Arts & Culture, Our City, Our World

An interview w/ Veronica Bettio of Cowboy Initiative

The show organizer is fully engaged in this moment.

by

This conversation took place over a number of weeks in April & May & June 2020.

Dan Shea:
Hi Veronica! So, who are you and where are you?

Veronica Bettio:
Hi Daniel! My name is Veronica (she/her)! I’m a student at Northeastern University & I also run The Cowboy Initiative with my pal Joey Molloy (they/them) in the Boston area. I’m currently still in Boston, I decided to quarantine here instead of going back home when Covid-19 hit.

DS:
And how would you say the pandemic affected your music life, your work life, and your community in general?

VB:
I’ll start with my work life because I think that’s been the most impacted! I’m currently co-oping at Harvard’s Prison Legal Assistance Project. It’s a program in HLS where student lawyers defend incarcerated people at their disciplinary hearings and parole hearings (and a few other things). More often than not prisoners can’t get counsel at these hearings, so Harvard PLAP tries to step in as much as possible. Coronavirus has made the prison population more vulnerable than ever before and unfortunately it has also prevented PLAP from being able to take on new cases. I used to be in the office 9-5, 3 days a week, answering calls and mail from incarcerated people. Now that kind of communication isn’t possible. We figured out how to take calls remotely but our whole process has slowed down and more importantly we can’t represent people in MA prisons anymore (though we continue to represent people in cases we took on before quarantine). From the remote calls I take now I really have a close look at what is happening inside of our prisons and I can only really encourage people to call their governors, mayors and DAs and implore them to 1) release as many prisoners as possible and 2) increase sanitation measures in prisons by A LOT (which includes providing incarcerated people with masks and gloves which they do not have). I can provide some numbers/resources at the end of this interview if you’re interested!

Music-wise things have come to a bit of a halt too.
In terms of playing, I don’t have access to a drum kit right now so I’m not playing much at all. I can no longer jam with Joey who is my Cowboy Initiative partner 🙁 We play together in their band, The Fluids, but that’s on pause right now until we can put together a kit somehow.
And then of course, Cowboy Initiative shows are done for the time being. We had shows booked until June which all had to be cancelled. I’ve been very sad about that but artists are definitely taking a bigger hit than we are in these times. So right now it’s about finding the best way possible to support them. There’s a lot of live stream performances happening which has been awesome to see and the music community is definitely strong right now. People are coming through and supporting each other which is encouraging in what are otherwise very daunting times.
I’m still thinking about ways that the Cowboy Initiative can participate in the scene remotely and don’t really have any concrete plans for it yet. As of right now I just know that we’ll be back in a big way once basement shows are happening again! But who knows when that’ll be 😕

One last thing I’ll say about community is that the people around me have been generous and empathetic towards each other in Covid-19 times. People are also angry, and justifiably so. In no way has this administration adequately responded to this pandemic & this pandemic has made the inequality in the US abundantly clear. Consequently, there has been a lot of remote organizing in the community ☺

DS:
Please provide #s. We’ll do what we can to help disseminate. I can’t imagine being trapped in a prison with all of this going on, knowing that this virus is going to get in eventually, and not having any protection against it. A microcosm of our larger society right now in a way, but on steroids. Hopefully your advocacy and the advocacy of others will alleviate the situation somehow…

Bands not being able to get together is a sad part of all of this. I’m feeling that too no doubt. Can we hear the Fluids anywhere virtually??

As far as shows, again, feel you! And can’t wait to see you all leap back into action. Are you concerned at all that there may be long term detrimental effects on show going from this pandemic situation? As in getting into people’s heads mentally more than anything? You work with underground bands in underground venues, so perhaps people’s attitudes will be different than most, but I myself wonder…

Also, what do you think of Boston’s venue scene? You seem to work exclusively with underground venues, eschewing legit venues (a stance that I am simpatico as hell with), but what are Cowboy Initiative’s reasons behind that, if there are some?

Again agree wholeheartedly with you about the administration’s response and attempts @ scapegoating. What are you seeing as far as organizing goes?

VB:
That’s a really great way of describing it! Thank you, here are some links / numbers for anyone who wants to participate:

Massachusetts Numbers & Call Script:
Mayor Walsh: 617 635 4500
Governor Baker: 617 725 4005
Call script: Hi, my name is [name], I’m a Boston resident calling out of concern for the public health threat to all people held in Massachusetts prisons and jails. Because of the lack of available testing and PPE, COVID-19 is spreading faster than the state’s resources can contain, which is especially dangerous for people trapped in cages in close proximity to one another – social distancing is impossible in these circumstances. People in jails and prisons are at severe risk for infection with a rapid spread, which is harmful for both them and for the larger Boston community. I am asking that you release them all for public health. It’s extremely important for containing the virus and for saving lives. Thanks so much.

Covid-19 Updates from Prisoners’ Legal Services Massachusetts: https://www.plsma.org/covid-19-in-ma-prisons-and-jails/
(Includes updates on the spread of Covid-19 in MA prisons and jails & updates on PLS actions)

Action Toolkit: Rally to Free Prisoners from Rikers to Palestine: https://docs.google.com/document/d/e/2PACX-1vS7gbKKiEmQsg_JTGPtwf8hKrOInoCexEUwYfWSHkPyXHxdelOZvJhhvekwuCjUc97LlfijAb7klJFZ/pub (Includes a link to support prisoners in Palestine, prisoners and detainees in your state, and a link to donate to the National Bail Fund – plus an additional link to fundraise for Palestinian prisoners)

Decarceration During Covid-19: A messaging toolkit for campaigns for mass release
https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5e1f966c45f53f254011b45a/t/5e98e335ddcb123729ccfa29/1587077943048/DecarcerationPublicHealthMessageGuide_FINAL_April2020.pdf
(This is one of the many resources offered by Community Justice Exchange. See their full website here: https://www.communityjusticeexchange.org/)

I might follow up with some additional links soon 🙂

Definitely a tough time for bands – but simultaneously there are a bunch of new projects emerging. People seem to be embracing the circumstances and putting some really sick quarantine jams out there.
Yes! Here’s the link to a tape we released pre-quarantine: https://misseerieandthefluids.bandcamp.com/album/introducing
And make sure to check out the rest of Mizz Eerie & the Fluid’s bandcamp, Joey’s been putting out some sweet solo tracks (“Pose,” “Quarantine Boogie,” and “Escapism//Underworld”).

I’m definitely worried about what the scene will look like “post-pandemic” (or at least when small gatherings can take place again). It’s probably too early to tell and I’m trying to remain hopeful but I can see there being a real fear about engaging in larger social events after all this. There might also come a time where social distancing is not absolutely “needed” but the disease is still around & people might differ in opinion about whether or not it’s even ethical to put on shows. Or maybe everyone will be dying to get back to hanging out in basements with friends and loud music. Only time will tell I guess. For now I’m taking it day by day and avoiding thinking about it too much. It helps me get through the day thinking about a time where shows will happen again, and I think I kind of like leaving it at that.

Yea, so far all of our shows have lived in basements. One really simple reason is that we love basements. Joey comes from Detroit where the basement scene is, in their words, “wild, energetic, and supportive.” They also described Detroit basements as “the Wild West.” There’s a deep passion there & a real lack of fear about going wild at shows. While the Boston scene may not be exactly the same, there is something to be said about the energy of a house show. It’s not something that can really be replicated elsewhere I think.
Then again, I love a good show at the Great Scott. So I think the other reason is that we just never got to the point of booking at a legit venue. The Cowboy Initiative is barely a year old so the goal was to get a bit more used to basements before taking on O’Briens, Once or the Great Scott. The age limits, room fees and caps for those venues are a little more daunting than a house show. We did have plans for a show at the Great Scott in July actually – I’m near certain that won’t be possible anymore 🙁

My sister is more involved than I am in community organizing, so I asked them to kind of point out the main issues that are currently being focused on. They responded: decarceration & advocacy for people in prisons and jails, PPE and health care workers’ rights, and rent strikes. The main strategies include zoom phone banking sessions (and individual phone banking), zoom rallies, petition signing, donations (if people can afford to), and refusing to cross picket lines if you can afford to (ex. Whole foods and Amazon). This of course brings me to the people who are among the most at risk right now – workers at corporations like amazon or whole foods. Essential workers are protesting in person, standing 6 ft apart in front of their workplaces & demanding better conditions (aka basic PPE and at least living wages). There’s also been a lot of community organizing & support for these folks.

DS:
Whole Foods was the last of the supermarkets that I’ve visited since this all started to put up plastic barriers between cashiers and customers. How could that be? I live way to close too a Whole Foods in JP, which adds up to far too many visits, but I am ready to drop that shit when the strike comes. People better be ready to support these folks, these essential workers, when the time comes.

I won’t get into my morbid forecast thinking for live music and art events, but I do not think it’s going to be good. I’ve been putting on live events for a long time and it truly hurts to consider the future. Boston’s ecosystem for emerging arts and artists and the people who support them, and the spaces that support them was already so beyond broken before this. Was already so racist, and so class-ist before this. I can’t help but be pessimistic for what will come. If it it doesn’t make money it doesn’t matter. At all. And that will not be changing because of this pandemic. And I know this is the case probably everywhere in the US, but this is my home and my zone, and things are truly disgusting here, and again were before this current situation.

There will always be basements and other non-legit spaces, which come with limitations, but at least they are there as an alternative.

VB:
Definitely agree with everything you said – especially confirmed by the recent news that the Great Scott won’t be reopening. In fact this news just perfectly encapsulated the sentiment in your last email. There’s a lot of concern and anger in the DIY community for sure. Again though – there’s been a lot of organizing in reaction to this news. The “Bummer City Historical Society’s” letter-writing campaign was a great success – sending out 391 letters within just a couple of days, calling for the owners of the Great Scott building to renew the lease. There’s also been a lot of fund-raising for the employees of the Great Scott & O’Briens:
(https://www.gofundme.com/f/great-scott-o039brien039s-pub-employee-relief-fund?fbclid=IwAR3REwY6Lt7MXXz_nxbT47dAqMFqVQefokZCXVRgnab0Xlh7dhNit__TkcY)

But it’s still really difficult to feel hopeful when nothing seems to happen – even when the community comes together in such a substantial way. At this point I’m just hoping basements are still around/active when quarantine is over.

Yea Joey and I were just getting excited about shows. We found a sick bassist and felt like we had a solid quick set together. Unfortunately we never got to play 🙁 Once the world is back we won’t miss our opportunity again. And of course we’d be psyched to play with you!

Well I’m not sure how great of a comparison I can make – given the fact that I wasn’t involved in much of a music scene in nyc during high school. From what I gather there’s a much stronger community in Boston – maybe that’s just because the city is smaller. But at the same time the music scene here seems like a pathway to greater things in other cities in a lot of cases. Musicians often go off to New York, LA or Nashville to pursue music career goals there. Boston doesn’t have a lot of venues for rising artists and the loss of the Great Scott just takes away more appeal. The folks in the DIY community clearly love and value music and art a ton, but at some point it seems that you hit a ceiling here. Of course this all includes the blossoming hip hop community in Boston. It’s growing & it’s totally run by awesome queer women of color. But I think that scene also struggles with a lack of good venues to perform in. I think it’s time the city starts growing with it’s music scenes. I’m not really sure who can make a real difference with that though.

DS:
Basements are like cockroaches i think. they’ll survive anything.

“I think it’s time the city starts growing with it’s music scenes. I’m not really sure who can make a real difference with that though.”
To respond to your above comment: I wish the city would grow with its music scenes, but that’s highly unlikely and in the case of of DIY and underground musics almost definitely not going to happen. And I’ll add that we here @ the Hassle are trying to make some kind of difference in the here and now as we try to open our own space!

Supportive venues can make a big difference in a community or scene (hell even venues that aren’t that supportive can make a big difference ala Great Scott). But I want to get back to the “ceiling” that you mentioned that bands hit in Boston. There’s no music industry in Boston, or not much of one. This is both a good thing and a bad thing I think. This is why people leave for those other cities, is that essentially what you’re saying? For the kinds of bands/musicians that are attempting to reach some kind of higher echelon, or at least to find more opportunities, what do you think could possibly change in Boston’s music and performance landscape to raise that ceiling? Or do you think that that’s just never going to happen here (and if so why)?

VB:
Wow! That would be amazing. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help support a Hassle space!! (And is that still in the works even during quarantine?)

I read a while ago about Bernie Sanders’ facilitation of a community music space in Burlington in the 1980s & how that fostered a wicked punk scene there:
(https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/zngv7a/how-bernie-sanders-242-main-street-shaped-the-northeast-punk-scene-515)
Obviously that was government funded (and probably unlikely to happen in Boston) but the idea of a Boston Hassle space just brought this article to mind.

Yup that’s exactly what I mean! Yea I’m sure it’s a bit of both. Maybe DIY is so vibrant here because there is no music industry…

I’m not sure if I have the best answer to that question but I feel like it’s all about venues opening up. We need more venues like the Great Scott where it’s not impossible for smaller artists to book a gig. I think there also needs to be some better mid sized venues… last year Julia Jacklin sold out Great Scott and when she came back this year she ended up playing Somerville Theater – which is a lovely place but not really an ideal venue.
There’s not a lot of in between options… & changing that is difficult because it’s up to individuals with enough capital to start venues. Plus, given Covid, I don’t think anyone’s in the market to start a music venue. So Boston’s music industry fate seems more up in the air than ever!

That being said, I am more than happy to mainly go to basement shows whenever possible!! I miss them dearly </3

DS:
I will let you know for sure. Know anyone looking to be a benefactor for a space that exists only to serve local music and creative communities, and to provide a safe haven for creative weirdos of all and every kind?! As for quarantine, we’re not actively looking @ spaces right now or anything, but we are planning what we can. Obviously the pandemic has changed things, but in what ways it’s hard to know…

I think you’re right about the vibrancy of DIY in Boston as the other side of the coin of not having “music industry” here. This is why I really can’t get behind any ideas or plans or groups that want “music industry” to grow here. “Music industry” will inherently not serve the music creators or communities that I care about and which I help to foster how I can. It probably would create jobs for some of those people though (lower end jobs to be sure).

I agree that more mid-size venues opening up in the Boston area is the action that would most help performers here. What is the Boston area venue scene going to even look like by the time venues are accessible again though? HUGE QUESTION. And how to get by the hurdle of capital to open up a space? I wish I knew the answer. It is a riddle that I’ve been without the answer for for so long that it’s hard to believe!

I also miss basement shows something fierce. How did you and Joey first come together to start Cowboy Initiative anyway?

VB:
I wish I did!!!

Yea I see your point!!! I guess we just need those community spaces then…

Totally!! Carl Lavin – who used to do all the booking at the Great Scott – is crowdfunding to purchase Great Scott and maybe renegotiate the lease… I’m definitely thinking about investing.

Joey and I had been attending shows a lot together and obviously having a great time. A couple of our friends were booking shows a bunch too – Jack & Luke. Luke helped book for Artificial Contact and Jack who is part of the Water Cycle did a lot of booking on his own. Joey and I found this out of state band we were really into and wanted to bring them to Boston. We first considered asking our buddies to book them and then realized the easiest thing would be for us to throw the show! So we never really planned to be a booking collective or whatever… but we had an awesome time putting on that show went from there. I’m so glad it worked out that way!!! It’s been exactly a year since our first show.

I’ll add that I’m sorry for the late response. Things have been busy.
I’m just going to add a master link to bail funds right here: https://bailfunds.github.io/
I’m sure everyone at Boston Hassle is doing their best to support the protests going on right now.

DS:
We’re trying over here.

And I heard about Carl and Great Scott. I’ll say that it’s better if Great Scott exists than not, so that is good to hear. Carl’s a good guy.

Since we started this interview we’ve entered a new phase of lockdown you could say. Have you participated in any protests or vigils that have been going down? Any thoughts on where all of this heading?

VB:
I haven’t been able to as I currently live with someone who’s at risk for Covid-19. So in the meantime it’s been about donating, signing petitions, spreading vital info & contacting govt officials.

I plan on going to one tomorrow which is a caravan style protest – organized by Families for Justice as healing. So we’ll be in cars the whole time. I’m grateful for the opportunity to protest in a way that won’t put the people I live with at risk!
I’m even more grateful for everyone who’s taking the streets to protest, and hoping that I can figure out a way to get out there in the next couple of weeks. Might require some quarantining after…

I couldn’t say where it’s heading. I hope it’s heading towards massive change but I also don’t have a lot of faith in the govt. they’re arming law enforcement with real bullets today in Massachusetts. they don’t care about the people on the street.

I would hope that people continue to support black folks in this until we see tangible progress. And I definitely fear the momentum fizzling out.

DS:
I understand as my son has asthma. But we just need to do what we can do!

As of this writing the momentum has not fizzled I don’t think. We need to keep pushing.
I wanted to ask you if you are hearing any talk of movement on actual prison reforms as part of immediate change that need to happen
for Black lives and our country in general? And I think we can wrap up with that as looking back this turned into a long interview! Thanks for taking the time.

VB:
I’ve seen people generally call for prison abolition alongside police abolition &I recently saw a virtual protest calling to end the lockdown that’s going on in federal prisons right now (led by Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee in NYC).
But I haven’t seen as much. Organizations who have always called to defund prisons are still being vocal about it now & insisting that the movements go hand in hand. (Orgs like Black & Pink, Families for Justice as Healing…)
I’m near certain most people advocating for police abolition know that it implies prison abolition & this is something that’s really exciting to see. I hope the push for prison abolition continues to grow publicly. A first step would be to pressure the several states that are currently planning on building multi million dollar prisons & jails to spend this money on the community instead. (MA has been discussing building a new women’s jail for a while… something that is not only unnecessary but very damaging to communities & women of color
https://www.prisonpolicy.org/blog/2019/03/29/newjail/ ).

For sure! Stay safe!!

DS:
We have a long way to go whether it’s a complete re-imagining of what policing can and should be, or police abolition, or somewhere in between. This city’s mayor’s response has been so weak. Makes me sick. Need to keep pushing him, the city, and these ideas.

Before we part ways do you want to mention the Cowboy Initiative tape comp project I just saw a post about?

VB:
Definitely.

And sure! So Joey and I were obviously saddened that we couldn’t see a bunch of shows we put together come to fruition because of Covid-19, & we decided we wanted to capture their essence through a tape compilation! Side A’s lineup is the exact bill from an April 3rd, 2020 show we planned and Side B is a mix of a couple bills. We’re really psyched so many great artists, local & touring, agreed to do this with us! Some are songs you’ve heard live but never recorded, some are completely new tracks & some are older favorites. & Jackson Austin, who has done almost all of our posters, made some mockup art for these “live” shows, which will be included with every tape.

All of the profits are going to Families for Justice as Healing – a phenomenal organization based in MA that works towards prison abolition & specifically ending incarceration for women and girls. You can check out their website here: https://justiceashealing.org/ .
For now we’re just doing a limited run of 25 since we haven’t put out anything like this before. Thanks for asking about it – we’re super excited since this has been in the works since the beginning of quarantine. We hope we really captured a piece of the boston basement scene with these tapes 🙂

Important Link for everyone: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/

DS:
Awesome. I think it’s a great idea. And thanks for all of the info you’ve shared here. Great talking with you Veronica.

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