Indie Sleaze Had Its Revival. Billy Jones Was There All Along.
The owner of Baby’s All Right has seen it all, and then some. What comes next?
Photography by Robert Blair
The state of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, has been something of a litmus test for the life and exploits of Billy Jones. At 43 years old, the sage owner of the seminal Brooklyn music venue Baby’s All Right can look back at 23 years of life in the hipster capital of the world, and can look back in earnest.
“I remember arriving in Williamsburg in 2002 and standing at North 6th and Bedford,” Jones, who is willowy in denim bell bottoms with the messy haircut of a 20-something, said over iced coffees just a few blocks away from his latest venture, a record store called Billy’s Record Salon. “There was a feeling of calm before the storm.”
Today, that street corner is spitting distance from the dreaded harbingers of the supposed “death” of the neighborhood: an Apple store, a Whole Foods, Sephora, and a handful of seedy vape shops. Back then, though, Jones recalls a Wild West for indie music and the hipster hordes’ eccentric tastes and sensibilities.
“Chris from Grizzly Bear worked at a cafe on Bedford, and so did Kyp from TV On The Radio. It would be like, ‘Maybe that was Karen O that walked by? I’m not quite sure…’” he enthused. “Everyone was doing coke, VICE was throwing all these parties, whatever band would come out that week was like the best band ever.”
He recalls this time with a twinkle in his eye, but a noticeable lack of wistfulness – it was also the time when the DIY scene got commodified and cannibalized by the looming presence of The Man, and set the stage for Williamsburg to become the commercialized nexus it is now. “When the Disney-ification of Williamsburg hit full wave, it was just on. It was indie in its prime. You’d see a style there on the street, and then two weeks later, it was at Urban Outfitters. The jig was up,” said Jones. “Baby’s was sort of the bridge from DIY Brooklyn and the death of all that.”
Through that cultural turning, Baby’s All Right maintained its ear-to-the-ground for booking exciting talent that both got tickets sold and kept its cool reputation. The business has remained so savvy that there are talks of opening two new locations next year: one in New York and the other in Los Angeles.
At least part of Baby’s All Right’s continued success comes from the recent phenomena in the downtown music scene known as the “indie sleaze revival,” which has bolstered the status of its original denizens via a newly middle-aged Millennial population’s nostalgia and post-COVID ennui.
“I kept trying to tell everyone it was going to happen because I wanted to get credit,” he laughed. Having moved to Williamsburg the year after 9/11, he was familiar with what a traumatized New York looked like and felt familiar cultural rumblings.
“In a city like New York, there’s going to be an influx of people moving in for cheap rents, and they’re all going to want to go out all the time and party! But they won’t dance! They’ll stand with their arms crossed, just like James Murphy said!”
As New York City knows now, he was correct. Mark Hunter aka “The Cobrasnake” recently put out a coffee table book of his best photos from the original indie sleaze era, Lena Dunham’s “Girls” has been re-examined in a far more flattering light than its first go-around, and The Dare’s hit single – also titled “Girls” – has garnered national attention as the foremost example of New York’s indie rock scene becoming cool again (The Dare’s frontman, Harrison Patrick Smith, dons a slim-fitting suit-and-tie, nodding to Murphy’s proclivity for formalwear in sweaty dance clubs).
Jones isn’t so confident of indie sleaze having a tangible impact on the music industry, but his joint nostalgia for a time before Trump, before COVID, and before all of that is very real. “Maybe it’s all hot air. It was almost a joke when it happened the first time. ‘Losing My Edge’ is even kind of a joke song. The real thing that happened was that indie rock had a much longer shelf life than we thought.”
Outside of indie rock and its supposed revival, Jones has his enterprising eye on opening a jazz club in the Lower East Side on Houston and Orchard next Spring. Jazz music – which also dominates most of the selection at Billy’s Record Salon– stands as Jones’s final frontier in the music scene.
“I love listening to jazz. It’s not something I have nostalgia issues with,” he said. “I can’t listen to Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ like I used to… but I can listen to Miles Davis’s ‘Kind of Blue’, and it feels like the first time.”