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FirstLive's Journey From GuideBook to Live Music Hub

The Bushwick live music and streaming venue is now in its fourth iteration, having overcome three long-term closures and multiple transformations over the past decade.
Kristen Joselle performs before the "Java Jam" session on April 30 at FirstLive in Bushwick.

A neon sign in the common space of FirstLive, a live music and streaming venue in Bushwick, reads: “Never Give Up.” 

The sign speaks to the musicians who flock to the establishment, at 219 Central Ave., to perform, jam and record sets. But it also serves as the mantra of the venue, which was born from a guidebook on live music venues and has since overcome three long-term closures and undergone multiple transformations. 

The Journey from Guidebook to Live Music Hotspot

Danny Garcia, a musician and sound engineer, created the book “FirstLive: A Guide to Live Music Venues - New York City" in 2011, and followed it with a guide for Austin, TX in 2012.

In 2014, he opened a coffee house in Bushwick to serve as a “physical manifestation” of the book. Pictures and information about local venues adorned its walls, and a stage hosted recorded acoustic performances and artist interviews.

“The idea was to create a hub where people could promote content from the guidebook in a coffee house setting, because coffee brings people together," he said. 

Musicians in the audience sub in for singers and instrumentalists throughout the the weekly Java Jam sessions at FirstLive in Bushwick. Photo: Brennan LaBrie for BK Reader

In 2016, a water leak forced a year-long pause as damages were repaired. During this time, Garcia and his team of musicians and sound engineers took the opportunity to reimagine the venue – where they expanded the space, upgraded cameras and audio equipment and built a cocktail program.

Then just a year later, a partial wall collapse shut the venue down once more – this time for two years. It was yet another pause to reflect and think whether the team wanted to keep going, Garcia said. 

“The answer was yes, because we had put so much work and energy and time and money into the idea and I really believed that what we were building is bigger than ourselves, conceptually," he added. 

Another redesign transformed the control room in the back of the space into a soundproof sound stage with eight video channels, 32 audio channels, a full backline (audio amplification system), lighting and a green screen. 

“We decided, let’s go for it 200%, so we did,” he said.

The fourth rendition of FirstLive opened in 2019, offering local artists a space to record sets, perform at open mics and jam sessions, and purchase multi-camera video recordings of themselves.

FirstLive offers live music to the Bushwick community throughout the week. Photo: Brennan LaBrie for BK Reader

Six months after their triumphant return, however, COVID-19 shut down the city.

They adjusted by putting on a 30-day series of virtual performances. Support from the community, and a grant from the state, pushed FirstLive through the pandemic, and this May they celebrated their one year anniversary of their newest iteration.

“At the core it's a love of the people who create the music, who do the work, and never give up on the dream or an idea and keep trying," Garcia said.

Java Jams

FirstLive has now transformed into a go-to “watering hole” for local musicians, said Nory Aronfeld, MC of the Tuesday night “Java Jams.”

“We all gather from around New York, and we come and improvise and connect and explore music together,” he said. “It's a night to make friends and to hone your chops as a musician.”

Nory Aronfeld (R), the MC of the weekly Java Jam session at Bushwick's FirstLive, raps over an improvised beat on April 30. Photo: Brennan LaBrie for BK Reader

Aronfeld and the house band open each session with a 30-minute set to “set the standard and the vibe.” They then kick off the jam before subbing in and out for audience members throughout the night.

“The whole vibe is that we try and keep everything spontaneous and completely improvised,” he said. 

DJ Tonton performs a set during a break in the weekly Java Jam session in Bushwick on April 30. Photo: Brennan LaBrie for BK Reader

FirstLive’s next step is to host multi-city streaming concerts. 

“The concept of FirstLive, what you've seen right now, is just the beginning of what we're building,” Garcia said. 

Brennan LaBrie

About the Author: Brennan LaBrie

Brennan LaBrie is a multimedia journalist originally from Port Townsend, Washington.
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