Birmingham’s longest-running and most misunderstood all-ages music venue closed without fanfare. Those in attendance that Monday night were afforded little more than a parting glance as they were ushered away in the dark by police. For the rest, death came in its typical way — with no warning and no chance to say goodbye.
Cave9 opened at the corner of 23rd and Magnolia in March of 2003 with a $5 five-band bill. At that time, the average life span of an all-ages music space in Birmingham was less than 9 months, but six years later Cave9 would still be standing, thanks almost exclusively to the patience and determination of founder Aaron Hamilton and a core of dedicated partners who helped him book and promote shows, collect money at the door and sweep up at the end of the night. Even with help, Hamilton worked 100-hour weeks between his day job and Cave9, balancing two full-time jobs (one paid and one a labor of love) with a wife, a house and, eventually, a child.
Soon, Cave9 had established itself as a live music venue and a social center for young people who were excited about art and music, and that excitement began to bubble over into other areas. In 2005, Cave9 incorporated as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization and re-branded itself as a community enrichment project which offered not only a safe, sober venue for music but also art shows and music lessons, and workshops on bike repair, self-defense and art.
These new ambitions demanded a space that could be used full-time — something their shared lease arrangement at the original location couldn’t provide — and after years of scheduling conflicts on Magnolia Avenue, Cave9 moved to the space above Greencup Books. What seemed at first to be an ideal partnership quickly revealed similar problems.
“Greencup is at a point where they have tremendous potential and are trying to grow, and Cave9 was trying to grow into its potential as well,” Hamilton says. “It’s only natural that we’d step on each other’s toes trying to grow in the same space.”
In early March of 2009, Hamilton and company moved Cave9 into a space of its own on First Avenue South. Less than a week later, another seemingly ideal location — an out-of-the-way setting where performers and fans could be themselves without being a burden to anyone else — turned out to be a bust. During only its third show, the venue was shut down and shuttered for good.
“This whole time, we just needed two more inches and suddenly we’re set back a whole foot,” Hamilton says.
The idea that a group of enthusiastic young people would pour their time and money into a space with no interest in profit or fame proved confusing to those whose only experience with live music is in a bar setting. One parent even called to complain that Cave9 was teaching her child to hang out at bars. “No ma’am,” Hamilton corrected her. “We’re actually teaching kids that they can have fun without a bar.”
The concept of a non-profit live music venue and community enrichment center also proved baffling to the Alabama Department of Revenue (who imagined Cave9 as a lucrative cash enterprise and stuck it with a $6,000 bill for back taxes) as well as a few key arms of local government like the fire marshal who, confounded by how exactly to categorize the space, kept Cave9 off the radar — that is until a well-connected neighbor bent the ear of the mayor’s office. Then, they knew exactly what to do with Cave9.
For exactly six years and one day, Cave9 provided a spark for young, creative minds in Birmingham. It served as the first venue for bands who you might see on Letterman now and for visual artists who are now showing in galleries. Many of the people who started out as fans at Cave9 have been inspired to learn an instrument and are in bands touring the country.
While high-profile venues like Bottletree and WorkPlay reap the rewards of the city’s budding music scene, it was Cave9 that planted the seeds —providing a space where young kids could be introduced to live music and young bands could perform and grow.
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