East Lansing’s co-op music scene fills live venue void

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The co-op music scene is an answer to the lack of live-music venues in East Lansing.

It provides a platform for up and coming musicians while offering entry to the many under-21 college students who would usually not be able to get into the bars. That’s the combination that has made it a success. The co-op music scene in East Lansing started with the Michigan State University Student Housing Cooperative. That’s a coalition of student-owned housing co-ops in East Lansing that dates back to 1939.

Today, membership includes more than 240 people in 17 houses. And music there is a long standing tradition.

“ Live music has been at co-op parties since the co-ops have been hosting parties,” said Emily Small, the vice president of membership of the MSU Student Housing Cooperative.

The co-op music scene thrives on the concept of stimulating local music.  East Lansing is not the only college town that has a co-op music scene. But East Lansing residents say it holds more importance in a town sorely lacking in live music venues.

Local musicians, whether new or seasoned, are invited to perform at co-op parties. They are given an area in the house to set up and they usually play about 30 minutes to 45 minutes long.

The Vesta co-op shows usually have people packed tightly together in a room somewhere in the house. Photo by Marsya Mohd Johari

“At a co-op, the band is the centerpiece of the room,” said Thor Mallgren, an MSU senior who lives at the Bowie Co-op on Grand River Avenue. “I personally would have to say it is a lot more fun to see a band play at a co-op.”

On February 10th, the Bowie Co-Op hosted a Bowie Woodstock Party. With three bands and three DJs booked, the event was aimed to recreate the famous Woodstock Music Festival from 1969. The Facebook event page had over 300 invitees.

Cameron Varner, the drummer for the band Tangelo, enjoys the co-op music scene.

“I really enjoy playing them,” said Varner. “For a low-level band like us, it’s hard to get people to pay and come to see us play. But when we play a co-op show, people get really hyped for live music. And people love dancing there.”

Mallgren, an MSU senior who lives at the Bowie co-op, said that the venues offer a comfortable and intimate music listening experience.

“Generally the atmosphere is a lot more intimate at a co-op,” he said. “At a bar, the band is usually something playing in the background while people sit at the bar or a table and chat with their friends.”

While not all co-op houses in town host live music, a few houses have garnered reputations as a live-music venue for parties. Those houses include the Bowie, Vesta and Phoenix co-ops.

But the co-op music scene also has problems.

The Vesta co-op recently had a 90’s-themed party that hosted three bands. One of those bands is Dr. Esophagus and the Scoundrels. The band was unable to find parking at the house, said Varner, who is also a drummer in that group. They circled around the neighborhood and finally found a spot at the East Lansing High School.

Cameron Varner sets up his equipment at the Vesta co-op show. Photo by Marsya Mohd Johari

Afterwards, the band had to squeeze through a crowd of people with their equipment, Varner said. The co-ops usually fill their parties to the capacity and it is not uncommon to see a bottleneck of people at entrances trying to get in or out.

It is not ideal, Varner said. Carrying drum sets and amps through a crowd of people down a narrow hallway could spell disaster. Damaged equipment is not something the band is unfamiliar with.

Varner says that such problems would not exist at a venue like Mac’s Bar in Lansing. It would have parking passes and special entrances for musicians.

Most importantly, the co-ops are not lucrative for musicians. They play as a favor and do not get paid. The incentive is the chance to spread their music and get more fans.  

When people see a band at a co-op, they are seeing that band perform for free versus when they go to a venue and pay to see the band. The band will also get paid when they are at a venue, and we usually just provide them some beer for the night,” said Riley James, an MSU senior living at the Bowie co-op.

Cameron Varner walks back to his car parked at the East Lansing High School after the Vesta co-op show. Photo by Marsya Mohd Johari

Varner finds that the co-op music scene and bar music scene can co-exist peacefully. His bands book shows at venues like Mac’s Bar and play at co-op houses all year-round. Playing at bars helps his bands stay financially afloat while playing at the co-ops give them a chance to play for a larger audience.

“Maybe one day we can sell out shows at Mac’s Bar. But for now, the co-op shows let us experience what it’s like to play for a completely packed room.”

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