and are everywhere around us. I also know that I vehemently oppose them. But, because some types of oppression are systemic, they are not always made plain.

Ultimately, there are people who feel marginalized, oppressed, and disrespected by the operations of the Batcave. That makes me really upset, because that was exactly the opposite of my intention. In the aftermath of my encounter with the disorderly drummer, I have come to a new conclusion about the manner in which rules should be created. Earlier, I described DIY ethics as the opposition of oppression by excluding no one—I created the Batcave and didn’t create a list of “NOs” because I didn’t want people to come into the Batcave thinking about all the ways they couldn’t act or couldn’t be. Music was priority at The Batcave. The conversation I’d wanted us to begin with was music. Instead of making plain the things that are different about us, I wanted everyone to think about the things that were the same. People who came to the Batcave this year came there because they supported music.

My answer to this dilemma is All Sounds. For the time being, I can’t say too much about it because I’m still working hard with Adam to bring this thing into physical existence. I once read that you should never say you’re going to do something until you have already done it. That’s a hard rule to follow, but in this case I will. All I’ll say is that I’ve gathered up all the people and resources I have to make this idea a reality, and I ultimately want to bring All Sounds to The Batcave. I want it to be the Parthenon of music. The place where people can gather, meet, discuss, and listen to each other’s music. All Sounds is the culmination of what I’ve envisioned as the goal for The Batcave. And I couldn’t have done any of that without the help of my friends.

I’ve been sitting in my room thinking about what I have to say in the face of everything that’s happened in The Batcave and what I’ve learned running it. The biggest and most important thing that I learned is that you can’t do it yourself. Or at least, I couldn’t. The Batcave would not have been possible had a bunch of people not believed in me, had amazing bands not played here, had no one showed up, had discussions not taken place in the NJDIY group or had none of the million other factors come together. Ultimately, the only reason any of this happened is because all of you showed up. For New Jersey, DIY needs to change to DIT—do it together. We need to have a place where all of us in the music community can gather. If we are a real music community, then we need a real communal space. I’m just some guy who opened up his doors to his community. The Batcave was created by the people for the people. It taught me that you can’t make a difference by fighting what you oppose, but you can by supporting what you believe. My hope is that The Batcave has at least in part served that purpose, and that All Sounds can be an even better version of what we need to come together.

***

Feature Photo by Catalina Fragoso

This article first appeared in Issue 04