The loss of two Madison DIY spots illustrates a growing communal need

Truckers Atlas and Forward Living’s summer closures put the value of underground venues into greater perspective.
Three banners cut from flyers promoting shows at DIY music venue Truckers Atlas are stacked on top of each other. The middle banner says "Ford welcomes you to the Age of Truckers Atlas." The rest of the banners list various hand-drawn items on notepad paper: "BYOB," dates, door times, admission prices, and "Message for location."
Three flyers from DIY music venue Truckers Atlas are cut together.

Truckers Atlas and Forward Living’s summer closures put the value of underground venues into greater perspective.

DIY venues face the continuous threat of being shut down, so why would someone bother starting one up in the first place? To some, the risk is nonsensical and only seems to invite antagonistic scrutiny, fines, and difficulty. To others, the payoff is invaluable. Navigating the divide between the risk and the reward may cause an untold amount of stress and heartache, but when a DIY venue is functioning at its peak, its inherent power is unmatched. Those who have experienced DIY venues operating at that apex—basements and warehouses and other off-the-map spaces filled with community and under-served artists—wouldn’t trade those moments for much else.

Over a two-week span this summer, Madison lost two such places: Truckers Atlas and Forward Living. Both venues fulfilled different needs that Madison has, to varying extents, been neglecting. And that’s why DIYs exist to begin with. They are not explicitly profit-motivated, which provides a greater allowance to cater to individual taste and preference, empowering communities instead of reducing them to tools to prop up alcohol and ticket sales. This fills a deleterious gap in Madison’s infrastructure: Giving niche scenes and artists places to grow and thrive, which is something that doesn’t seem to be in the present interests of the city’s larger venues. Both Truckers Atlas and Forward Living met the needs of two distinct creative communities (skaters and musicians) that have a significant overlap. Now they’re both gone. And DIYs as a whole are under more duress than ever.

Trucking along

On June 22, Madison DIY venue Truckers Atlas announced via an Instagram post that it would no longer be hosting shows “Due to issues in the building that [the residents] don’t have any control over.” (This was eventually revealed to be a fire inspection.) Shows featuring New York City band Pons and Cleveland act Factual Brains were scheduled to take place at the venue on July 1 and July 4, respectively. Those shows were canceled as a result of the announcement. Truckers Atlas was set to host a number of shows that had not yet been publicly announced that have now either been rescheduled or canceled.

Truckers Atlas had been booking shows for over a year, in a space in an industrial pocket of Madison and outside the conventional economy of commercial venues and bars. The venue had hosted a number of excellent touring and local bands—from Proud Parents to MSPAINT—creating an impact that resonated on a noticeable level. (Several Madison musicians flooded Instagram stories with personal eulogies for the venue after the venue announced its own end.) The venue’s absence has already left a hole in Madison’s DIY booking landscape, but the nature of DIY venues is inextricably tied to impermanence. “Ask a punk” is a common phrase for a reason. Death knells are expected; it comes with the territory.

Truckers Atlas’ journey was not an uncommon one. For several decades, Madison has played host to a handful of incredible, largely short-lived, DIY spots (with some notable exceptions that have led a longer, more public existence). Too often, a DIY spot gains renown, experiences a quick ascension and establishes its presence as an underground go-to before being brought to an abrupt, unplanned end. There will always be a target on the back of DIY venues—whether from the cops, building inspectors, or pearl-clutching passersby—which is why it’s so important for local music communities to protect them.

While there was some initial concern that the fire inspection that ultimately led to Truckers Atlas’ decision to stop hosting shows was motivated by an external complaint, that does not appear to be the case.

In an exchange with Madison Fire Department’s Public Information Officer Cynthia Schuster, Tone Madison was given the following information: “MFD does not know of any use of property there as a music venue (legal or illegal), and property owners did not voice any concerns to MFD about such use. There have been no verbal or written orders by MFD to shut down or close due to illegal occupancy, nor have we referred any such concerns to another City agency.” Schuster adds that the fire department did conduct routine inspections in the area that contained Truckers Atlas. The inspection was not conducted as a result of any tips from the general public. 

One of Truckers Atlas’ “lost” shows featured a headlining set from beloved indie-folk songwriting veteran Jeffrey Lewis. That show was successfully relocated to another DIY venue and took place on July 22. It ranks among the most memorable—and memorably packed—shows I’ve seen in Madison. Lewis’ booking was one that spoke to an uncomfortable truth about the current state of Madison’s musical landscape: we seemingly no longer have the capacity to consistently support small-to-mid-size bookings of nationally emergent artists, despite having previously demonstrated the structural capability to do so. That Lewis’ booking (which would have turned out a solid crowd at a venue like The Frequency when it was operational) fell to a house show only demonstrates the elevated importance of Madison’s DIY spots.

Madison’s musical landscape—like many other minor and major markets—now largely runs through Live Nation and/or alcohol sales, which can occasionally complicate relationships with artists. At DIY venues, there’s a greater sense of like-minded collaboration and a palpable sincerity about honoring the music. The bills at these venues are curated with care and carried out with the best of intentions. There’s an ineffable magic to DIY-run shows that cannot be duplicated in more conventional bars and clubs. That magic exists primarily because of the hyper-personalized, triangulated relationship between audience, artist, and venue. All three are willing to accept substantial risk in the pursuit of celebrating music.

In and out of the public eye

Far more often than not, musicians are the ones running these venues. In the case of Truckers Atlas, the booking was being handled by Dear Mr. Watterson drummer and Friendly Spectres project leader Cam Scheller-Suitor, along with members of the band Interlay. That explicit relationship to music helps characterize what makes a successful DIY venue such an enticing prospect for both audiences and other musicians.

I have navigated all available ends of that relationship, as a resident, artist, or audience member. Over the past 15 years, I’ve spent time booking or helping organize a number of basement shows in Stevens Point and a few here in Madison. I have pitched in to make sure house shows in NYC went off successfully. I have also been in a number of bands that tended to greet basement show bookings with more excitement than bookings at significantly higher-capacity venues. I have celebrated and protected—and will continue to celebrate and protect—DIY venues and shows.

As a music community, we have a responsibility to do the same thing: celebrate and protect DIY venues. We shouldn’t risk the safety or sanctity of DIY venues by bringing unwanted or unwarranted behavior or attention to the venues. 

Interlay's Alexandria Ortgiesen performs at night in a white crop top. Her hair is in pigtails. Her eyes are closed as she sings into the microphone.
Interlay’s Alexandria Ortgiesen performs with the band at Forward Living’s farewell show.

That applies to the press, too, including Tone Madison. It can be an agonizing balance, wanting to cover some of the most fertile areas of local music, but not wanting to risk the premature shutdown of somewhere that has as much communal value as a place like Truckers Atlas. It’s the role of a journalist to inform people and expose things—including and sometimes especially things that certain people might not want exposed. Still, even the most conventional, down-the-middle views of journalism ethics call for reporters to minimize harm, balancing that with the other imperatives of the work. “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness,” the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics states. When it comes to a DIY venue, it can be hard to define “undue.”

Isthmus—to my judgment—erred on the wrong side of this divide 17 years ago, when one of its reporters offered up a litany of concrete details on the DIY venue Mierda Verde that ultimately led to its shutdown. The piece in question—which can be dredged up via a library card and the right searches in newspaper archive sites—was clumsily handled by both author and editor, and was needlessly intrusive as a result. A healthy portion of Madison’s music community penned scathing replies to the piece that were published in Isthmus‘ subsequent issue. Its breach was far-reaching enough that now, nearly two decades after its publishing, the piece remains a conversation point among local musicians.

Infernal Trench plays at DIY skatepark Forward Living. He's wearing sunglasses, a black tank top, black jean shorts, Toy Machine socks, and black shoes. He's playing a black guitar and singing into a microphone. In the upper right corner of the image, someone can be seen dropping in on their skateboard. In the background to his left, there is a person running sound.
Infernal Trench performs at Forward Living’s farewell show.

If you have a concern, it might be best to start by voicing it directly to the people responsible for running the venue. If the concern remains afterward, and is a legitimate present threat to the safety of bands, crowds, and/or the venue itself, then the matter of how to minimize harm becomes more complicated. DIY venues, far more often than not, will contain an element of precarious danger. It’s part of the social contract and, occasionally, the appeal. It’s also a result of the economic marginalization that pushes artists and musicians to the fringes in the first place. But no one should ever want those venues to be an active threat. Occasionally, if the condition of such a place hits a point of being untenable, that may be worth a public complaint. While it’s occasionally difficult to imagine the consequence of life-and-death being the scale, it’s not always outside the realm of possibility.

We generally don’t preview shows at DIY venues or mention them at all in Tone Madison’s coverage, unless the people operating them treat them as truly public-facing. Communication and trust are at the forefront of those discussions. That’s why you’ll see Tone Madison stories about avant-garde house venue Common Sage, the extensive history of shows at Nottingham Co-op, or the cozy basement institution Kiki’s House of Righteous Music. In 2018, we published Reid Kurkerewicz’s story about a short-lived venue in the former Smart Studios building on East Wash. By the time the story ran, city officials had already cracked down on the space. The history of the building and its then-owner made it newsworthy. Covering a place like Truckers Atlas requires more thought and nuance, and is best avoided until coverage doesn’t interfere with its ability to serve as a communal good. 

Despite having a presence on social media—where the line between public and private gets blurred—Truckers Atlas operated as a more “semi-hidden” gathering spot for a subset of the music community. And it was cherished by several in Madison’s music community for the way it was run.

Even though Truckers Atlas’ run was disappointingly truncated, the venue still managed to meaningfully contribute to a rich legacy of Madison’s DIY spots. Its impact was a galvanizing one for many. Myself included. And though bidding Truckers Atlas farewell still seems bittersweet, Scheller-Suitor struck an optimistic note in the comments of the Instagram announcement: “Madison DIY will live on. My hope is that truckers inspires others to carry on DIY in a way that is safe and encouraging. We’ll be alright.”  

Truckers Atlas was not the first Madison DIY venue. It is not the only Madison DIY venue. It will not be the last Madison DIY venue. It will be up to other existing and future DIYs to support the collective mantle. And Truckers Atlas was not the only popular DIY location to permanently wind down their activity this summer. 

Battling the grind

Forward Living—a DIY skateboarding spot that occasionally hosted live music—held a farewell show on July 3, less than two weeks after Truckers Atlas’ Instagram announcement. Interlay and Friendly Spectres both played the event. Interlay guitarist-vocalist Alexandria Ortgiesen and Scheller-Suitor are both part of a fairly substantial overlap between Madison’s skateboarding community and its faction of punk musicians. So is Forward Living keyholder, drummer, and Femme And Queer Skate Night co-founder Leon C. All three were in good spirits at Forward Living’s farewell party, and put their attention towards making the most of the event.

Those responsible for running and maintaining Forward Living were at least somewhat prepared for its final stretch of operation. On March 31, a large fire broke out at the complex where Forward Living was located. In a twist of good fortune, the fire didn’t physically impact Forward Living in an immediate sense, but did ultimately lead to the inspections and assessments that brought about its end. And with that end, the dissolution of Madison’s sole remaining indoor skatepark.

The bassist form Clean Room is in soft focus in the bottom left of the image. Skater Leon C. is looking expectantly out at Forward Living's park, waiting to drop in. To C.'s right side is a row of skateboarders, including Interlay's Alexandria Ortgiesen, also waiting to skate the park.
Leon C. and a row of skaters wait to drop in at Forward Living as Clean Room plays to their side.

In a message to Tone Madison, C. says: “Forward was a place us and our friends could skate indoors throughout the winter. It was also a place to experiment with non-hierarchical structures, co-creation, and community. I think it met the physical need of an indoor location, but also the need for a place to connect with others and encourage each other to build, create, skate.” C. continues, “I think DIY spots have value because they are empowering. They teach people how to take responsibility for a space and care for it and each other. It takes a lot of passion to make a DIY. Nobody was getting paid, just putting time and money into it. It is amazing to see what people create when working together. DIYs usually grow into being from an unmet need. We need an indoor skatepark in Madison badly. It’s really challenging with the cost of buildings.

“We were in a very small space under the radar. I would love to see what could happen if we got the opportunity to collaborate on a bigger space that served more of the community, like a public indoor community skatepark,” C adds. Madison’s skate community has been asking for an indoor park since the late ’00s, the last time one was regularly and publicly available. Forward Living filled that void to an extent, as did The Shred Shed (which has now been defunct for over a year), though both erred towards privacy out of necessity. Now, the need for an indoor park is more severe than ever, which underscores C.’s point about DIY spots arising out of a desire to fill unmet needs.

As with dedicated DIY music venues, there is a distinct cultural and historical awareness embedded into the fabric of DIY skateboarding spots. The people running them know from experience what’s missing, what could be done better, and the medium it’s designed to support.

Ortgiesen is one of many to have direct ties to both Madison DIY music and Madison DIY skateboarding. In an exchange with Tone Madison following the Forward Living farewell show about the shuttering of both Forward Living and Truckers Atlas, Ortgiesen notes: “I think it’s really sad and fucked up, my introduction to Madison music and skateboarding came from these really diverse and inclusive spaces that prioritized representation, acceptance, and change. Kids who are coming into Madison now have no opportunities in the way I did. Leon [C.], for example, always really made sure that the environment at Forward promoted queer and femme and black joy and prioritized community. We were really impacted by that and prioritized the same at Truckers Atlas.

“Now all that’s really left in Madison is FPC venues that prioritize profits,” she continues, referring to local Live Nation subsidiary FPC Live’s outsize influence on Madison’s music booking landscape. “It was really cool and special to be a part of these spaces that made sure people felt welcome, made sure bands got paid, put together bills that were diverse. We put our money and our time into community and efforts for abortion rights and queer acceptance and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the local music scene, and we both got shut down. It’s demoralizing. It feels like the city doesn’t care at all. Why would they? It wasn’t profitable. It speaks to a larger issue. But it was really formative and I hope other young people moving into Madison see the problems and advocate for change as hard as we did. I don’t feel hopeful that will happen, because the infrastructure and the gentrification doesn’t seem to be in our favor. But I want to be hopeful.”

Community vs. gentrification and consolidation

Forward Living and Truckers Atlas were both committed to molding the world into a more inclusive, welcoming place. That’s a common throughline among Madison DIY spots, past and present, regardless of their core focus. Yet the concerns of rent rises and authorities shutting things down are profound and real. Madison’s astronomically ascendant rent is already making it hard for artists and arts spaces to hold on. High-profile, high-profit development opportunities are threatening the existence and security of existing arts-focused spaces at higher rates.

Those same problems (rent, city ordinances, and their relationship to each other), while worsening, aren’t new battlegrounds for DIY. The Vault, a former DIY spot that still gets referenced today, was an underground music venue around the time Forward Living’s past iteration—The DustBowl—was operational. While The DustBowl wound up undertaking a short relocation to be more code-compliant several years ago (which is a key part of what led to Forward Living’s emergence), The Vault eventually disappeared with minimal warning, but had its legacy folded into Forward Living’s ability to continue hosting live music in that area.

Local musician, quad skater, and journalist Emily Mills (who occasionally contributes to Tone Madison) is someone who cherished The Vault, The DustBowl, and Forward Living. Mills is one among many who has been a direct eyewitness to the difficulty facing Madison’s tenuous infrastructure of music and arts spaces. We talked at Forward Living’s farewell show and caught up again at a recent Femme And Queer Skate Night to discuss the history of Forward Living, and the looming complications for Madison’s arts scene.

Friendly Spectres bandleader Cam Scheller-Suitor sings into a microphone that he's gripping with his right hand. He's wearing a lightly cropped black tank top and black athletic shorts. A row of skaters can be seen sitting on the edges of the park to his side.
Friendly Spectres performs at Forward Living’s farewell show.

“I got to play some underground punk shows at the DIY venue that was called The Vault, it was actually in the lower level of where Forward Living was,” Mills recalls. “And it was a real loose collective of people with keys and we’d throw shows there. You had to go across the alley to the other building, the one that burned down, to use the bathroom. An old webseries I was a part of called Chapel also filmed an episode in The DustBowl, which was the underground skatepark in the building that burned down. It wasn’t in there by the time it burned down, but it was in there for a little while. It was a cool space. We filmed a couple episodes. We filmed a fight scene with skateboarders and everything.

“Getting to be, minorly, a part of those spaces and seeing what people could put together—the only reason those were there was because they were cheap places because they didn’t have fire suppression,” Mills continues. “All the artists were there, those were the only affordable spaces left in town. And they shouldn’t be unsafe, right? But that’s it. That’s all you’ve got available to you. So seeing over the years that I’ve been here—for 23 years—we’ll keep losing any kinds of affordable spaces. And you’ll get pushed further and further into the margins, and then seeing Forward Living get pushed out… I’m glad that [Forward Living’s] area is going to get development that it needs. And housing. I think that’s really important. But you look at Madison’s housing costs around here and everything is skyrocketing.”

Mills’ frustration stems from the one-two of gentrification and the control a monolithic force has established in Madison’s music scene. “Nothing’s actually affordable for what people are making anymore,” she says. “So you’re pushing out your artists, your creatives. And skaters are a part of that. Skaters skate, which I think is creative in itself, and they build their own skateparks. There’s art around it, there’s music around it. The music scene around here, we have very few independent venues anymore, because everything’s owned by LiveNation and TicketMaster. It’s hard to get gigs at places like that, or want to play gigs at places like that. Madison prides itself on having this vibrant, creative community that makes a ton of money for the city and draws in people. We tout it in all kinds of stories. But no one who does it is going to be able to afford to live and work here and do those creative things.”

Mickey Sunshine's Shelby Len, Skylar Nahn, and Andrea Gonzales-Paul are all visible in the bottom third of the image, performing at Forward Living. To their side, two skaters stand, waiting for an opportune moment to skate the park.
Mickey Sunshine performs at Forward Living’s farewell show.

At the same time, Mills acknowledges that while there have been efforts to reinvest in local arts spaces, against the scale the arts community is up against, those wins only go so far. “Because we’re not being mindful of what kind of spaces exist and are available to people,” Mills says. “There’s a little bit here and there where people are trying to do things. And I know the art studios on Winnebago, they redid those. They brought in some of those artists again and I think that’s great. It’s not enough. So many people I know are getting pushed out entirely. Priced out and pushed out. I know people who don’t even have a place to live. I know someone who helps build these skateparks, part of Forward Living, is having a hard time finding a place to live. A pillar of the fucking community. Because it’s too expensive or there’s nothing left, or it’s too unsafe.”

Scheller-Suitor, Ortgiesen, C., and Mills are all musicians. They all skate. They all have direct lines of insight to the complex, invaluable impact of DIY spots that accommodate creative expression. When speaking with any of them, it’s hard to miss the palpable fondness they held for these places. Being able to shape and celebrate those spaces will likely be something they hold onto for the rest of their lives. But right now, those spaces are more jeopardized than ever. Unless something drastic changes to swing the pendulum back in favor of local creatives and creative spaces, the loss of Truckers Atlas and Forward Living may be more than just the end of individual eras.

For now, as a community, we should celebrate what those spaces were able to accomplish. And then we need to get to work on figuring out new pathways to create and sustain their successors. It won’t be easy, but given the authentic connections and excitement that Truckers Atlas and Forward Living were able to foster, the efforts could pay unimaginable dividends. 

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