'Wiped out by biotech': Musicians to lose giant practice haven in Allston-Brighton
After nearly a year in limbo, the Sound Museum, a large music rehearsal complex in Brighton, will close at the end of January.
The owner of the property, California-based life sciences developer IQHQ, plans to demolish the existing structure and replace it with office, lab and retail space. The project is awaiting approval by Boston development officials.
Sound Museum tenants were notified on Dec. 17 that they need to be completely out of the building by Jan. 25. The Sound Museum is one of the largest 24-hour practice spaces in Boston. The vast complex provides hundreds of musicians with space to rehearse, store gear and in some cases run recording studios.
“This is life and death out there for our working class people and the artists and the creatives of the city,” said Sam Potrykus, who rehearses at the Sound Museum with two different bands. “Those bands will basically just stop playing because we don't have anywhere else to go.”
Musicians worried the shuttering of the Sound Museum signaled the death knell for the Allston-Brighton music scene, which saw the closure of the popular Allston music club Great Scott in 2020 amid rising rents and the proliferation of lab space in the neighborhood.
“Is it Allston Rock City if there’s zero rock clubs, if there’s no … bands based out of here?” said Sound Museum tenant Matt Harrington.
Owner Bill “Des” Desmond founded the Sound Museum in the 1980s in a building in the South End and has relocated it several times before landing at its current spot,155 North Beacon Street. Desmond also operates art lofts in the New Market area of Boston.
The looming closure is a disappointment to many after a year of conflicting messages regarding the Sound Museum’s future. The rehearsal complex was one of several businesses that occupied the roughly 140,000 square foot warehouse when IQHQ bought the property for $50 million in 2021. When the news broke last winter that the developer planned to demolish the building, outcry from the Boston music community was fierce. In response, IQHQ offered to assist Desmond, the Sound Museum’s owner, in securing a new rehearsal space elsewhere in Boston.
But over the course of the year, that plan appears to have fallen apart.
The mayor’s office of arts and culture most recently championed a plan, still in the works, for IQHQ to acquire and donate a nearby property to the city to convert into a new complex for musicians. In an interview, the city’s chief of arts and culture, Kara Elliott-Ortega, was hopeful the donation could provide a long-term solution to those who will be displaced. But she cautioned that IQHQ had yet to close on the property, and that there was still much to be learned about its potential usefulness.
“We have to look at the building, go through all of the city due diligence steps, and that's when we'll really know how big it is, what we think it could accommodate in terms of music space, rehearsal rooms, etcetera,” she said.
But the lack of available practice space in the meantime had some worried that the city’s solution would not work for many of the Sound Museum tenants.
“Musicians can't really take breaks,” said Chelsea Ellsworth, an audio engineer, musician and former Sound Museum tenant. “If it's their job, if it's their career, if they're working, you can't really just put it on hold indefinitely for this lying company to eventually give you a space that might be good enough to do your job again.”
Conversations with musician tenants and others involved in the effort to save the space, or at least find a suitable alternative, revealed a year of fractious meetings and dashed hopes.
When IQHQ submitted a letter of intent to the Boston Planning and Development Agency to redevelop the site, it triggered a project review process. The city was required to appoint an “impact advisory group” of community stakeholders to help identify and mitigate potential problems associated with the proposed development.
In a meeting with the group last January, IQHQ signaled its intention to help Desmond relocate the Sound Museum. “We’re working very closely with the city of Boston to meet Des’ needs and we are committing to finding a new location,” IQHQ senior vice president David Surette said. “We’ve hired a broker, we’ve hired an architect … and it’s just a matter of finding the perfect location to make sure the Sound Museum lives on.”
The mayor’s office of arts and culture expressed support for this plan in a letter to IQHQ, writing, in part, that it was “encouraged by the proponent’s commitment to working with the Sound Museum to secure a future home for the organization and its tenants.”
At an open house hosted by IQHQ later in the winter, the company discussed a potential new space for The Sound Museum in West Roxbury. By July, the company’s promises were more opaque. In a letter to the Boston Planning and Development Agency, IQHQ did not directly address a plan to facilitate the Sound Museum’s move to another location, promising only to “identify permanent musician rehearsal space and continue to work with” city officials.
IQHQ also signaled its intention not to evict the Sound Museum tenants until at least a temporary rehearsal space was made available. “The Sound Museum will be allowed to continue occupying their existing space until the temporary location is available for the musicians,” the letter said.
By then, yet another entity had stepped into the fray: the Art Stays Here Coalition, a volunteer advocacy organization that formed in the face of another potential real estate deal threatening artists in Boston, the Humphreys Street artist studios in Dorchester. Coalition leader Ami Bennitt, whose husband rents practice space at the Sound Museum, said the group was interested in helping form a Sound Museum tenants association. (Bennitt also serves as the communications director for the city’s commission for older residents.) But unity among the tenants proved elusive. Some wanted to support Desmond in his search for a location in other parts of the city, and others advocated to stay in Allston-Brighton.
From Bennitt’s perspective, the plan to move the Sound Museum to West Roxbury didn’t make sense. “Allston is Allston Rock City,” Bennitt said. “We all know that.”
Bennitt said the coalition approached IQHQ and asked for “zero net loss of music rehearsal space in Allston-Brighton. They said ‘yes,’ ” she recalled.
So the news in December that Sound Museum tenants had little more than a month to pack up and go came as a shock to many, given IQHQ’s promise the business would not be shuttered until there was somewhere for its musicians to practice.
IQHQ and Desmond both declined to discuss the negotiations and the future of the Sound Museum.
Ellsworth, the sound engineer and former tenant, was one of the musicians who joined the impact advisory group hoping to prevent her fellow musicians’ displacement. But she said the two meetings she attended left her feeling that the group had no real power. Meetings usually concluded with the promise of more meetings, she said, but resulted in no meaningful change.
“It was depressing, honestly,” Ellsworth said. “It felt dystopian and horrifying. It was sad, to be quite honest.”
The BPDA responded with a statement, saying, “The BPDA is working intently with IQHQ and the Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture to ensure there is proper mitigation agreed upon so that the musicians have another space to go to.” It said IQHQ’s proposal to gift property to the city for music rehearsal space was being reviewed.
Not everyone sees IQHQ’s plan to donate property to the city as a win.
Scott Matalon, a longtime Sound Museum tenant, criticized the city for not prioritizing a solution that preserved Desmond’s Sound Museum, saying the plan was tantamount to “stealing the Sound Museum business and giving it to someone else.” And, he pointed out, IQHQ’s promise to donate property to the city was contingent on the BPDA approving the company’s development proposal. “IQHQ has been extorted (I can find no other word to describe it) by the City of Boston into actually purchasing an entire building and simply giving it to them,” Matalon wrote in a letter to city officials, adding, “But instead of relocating the Sound Museum there, they are going to give this ‘essential’ business to someone else to operate in the City’s name.”
Elliott-Ortega, the city’s chief of arts and culture, said she wasn’t sure why IQHQ shifted from a plan to help relocate the Sound Museum to an offer to donate property in Allston-Brighton to the city – though she pointed out the BPDA’s mitigation process favors solutions in the neighborhood where a development is proposed. But she said it isn’t entirely out of the question that the Sound Museum could ultimately end up operating in the city’s new rehearsal spaces.
“It would have to go through a public process. But I think that's actually a great thing because it also means anybody can raise their hand and say, ‘I could do this,’ ” she said. “Absolutely, the Sound Museum could say, ‘We want to run that space.’ ”
In the meantime, however, Sound Museum tenants will lose their practice space.
“I get the long-term idea of [the city’s plan], but the people that are affected for real, immediately, there's no solution for them,” said Sam Creager, who operates a recording studio in the Sound Museum.
Bennitt said she had a lead on a temporary space for musicians to use in a former radio station on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester, though many details still needed to be worked out.
In a statement, the mayor's office of arts and culture said the city was prepared to invest in temporary rehearsal space and that it had "specific options on the table."
For many, the shuttering of the Sound Museum seemed likely to hasten an already bleak trend for local independent music entities in recent years, from the closure of the EMF rehearsal complex in Cambridge, to the displacement of Allston’s beloved Great Scott rock club, to the planned redevelopment of the Middle East in Central Square.
“Basically everything cultural about Boston gets wiped out by biotech and real estate,” Creager said. He estimated the closure could affect thousands of musicians, since so many bands shared space at the rehearsal complex. “It’s frustrating,” he said, “because Boston could be cool.”
This article was originally published on December 23, 2022.