Arts & Entertainment, Features, The Muse

Red tape records: How large venues and legislation are quieting the Boston music scene

Boston, the home of sites like hyperlocal music blog Allston Pudding, institutions such as the Berklee College of Music and a smattering of concert venues, has long been associated with a burgeoning music scene. But for many local bands, promoters and music enthusiasts, the red tape surrounding the process of opening a new spot for local music has become more like caution tape.

“I do think, especially in Boston, it’s difficult when you’re faced with piles and piles of permits,” said Josh Bhatti, head of the Boston office for The Bowery Presents, a concert promotion and venue management organization. “It’s important though that small businesses are able to actually open something and get through that permitting process.”

Allston Rock City Hall, a proposed live venue in community artist space Studio 52, was never opened due to issues with permitting and zoning. PHOTO BY BETSEY GOLDWASSER/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF
Allston Rock City Hall, a proposed live venue in community artist space Studio 52, was never opened due to issues with permitting and zoning. PHOTO BY BETSEY GOLDWASSER/DAILY FREE PRESS STAFF

Despite a large population of college students, some of the city’s practices — such as the early closing time of bars and nightclubs, as well as the lack of all-age venues — discourage the kind of nightlife that would better support the local music scene, said Nick Grieco, ex-manager and primary design consultant of Allston Rock City Hall, a proposed live music venue that was halted due to complications with permitting and zoning.

“The Boston entertainment laws are archaic,” he said. “They’re all focused on worries of the Boston music scene that just don’t really exist anymore. People aren’t storming stages, moshing or setting off pyrotechnics. It just doesn’t happen anymore, and the fact that the live entertainment permit is so difficult to acquire just goes to show why there are so few venues in this city.”

Allston Rock City Hall, or ARCH, was in development during Spring 2014, conceived as a place in Allston community artist space Studio 52 for local bands to play shows for an all-age audience. ARCH was set for a joint gallery opening and concert after-party on March 29, but issues with permitting kept that from happening.

“There was a misunderstanding, and that ended up putting us in front of the Zoning Board of Appeals having to appeal this declining of our permits,” Grieco said. “The process just took so long that my position didn’t exist anymore.”

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh took steps to streamline the process of the Zoning Board of Appeals in July and August, which included lengthening the Board’s hours and creating a subcommittee to handle requests from smaller businesses and projects, the Boston Business Journal reported on Aug. 12. However, for ARCH, the process dragged on.

Grieco, along with Rich Anton, Studio 52 general manager, and Glenn Michael, Studio 52 marketing director, originally planned to create a private event space that would meet the needs of the growing rock scene in Boston, focusing specifically on Allston, where there is a thriving rock ‘n’ roll music scene.

Currently, ARCH Gallery is open as an art gallery and private event space, but it does not yet have permission to host live music, said Nicole Dessingue, director of the ARCH Gallery, in a September interview with the Boston Herald.

“I know that the team over at Studio 52 is really gun-shy right now, and I think they want the smoke to settle before they attempt something new again,” Grieco said. “I know that they’re really passionate people. I know that everything that they’re doing is meant to be an uplifting thing for the music scene, and I believe that if given the opportunity, they will take it. But it all depends on whether or not that opportunity presents itself.”

Local bands have also taken notice to the drawn-out opening of the music venue section to ARCH.

“We walk by it [Studio 52] daily on our way to our rehearsal studio, and we were anticipating its opening for a while,” said Kevin Boldwin, vocalist, guitarist and percussionist of the band Cask Mouse. “Those guys worked very hard to make that shipping and receiving room into a legit venue space.”

For Bhatti, the process was much shorter when he worked to open the Sinclair, a combined restaurant and live music venue in Cambridge in December 2012.

“We were clear to go with [an appeal to zoning] because it was already a licensed building,” Bhatti said. “We had a number of public hearings with anyone in the neighborhood able to come in.”

The Bowery had four hearings with the Cambridge License Commission, which is comprised of the police commissioner, fire chief and one chairperson, to determine the need, use and impact of a new space on the surrounding neighborhood. The Bowery’s first hearing was in September 2011, and the Sinclair was officially approved on Jan. 3, 2012.

“Our reputation helped, but it didn’t make much of a difference in making it easier to open the venue,” Bhatti said. “To an extent, people on the board only know of what you do in a local area.”

But from a band’s perspective, the issue seems to be a lack of genuinely caring venues engrossed in the state of the scene, not simply a lack of venues overall.

“This city is hungry for shows that aren’t ‘alcohol-centric,’ places where fans can go to actually connect in an intimate setting with bands and artist,” Boldwin said. “Unfortunately, people in the community would rather forego logic and inadvertently are feeding the basement show [and] underground scene.”

While it might be easy for music fans in Boston to attend a concert on any given night, it is more difficult for local musicians to book multiple shows in order to make a living when Live Nation New England or The Bowery manage most of the venues in the city.

The Bowery, which deals with the booking for many venues including the Royale and Great Scott, turns down about half of the bands they receive booking requests from, whether they are local or big-name touring bands, Bhatti said. At the end of the day, these venues look at which bands will deliver the best shows, regardless of how popular they are.

“Compared to other cities, [Boston] is a good market,” Bhatti said. “But it’s hard regardless. If you’re a local band just playing around town, it can be very difficult. To be a band anywhere, just playing in one area…it’s tough.”

Even for Cask Mouse, a band conceived in December 2010, booking still remains an issue.

“Booking shows is work, hard work,” Boldwin said. “We spend a lot of time booking, trying to make sure we can really bond well with other bands and making sure we can put asses in the proverbial seats.”

This issue is not a matter of not being able to make it as a band, Grieco said, but not being able to make it as a band in Boston.

“In Boston, you’ve got bands trying to make it, trying to make a living while playing one show a month, while in New York, you have bands that can play three times a week,” he said. “The fact of the matter is bands make a living out there. Musicians can do that. And there are a lot of bands coming out of Boston that try to do this, but half of the time, they move because that support isn’t there. That foundation doesn’t exist.”

While it might be difficult for Boston bands to make a living and break out of the small New England scene, it’s not impossible. Bhatti points to Passion Pit, the Cambridge-based indie pop group, as a recent example.

Passion Pit got their start in the Boston scene playing shows at venues like Great Scott. Now, they book gigs at festivals, such as Boston Calling and Austin City Limits, as well as television performances on shows like “Saturday Night Live.” The question is, how many newer bands can follow in the footsteps of groups like Passion Pit with the current system in place?

The city has taken some steps toward changing the attitude toward nightlife, such as extended hours of operation for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s subway system on the weekends, but it’s not enough, Grieco said.

“The next step is extending that [extended hours of MBTA subway service] every day of the week or maybe granting liquor licenses that allow bars to open later as well,” he said. “It’s not to say that these laws aren’t already being investigated because everyone who works for the city knows there’s a problem.”

Boldwin said those looking to change the Boston music scene can find strength in numbers.

“I’m pretty sure Mayor Walsh gets it. I think City Hall supports the arts and sincerely tries to connect with the culture of Boston,” he said. “The solution is being persistent and getting some friends who can get the ear of those in office. It would be great to see something immediately, but all good things take hard work and time.”

But official venues or not, Boston bands will always find a way to do what they love, Grieco said.

“The thing about musicians that I find myself continually saying when talking about this stuff is that musicians will do whatever it takes to present their craft,” he said. “They’re going to play in the basements. They’re going to play apartments. It’s going to be illegal. They don’t care. It’s never going to stop and Boston doesn’t realize that it’s never going to stop because they continue to strip these young musicians of places to play. So when that happens, they [the musicians] are going to do it themselves.”

Hannah Landers contributed to the reporting of this article.

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  1. Very interesting piece!

  2. Hope music could be just music, would be much easier to have fun!