Arts & Culture

Does Boston Need Another Mega-Music Venue?


The Roadrunner Under Construction || Courtesy of Bowery Boston

Money plays a regrettably large part in determining whether art can be created and passion projects pursued. Particularly in the local venue scene, capitalism is the culprit; it’s becoming increasingly difficult, and risky, to be an army of one. As the pandemic decimated the arts landscape, only the venues with the most resources and biggest sponsors looked poised to survive. Passion, and in-person celebration of that passion, was no longer enough to keep a project alive. We saw a battle like this unfold on our own turf—while indie haunts like Great Scott and ONCE Somerville were forced to close their doors, franchise or big brand-backed venues like City Winery or House of Blues felt a minimal amount of pressure. The potential of going under wasn’t nearly as much of a threat due to their safety net of corporate support.

As the financial tensions of the pandemic ease slightly in other industries, they are still very much felt for the music industry in Boston, and reveal a deeper, more engrained system of privilege that boosts venues with names and money behind them and leaves behind the little guys. With yet another corporate-backed, mid-size venue, Roadrunner in Allston (to be operated by Bowery Presents, an offshoot of AEG Presents), being built and set to debut shows as early as March 17, is the mid-level venue scene in the city becoming oversaturated? Namely, where does this leave accessible to smaller, local bands with dedicated followings, who cannot play venues this large and rely on small rooms to sell out hometown shows? Are we focusing too much real estate space and finances on mid-size, corporate-run venues when underground, DIY ones are struggling and even closing without the ability to reopen? What does this say about the things we value as a community, as well as the role money plays in music?

The mid-level venue scene in Boston is becoming quite crowded. There are plenty of these rooms in the city, many of whom host nationally touring acts on a nightly basis—look at the House of Blues or Brighton Music Hall. There’s Big Night Live. There’s Royale. There’s The Wilbur. There’s Paradise Rock Club. All of these can seat in the mid-hundred to low-thousand range. Is there really a need for more spaces of this size, like Roadrunner? Why do these venues continue to be built, commanding so much real estate, when DIY venues are struggling and even being shuttered without the ability to reopen?

The reason is because they can be built. They’re incredibly lucrative, and nearly all are backed by corporations with virtually disposable amounts of income. Brighton Music Hall and The Dise are sponsored by Citizens’ Bank. Royale is backed by Bowery Presents, a local promoter that actually has national ties; they’re owned by AEG Presents, one of two titans of the live music industry along with Live Nation, who operates the House of Blues.

Between AEG and Live Nation, the two companies can enter a city and absolutely steamroll a music scene if given the chance. Nick Blakey, former booking agent for Midway Café, affirmed: “Live Nation and Bowery don’t give a about the local scene or independent venues. They’d like to be the only game in town, with their competition merely being each other. “

Heather Timmons of Tiny Oak Booking backed his point, “Corporate backed venues rarely help to properly support and facilitate the local scene. Instead, they take the place of valuable community spaces and often make it harder for smaller bands to break into the scene altogether. We need more independently owned 100-300 cap rooms, not corporate owned 500-3,000 cap rooms.”

Heather Timmons of Tiny Oak Booking courtesy of LinkedIn

Aaron Gray who does in-house booking at The Middle East and operates Grayskull Booking, had a slightly more open-minded take. “I’ve always said that, you know, there’s a place for everyone to a certain degree, even the corporate venues…like, they have their place. There’s a reason why they’re there. A lot of these venues are here basically as support to the city but also as a support to, you know, Live Nation and AEG.”

He paused before adding, “I mean, it seems like we’re getting more venues of a size that are not conducive to helping a local scene at all. It’s just not really their function to do that. Anything that’s essentially like 60-cap up to 200-300 cap, those are where local bands are starting and kind of figuring out how to exist and how they want to express their art, I guess. So yeah, we don’t have a lot of those in the city, it’s essentially just O’Brien’s and The Midway, Middle East Upstairs, Sonia. You know, those are kind of the main venues that local bands can go to and still play to a somewhat packed room, I guess, depending upon their popularity.”

Last fall, Dustin Labbe, booker for The Dise, mentioned in an interview with Vanyaland: “Not everyone can initially sell 1,000-capacity or even bigger rooms… We’re unfortunately lacking small room options in the city for growing artists to build from right now, but it’s interesting and positive to see several artists on the rise that can command several hundred tickets in their home city or area. I think as the music grows and artists do have the smaller platforms to build from, there’s no reason why we can’t showcase that talent on the larger stages.”

After booking four Boston acts for the Paradise’s stage in 2021—Vundabar, Oompa, Millyz and Van Buren Records— Labbe seemed to pioneer a new model, one where if the city wouldn’t provide the size stages the artists needed, they’d simply put the little guys on the big stages. However, not every local band has the level of traction needed to pull this off without playing to a sparsely filled room. Vundabar, for example, has over 5 million monthly listeners on Spotify. What about the little guys, the artists grinding it out as part-time students at Emerson or Berklee? What about the bedroom pop start-ups?

The answer to this question remains to be properly addressed, and all the signs point towards ambiguity and uncertainty. The post-pandemic arts landscape in Boston will look a lot different than it did in 2020. The venues who survive long-term, undoubtedly, will be those who have corporate sponsorship supporting them. In other words, they’ll be the bigger rooms. The ones who fight for their lives will be the small venues, the ones who are deserving of more funding. We do not give enough credit to the role small rooms play in fostering the growth and confidence of local artists, and creating a music scene that is truly accessible. Without them, no platforms exist to test out a new sound. No venues remain feasible for those without a large listener base.

While the addition of a new venue in Boston is always welcome, Roadrunner’s financial backing would have been better spent sustaining current venues, rather than adding another similar space to an already stacked roster of mid-size venues. The current state of venues in Boston shows a clear trend of prioritizing those with the resources to keep up, such as the Live Nation or AEG-run venues, and leaving others to fizzle out. This shows a lack of commitment to up-and-coming artists and to making the scene as accessible as possible to everyone, putting financial barriers around access to spaces.

So, what can we do? Local artists enrich our scene, make our city the ragtag, patchwork quilt of eclectic tastes it is, and then get nothing in return. How do we give them the thanks they receive for sharing their art, filling bills at small shows?

One existing program in place currently, 617Sessions, is fantastic. It lifts local artists up, gives them a platform and the means to record a track professionally, but then where do they go? The program takes only a limited number of applicants each year, anyway.

Photo Courtesy of 617Sessions

The city itself does remarkably little to foster and retain talent that lies within its borders; failing to do so will cost them talent and a burgeoning arts scene. Instead, they’re content to let the bigger guys dictate what the scene looks like.

“I wonder if there’s going to be a day where the corporate venues start to understand that they need the 300-cap rooms just for them to even survive,” Gray reflected. Those seemingly low-stakes rooms grow future tour openers; give them the confidence they need to eventually fill the big rooms. Without these starting points, how do any artists get off the ground? How do they begin a career when the scene favors only the already-established?

The city, however, reassures citizens that it is making strides. Kara Elliott-Ortega, Chief of Arts and Culture for the City of Boston, acknowledges that the Arts Council “…know both from research and from artists that there is a significant need for more small and mid-sized performance and rehearsal spaces in Boston. We’re also very aware of the difficulties many artists and smaller organizations have with finding space to create and present their work. We’re continuing to work toward supporting cultural space in Boston by identifying ways to create new spaces, while protecting the spaces that currently exist.”

Despite the Art Council’s commitment, and the Boston Cultural Council’s “policy decision to prioritize support for small to medium-sized organizations because we know that this is the part of the creative ecosystem that needs the most support and has also historically been left out of grant funding opportunities,” small venues are closing. The Lilypad, Great Scott, The Jungle, and ONCE Somerville, just to name a few, are having to rethink their operations to continue to exist. Without them, small artists are losing rare opportunities to play in suitable, established venues.

Elliott-Ortega notes that the city “ think of it as a zero sum game between large and small venues, especially because new venues like Roadrunner do not receive city funding.” While this may, at least in terms of the city, make the playing field level, this is far from an accurate depiction of reality. The resources that a promoter like Bowery Presents can offer Roadrunner is far different than what a small club’s owner can offer its bands.

The Council acknowledges its commitment to “keep working with companies and organizations to bring more small venues to Boston.” There is also work on a plan to opens up spaces in Allston-Brighton to artists “that want to manage their own spaces and need help getting started.” But these are plans still in the works, and artists need to get on their feet today. Without adequate opportunities here, they’ll hit the ground running—and head to a more lucrative city.

Timmons laments, “Many bands’ growth is hindered by the lack of appropriate opportunities due to there not being a solid support system or ladder to climb. Furthermore, a lot of bands don’t even get the chance to break into the local scene due to the limited opportunities. Often, this causes bands to leave the city and pursue other areas. The city doesn’t prioritize art and the local community, they prioritize profit. Again, this is why many artists leave the Boston area.”

Jay Balerna, Owner and Operator at Midway Café, candidly stated, “I don’t know if there’s a need for another House of Blues-sized place. I mean, what’s that Big Night Live? Have you been over there at all? That’s kind of a smoky music room with all those little levels…you need to buy, like, a little area to hang out in.”

As the scene grows more commodified, prioritizing upcharges and corporate sponsors who can book artists with flashy names and accolades, Boston’s lust for money over retaining talent leaves local artists in a frenetic scramble for a platform.

Balerna adds, “…My mantra is, they’re not teaching at Harvard Business School how to run 100-cap music clubs, because it’s not super lucrative. But if you like what you do, it’s fun, you know.”

Jay Balerna, owner of Midway Cafe in JP || Photo by Amelia Mason courtesy of WBUR

No one is denying that the money isn’t in the small venues. What they offer a city is less financial and more symbolic. What do you want to be remembered for standing for? Who do you want to bend over backwards for: the big corporations who will flee when better opportunities arise or the artists who walk these streets daily, who love this city in and out, who will stay here, hone their craft, and nurture our citizens?

Balerna sighed, adding, “…If I had $1 for everybody that wanted to give me a hug or said, “Thanks for still being here through ,”…it’s pretty gratifying. And that’s the whole thing…some of the pay is money and some of it is goodwill, just that, you know, people had the best time, the place sounded good. All that’s part of my pay.”

Boston’s live music scene needs a return to the heart of what matters; a reminder of the fringe benefits of fostering local talent that goes beyond dollar signs. In order for us to build a more accessible scene, we’ve got to return to our roots. We’ve got to construct rooms tiny enough to conduct the quasi-mutual aid work of cultivating local talent and supporting them from their origins up to bigger and better things. We need to value smaller voices as much as we value the lucrative headliners. The thing that’s frustrating is, with the right people, it’s a 180-degree shift that’s well within reach.

But none of that can happen until we set our collective priorities straight. For Boston to rebuild an inclusive scene, we’ve got to stop chasing the money. The next time an opportunity like Roadrunner arises, we’ve got to say no; both for the sake of our artists, and the sake of fans that are tired of seeing them shunned and stifled by industry titans.

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