In May 2015, housemates Judith Young and Will Mullany went to the Paramount Theater for a screening of Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington, D.C. (1980-90). In the cushy theater seats, they watched how the early D.C. DIY scene unfolded, how now-legendary bands such as Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Government Issue and Fugazi released their own records, booked their own shows and eschewed major record label and mainstream media in the process. They left inspired to start a venue of their own in support of independent music.
Young and Mullany, both recent UVA grads and former WXTJ 100.1 FM student DJs, began hosting shows in their house on Gordon Avenue for the station. They called the effort Camp Ugly. High school and college students packed into their living room and kitchen, spilling out onto the porch, to hear local bands like Cream Dream and New Boss.
But they wanted to do something that would meld the student music scene with the city music scene. While sitting at Milli Coffee Roasters on Preston Avenue one afternoon, Young looked up at the ceiling and noticed stage lights hanging from the ceiling; she thought it would make a cool place for a show.
Young e-mailed Milli owner Nick Leichentritt and asked: “Can I book shows here?”
Leichentritt responded almost immediately: “Yes.”
And thus began Charlottesville’s latest DIY music initiative: Camp Ugly shows at Milli.
Every Friday night, bring $5 to Milli and get a red ink Camp Ugly heart stamped on your hand and hear a handful—sometimes three, sometimes two or four—of local and touring independent bands.
Camp Ugly has one major principle: Book talented, diverse musicians who play good, diverse music, and pay them for their art.
But that’s easier said than done. It’s a challenge to find bands that aren’t full of white dudes playing indie rock, they say. And while both admit that they love plenty of bands full of white dudes playing indie rock, they don’t want to perpetuate the status quo.
“What purpose are we serving by maintaining the only thing that there is?” asks Mullany.
They’ve booked Those Manic Seas, an alt-rock band whose lead singer has recorded a DVD of his performance played through an old TV propped up on the neck of a mannequin. They’ve hosted Charlottesville ex-pats Left & Right (an all-white, all-dude rock band). They have a hip-hop show planned for September 16 and a free computer-music and jazz improv night booked for October 7. “You come in with the expectation that what you see might be totally off the dome,” says Mullany. They envision all-female bills, electronic and bluegrass acts and maybe even an all-Jewish klezmer show.
“The philosophical debates that we have about music don’t show well in our calendar,” says Young. At least not entirely, not yet. They’re still trying to seek out diversity in race, gender and sound—and for good reason.
“Women, non-binary folk and people of color have different perspectives in their music,” Young says. “They are detailing different narratives that people really need to hear.”
It’s important that everyone have a musical platform, Mullany says. “When it becomes apparent in music, as it has, that certain types of people or backgrounds aren’t getting the same sort of treatment or presence in the community that others are, it’s time to take a hard look at why this is, and what you can do to help.”
Leichentritt says these intentions are what led him to agree to a Camp Ugly/Milli partnership in the first place, along with Young and Mullany’s promise and ability to come through on their word. “I’ve been happy to work with them,” he says, noting that both Young and Mullany know what they’re talking about. “They do a good job.”
All of the door money goes to the bands; Camp Ugly doesn’t take a cut, and neither does Leichentritt, though he profits from coffee, beverage and food sales made during the show. Bands are paid on a weighted scale that considers the number of band members and distance traveled, and Young says she tries to pay them as fairly as possible for their time and their art.
“Women, non-binary folk and people of color have different perspectives in their music,” Judith Young says. “They are detailing different narratives that people really need to hear.”
Camp Ugly joins the ranks of more established DIY venues like Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar and Magnolia House, but Young and Mullany are quick to note that they’re not looking to compete for bookings. At first, they say they worried about whether Camp Ugly would be a detriment to the local DIY scene by diluting it. “But I don’t think so,” Mullany says. “I think there’s more room to get people into it.”
When Magnolia House booked three of Charlottesville’s most popular bands, New Boss, Night Idea and Second Date, for September 9, Camp Ugly decided to take the night off rather than compete for the audience. They still might put on a show, but it’ll be for a different crowd—bluegrass, or jazz, instead of indie rock. “Magnolia is not an enemy,” says Young. “We’re trying to achieve the same goal.” And that is getting more ears tuned in to live music.
Mullany hopes that having yet another DIY venue will inspire more people to play music—and more diverse music at that—around town. “Sometimes bands will form when there’s an opportunity to play that isn’t being filled,” he says. “I hope that more places to play means more people playing music. I don’t know how true that will be, but I would like there to be more people performing in Charlottesville.”