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Fears Of Shrinking Music Scene Prompt Debate About The State Of Live Music In Boston

“The State of Live Music In Boston Forum" at  isotope in Cambridge on May 23. (Amelia Mason/WBUR)
“The State of Live Music In Boston Forum" at isotope in Cambridge on May 23. (Amelia Mason/WBUR)

A spate of recent rock club closings and fears of dwindling attendance at shows has left many in the local live music scene with the unsettling feeling that music around here is in trouble.

So for two hours on Monday night, more than a hundred people crowded into a cavernous room at the audio software company iZotope for “The State of Live Music In Boston Forum." Anngelle Wood, a media strategist and the host of Boston Emissions on WZLX-FM, Kevin Hoskins, a local promoter, and Steve Theo, of Pirate! promotion and management, hosted the open community discussion. A line snaked across the floor as people waited their turn at the mic. Speakers aired their grievances, offered advice to bands coming up, and made suggestions for how to make things better.

Dan Millen, a founder of the new Somerville bar and music venue Thunder Road, argued that there was no dearth of music fans eager to go to shows. “I know that the clubs that closed did not close because they weren't doing business,” he said, pointing out that owners departed for personal reasons, because they were offered significant sums to sell, or because landlords raised the rents.

Matt McArthur, founder of the nonprofit recording studio The Record Company in Boston, encouraged people to open more small venues, despite the tough economy. “Keep hatching schemes, please.” But a man who identified himself only as Richard said, “The venues we have are half full, most of the week. I just don't understand opening up more venues.”

“I think a lot of the problems we’re having are getting younger people to venues,” said Meghan Chiampa, who books shows at Sally O’Brien’s in Somerville. “How are we going to reach them?”

The problem of reaching young people would emerge repeatedly throughout the night. “It's mostly a rock crowd here tonight—maybe a lot of people don't want to go see 40- and 50-year-old dudes playing rock,” said Richard, eliciting murmurs from the crowd.

Some saw the remark as a call to make venues and shows more accessible to young people, while others felt it smacked of ageism. "The idea that age or ageism means you can't have a vital musical career is utterly false," said Anthony Kaczynski of the band Fireking.

Yet several people argued that venues needed to better accommodate young people—many of whom can’t attend shows at 21-plus clubs—as well as women and minorities.

"We've been talking about how do I get more young people in my shows,” said Hailey Magee, founder of the organization Emerging Boston Area Singer-Songwriters. “Or, how do I get more women to this venue? And I think it's very simple: If the people are not on your stages, they're not going to feel represented or safe in your venue and so they won't come." She said that only 16 percent of acts booked at Boston-area venues included women. "So for the bookers in here I would just say, are you thinking about representation before you book every bill? We're not asking for quotas, we're not asking for specific numbers—but are you just thinking about it at all?"

“As a queer woman musician, I do not just want to be on queer woman bills,” said Jasmine Hagans, curator of lectures, courses and concerts at the Museum of Fine Arts and a member of the band Rrrright. “We need to think about elevating women and people of color and people of difference in this scene.”

Hagans also enumerated several possible solutions to the problem of dying venues, all of which evoked applause. “Venues need tax breaks,” she said. “We need to … judge the rock scene as having as much community value as the Museum of Fine Arts.” Hagans also suggested that venues offer more opening slots to local bands, and that they not depend solely on outside promoters to book shows. “If an entire venue has outside bookers, we're losing a sense of identity related to a place. That sense of place can help brand a venue and help lift up everything and get more people in the door.”

Several people pointed to basement shows and other alternative venues as evidence that 21-plus bars and rock clubs were not the only way to support live music. “We need to rethink how we do entertainment licensing in this town,” said Sam Coren, an iZotope employee and member of the band Shaved Head Britney. “It doesn't actually always have to revolve around alcohol—actually, some of my favorite spaces that I've played as a musician weren't necessarily bars with PA systems. They've been art galleries and coffee shops and restaurants. And these places aren’t necessarily open at night, so maybe we need to network with people who do have the spaces and try to get them that way."

The second-to-last speaker was Sarah Edrie, a member of the band Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys. "How many of you have actually read Boston's cultural plan?" she asked. Only a few people raised their hands. "They want to give us money. They have money to give. I'm on the Boston Cultural Council, and I personally give money to artists who apply for it. But that's the trick—you got to apply. You have to be a part of the community. You have to know what's going on in the government.”

The evening ended on a note of cautious optimism. “We may not have answered lots of questions, but I think it’s been really helpful just putting people together,” said Wood. “I would like to do this again.”

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Amelia Mason Twitter Arts And Culture Reporter
Amelia Mason is an arts and culture reporter and critic for The ARTery, WBUR's arts and culture team. She covers everything from fine art to television to the inner workings of the Boston music scene.

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