Danny Brown, Thundercat, Protomartyr and Amber Mark performing live on a tiny stage in an auditorium thick with haze. A skate park where the basketball court should be. Chili dogs and fried chicken in the library, and a bunch of kids walking around the halls with plates full of waffles.
No, this isn’t an extra-weird edition of your recurring dream about being late for an important high-school test. It’s just the latest incarnation of the long-running House of Vans pop-up venue series, which took over the former Jefferson School in Detroit’s Cass Corridor neighborhood last week.
As festival lineups become increasingly homogenous, House of Vans has carved out a niche celebrating the diversity of local music and art since opening its first pop-up venue in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint neighborhood in October 2010. With Chicago and London now the lone permanent House of Vans spaces, the company chose Detroit for the first of five planned new North American pop-ups in 2019. It will also open a new permanent venue later this year in a location to be announced.
“We’ve wanted to come to cities that don’t necessarily have access to things like this, or have access to our brand in an authentic way,” Vans senior manager of lifestyle marketing North America Brooke Burt tells Billboard. “Detroit is a city so culturally aligned with us. It has a rich history of music and art, and a great skate community which is really coming up.”
Housing the free event in a former school lent the proceedings an added air of discovery, with local artists offering workshops in screen printing, zine-making and photography, and Ann Arbor-based electronic musician Matthew Dear giving two lectures on modular synthesizers. At the opening-night concert on Jan. 24, the diverse audience sang along loudly as Mark covered Sade‘s “Love Is Stronger Than Pride,” moshed as Protomartyr tore through songs from its 2017 LP Relatives in Descent and got lost in Thundercat’s otherworldly jazz fusion, which at times resembled Kenny Loggins covering the “Fat Albert” theme song.
“What Vans is doing with these events is the furthest from corporate America that you can get,” Dear tells Billboard. “Yes, they’re a brand, but they’re trying to create positive experiences for young people and they’re promoting local culture. In this day and age, I hardly even see it as a brand thing. It’s just an art thing.”
Adds guitarist Greg Ahlee of Detroit band Protomartyr, “We’ve played festivals with acts that are stylistically different than us and the audience is clearly just waiting to see whoever is next. The vibe feels different here. Even if kids were here for Thundercat or Amber Mark, they were also psyched to see a rock band like us. When I was a kid, I would have been really psyched to see a lineup like this.”
Vans senior director of global brand marketing and strategy April Vitkus says artists respect that “there are no strings attached with us. The events are open to anyone and are always free. We are aiming to create an experience that you really can’t buy.”
Vitkus points to a partnership with ScHoolboy Q in 2018 as a prime example of how open dialog with artists and their teams allows Vans to sidestep the often purely transactional nature of brand deals. “He played House of Vans events in Chicago, London and China, which I know was a rich experience for him,” she says. “He was also part of a program called Share the Stage, where he uplifted talent that was unsigned to perform with him in all three of those places.”
Ultimately, Dear says artists and attendees alike appreciate “an open space for everyone to make of it what they want. I took my two daughters, who are 6 and 4, skateboarding for the first time in the gymnasium. Sometimes all you have to do is set up a bunch of cool stuff and just let people enjoy it.” Adds Burt, “If a kid comes to House of Vans and they’re inspired to pick up a skateboard, guitar, camera or paintbrush, that’s intrinsically rewarding. That’s why we keep doing it. We want to turn them onto something they may not have done before.”