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UCLA graduate student creates open venue for experimental music artists

By Kathalia Wong/ Daily Bruin

By Katy Nicholas

Nov. 26, 2023 1:50 p.m.

This post was updated Nov. 30 at 7:44 p.m. 

Dakota Higgins is making the DMV the spot to be.

The graduate student in fine arts co-founded Departure from Music Venue(s), a small music venue in Commerce, California, that typically puts on a monthly show highlighting underrepresented experimental artists. He said the organization is more of an idea than a physical venue, designing creative spaces and communities for artists to challenge the boundaries of music. Because Higgins finds the celebration of music more important than the traditional venues musicians use, he said that he named the organization Departure from Music Venue(s).

“Music, especially experimental music, is usually a side thing or a piece of programming that is supposed to enhance the experience of whatever the main event is,” Higgins said. “I wanted to make a place where the sole purpose was to listen to this kind of music.”

Although there are many singer-songwriters and rap artists who use the DMV as a space to share their music, Higgins said the DMV was originally created to host experimental music, which consists of music that does not have lyrics or a set composition. It can be improvisational, and he said this music consists only of sounds that would normally not be considered music at all.

[Related: ‘Growth, community and creation’: UCLA student fosters change in music industry]

Experimental displays of music at the DMV consist of everything from a jazz death-metal band to a group dressed as aliens performing to a saxophone serenade, Higgins said. There was once a performance where the musician performed a solo guitar set but did not play the guitar at all, he added. Rather, Higgins said the musician strapped bungee cords and contact microphones to his body, and he even used a saw at one point to make sounds. Higgins said these are the methods of music-making that he wants to pay the most attention to, as they require the most audience interpretation.

“More free versions of music create, at least for me, a more active and present listening space, specifically because there isn’t a way to know what’s about to happen,” Higgins said. “I think there’s spiritual, intellectual and emotional value to being able to be in spaces where that is the condition of listening.”

For Higgins, it is important that the performers are a part of the larger DMV community. Higgins said he rarely says no to musicians who reach out to him, often inviting them to the venue, though not all follow through. While many of the acts are already familiar faces at shows, he said he invites performers to bring two or three other acts to create an element of surprise – even for himself as the director of the event.

Brandon Smith, a friend and longtime supporter of the DMV, said the DMV is a melting pot of people and talent. He said the performers range from soloists to large ensembles, and each night has a substantial lineup of acts. Smith added that since the creation of the DMV in February 2022, the crowd size has increased, and he referred to the DMV community as a family.

[Related: Q&A: Comedian Kyle Gordon creates character-filled parody album]

Higgins said in the early days of the DMV, his friend Nour Mobarak was a source of inspiration because of her exposure to experimental music. Mobarak said she used to tell Higgins about her as a young noise musician living in Los Angeles. She said she told him how formative DIY venues in other cities were to her career, but there were not many inexpensive, open venues like those in LA. Higgins said he realized that the large industrial buildings in Commerce, like his studio, cleared out after the work day, which gave him the opportunity to create an experimental scene. Mobarak said she found these spaces to be important opportunities to expand an artist’s music.

“It’s important for there to be spaces where people can experiment and not make art for a profit,” Mobarak said. “That’s why a place like the DMV is so great, because it’s a place where ideas can cook.”

While the DMV currently does not profit from its events, Higgins said he is working toward getting grants to finance the production to improve quality and pay the artists for performing. As for the venue itself, although it may move in the future, Higgins said it is the community and mission that makes the DMV what it is.

“I keep using the term community, but it’s really the most appropriate term,” Higgins said. “It’s noncompetitive. It’s also free. Everyone who’s there is only there because they want to be. … I’ve learned how good that feels and how good that makes other people feel.”

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