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Despite Changes At The Middle East, Some Musicians Still Avoid Venues Over Handling Of Sexual Assault Allegations

The Middle East Nightclub & Restaurant in Cambridge's Central Square. (Jean Baptiste Paris/Flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
The Middle East Nightclub & Restaurant in Cambridge's Central Square. (Jean Baptiste Paris/Flickr)

The Middle East nightclub complex has a long history in Boston’s musical ecosystem, growing from a single room in Cambridge's Central Square in the 1970s to a cluster of adjoining concert halls in the decades since. It's a rare longstanding, independent venue in an area that has sometimes struggled to create opportunities for local artists. Despite its prominence in the local music scene, some local artists have begun avoiding it due to the venue's handling of sexual assault allegations, calling its role in the community into question.

Last autumn, allegations of sexual assault and harassment surfaced quietly against one of the Middle East’s owners, Joseph Sater, and spread via social media. Some performers and former patrons began to boycott the club's spaces. Venue management did not publicly address the allegations until this past August, roughly 10 months later, by releasing a statement denying what they described as “unsubstantiated third-party claims.” At the same time, management also noted that Sater had decided to retire from his role at the venue.

Now, months after Sater’s retirement, concerns about the venue persist — and so does a boycott among some local musicians. Participants in the boycott span genres and scenes, from local hip-hop artists like Cliff Notez to rock bands like Future Teens and Horse Jumper of Love to pop outfits like Lilith and Bedbug.

For local hip-hop artist Cliff Notez, unease about booking there wasn’t solely based on Sater’s continued presence, but also on what appeared to be the management’s lack of transparency and response to artists’ concerns.

“All I knew is that it created a question in my mind that didn’t make me feel comfortable, or like a place where I wanted to be,” said Cliff Notez. “I also didn’t want to have anyone who was considering coming to my shows to have to deal with that question, or that uncertainty of whether or not they’ll be safe.”

He sees his boycott as a necessary move to advocate for greater accountability from venue ownership and management. “There are ways to create a culture and a community to prevent these things from happening, or at least open up that dialogue to begin debriefing and breaking down these types of things,” he said. “I think that it’s time for us to actually take steps on preventing and healing and reconstructing.”

In response to a request for comment, the Middle East ownership told WBUR that in recent months the club's ownership "reaffirmed our commitment to a safe and professional work environment." The statement spelled out three initiatives the club is implementing: It's partnering with a human resources consultant "who will help us retain a permanent human resources director," has begun updating its employee handbook "to ensure all our procedures and protocols reflect best practices in the industry" and is "holding mandatory and professionally-led sexual harassment prevention and reporting training."

The club's ownership also told WBUR, "We respect those who have recently chosen to move their performance to another venue and we would welcome them back at any time. For the many who have continued to play the Middle East, we are appreciative of their support."

A brief skim of the Middle East's calendar doesn't show a dearth of acts to see. The club's management says it continues to host musicians every night of the week, averaging three to four performances a day.

But for the artists choosing to avoid the Middle East, the boycott is having a significant impact. It means swearing off more than a single stage; the Middle East complex includes five venues in total, ranging from the 575-capacity downstairs room to a 60-capacity restaurant and bar that often features live music. Three spaces — Middle East Downstairs, Upstairs and Sonia — are dedicated concert halls often headlined by national touring acts. That means that local acts boycotting the club are also turning down the exposure that comes with opening for those bigger tours.

Local folk-pop artist Dylan Citron, who performs under the name Bedbug, has struggled with the lack of comparable venues to replace opportunities at the Middle East. Last October, Bedbug was among the first acts to drop a performance at the venue, and it has since turned down multiple other opportunities to open for touring artists there.

“For me, the main thing was less the venue itself that I had any big attachment to, and more the size of the venue, which inherently allowed it to book certain bands that are now pretty much confined to Great Scott and O’Brien’s. There’s just a lack of that kind of thing,” said Citron. “In my trajectory, I was hoping to be able to play at venues of that size.”

For up-and-coming artists participating in the boycott, the alternatives are limited. Some bands have moved shows to the nearby Elks Lodge, dubbed "Hardcore Stadium" due to its frequent use as a venue. Others prioritize booking with Boston’s smaller independent mainstays, like Great Scott, O’Brien’s and ONCE Somerville. All three remain popular, though the number of displaced shows creates a bottleneck effect, sometimes requiring artists to plan much further in advance. Openers at mid-sized venues like The Paradise and Brighton Music Hall are typically booked by corporate promoters, which often opt for artists with more recognition and performance experience.

For those in the hip-hop scene like Cliff Notez, upholding his boycott has a specific complication. Boston has a reputation for lacking hip-hop friendly venues, and in the past, the Middle East has been credited as one of the few places in the city to regularly feature the genre. Cliff Notez mentioned that he recognizes how turning away from the Middle East could limit his show prospects in the future, but sees it as “a whole other conversation,” one that takes a backseat to his concerns about safety. “I wouldn’t want to put that above something as serious as sexual assault,” he said.

Some local artists are turning to creative solutions for additional opportunities like underground shows at house venues. While house shows come with unique obstacles, like the threat of police shutdowns and limited exposure and accessibility, they’ve long been both a distinct scene and an inviting starting point for newer bands.

Local pop outfit Lilith started out playing houses before gaining traction opening for national acts at clubs like The Sinclair and Royale. The group's Hannah Liuzzo explained that when the band was first starting out, shows at the Middle East had felt like a stepping stone to bigger stages — but that newer acts supporting the boycott face the challenge of finding different routes.

“I think that that rug being pulled has been frustrating for a lot of up-and-coming artists,” she said. “That’s been tough because it’s kind of the first big stage that everyone got to play.”

From the outset, Liuzzo took an active role in advocating for the boycott, reaching out to educate other artists with performances scheduled for the Middle East. However, it wasn’t easy to speak up at first; she feared that being vocal about her concerns at the Middle East would make it harder to get booked elsewhere.

"You don’t want to be attached to any drama or anything like that. But it felt important enough to us that it wasn’t drama, it was politics, and it was something that we were really firm about. We wanted to live our politics, so we just kind of had to weigh the pros and cons.”

For Lilith and other boycott participants, living those politics means prioritizing the community’s safety and institutional accountability above the band’s own booking prospects. It’s not just about protecting physical safety; it's about creating a community where survivors can speak up and expect to be taken seriously, and where gatekeepers and leaders are expected to deconstruct a harmful culture rather than shrugging off the symptoms.

“It ended up being that the more we were willing to talk about it, the more we were willing to be a voice who was continuing the conversation, the closer we got to other people who had opportunities for us that were more aligned with our morals,” said Liuzzo.

While the path forward isn’t as straightforward as it used to be, she feels assured by her community’s display of support for a more conscientious culture. “It’s tough to have lost that venue, but in general, there’s so much going on and so many people who care and are trying to showcase local acts that there’s still tons of opportunity, and there are still ways to be successful without it.”

Despite the new measures the club has taken on in recent months to address some of the safety concerns, it remains to be seen whether changes at the Middle East will influence those who have been avoiding the venue. Each artist interviewed for this article plans to continue boycotting the club. Some expressed that too much time has passed since the initial allegations for the venue to earn back their trust with new precautions.

“We see this all too often — people in power waiting to do what’s ‘right’ until significant pressure is placed by way of a public statement,” wrote Liuzzo. “Given that there is no shortage of people in our network who could be entrusted to respond responsibly to a similar issue, I am more comfortable and eager to support an establishment with no track record of abuse.”

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