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The iconic safe box and a stack of speakers at New Alliance Audio. Photo by Ryan DiLello. Copyright 2023 Ryan DiLello.
The iconic safe box and a stack of speakers at New Alliance Audio. Photo by Ryan DiLello. Copyright 2023 Ryan DiLello.

Seek more support from local government as crisis facing creative workers deepens

(Somerville Wire) – The reinvigorated Somerville music community is emerging from the pandemic demanding more support from the City, but faces organizing challenges.

“In some ways it’s not the government’s job to figure out advocacy, it’s their job to respond to it,” said Ami Bennitt of the Arts Stays Here Coalition. “It’s the community’s job to figure out how to organize ourselves—it can be messy, incomplete, and challenging, but I would say that most advocates, once they learn about each other, usually join together. That first principle of advocacy is one group, one voice.”

Earlier this month, Somerville’s DIY music festival, PorchFest, saw over 350 bands organize independent shows for thousands of attendees. The event displayed the density and strength of the music community but also its lopsided economics. 

“People love our music. And those bands didn’t get paid for it. But you know who did get paid? Bars, liquor stores, restaurants, nearby retail. All those people made a lot of money and I’m happy for them and happy that a thriving arts event can be a benefit to everybody but somebody got the short end of the stick, those who generated all that revenue,” said Ethan Dussault, the owner of New Alliance Audio in Union Square.

Three days before PorchFest, on May 10, advocates met with Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, members of the Somerville Arts Council and the Planning Board at New Alliance Audio’s live room to discuss challenges facing local music. It was the mayor’s sixth stop on a listening tour of arts spaces in the city. And according to SAC Cultural Director Rachel Strutt, it was the result of months of planning by SAC staff.*

A week after the meeting, the attendees co-wrote a thank you letter to the mayor, recapping their discussion, and making a number of demands including creating a task force to advise city officials on the needs of performance spaces, protecting outdoor performance spaces, and revamping the Armory building. 

“It was a meaningful gesture for the mayor to sit down with us. That’s not something musicians asked for—that was something that was offered,” said culture volunteer Jenn Harrington. “People really need to speak up and say that they’re unhappy and do it in a way that reaches people who can help. You can’t just complain into the void. Unfortunately for Somerville, we don’t have a dedicated space to meet and discuss,” Harrington said. 

“It’s also difficult to say as a community, let’s get together once a month, because we don’t have that organizational body. It’s going to be more work. But people who were at this meeting—bookers, musicians, activists—are invested in trying to get the community together,” Harrington said. Community members in attendance included Emily Arkin of Girls Rock Boston, Sam Epstein from the Jungle, Marji Gere from Around Hear, JJ Gonson from ONCE, and Mike and Jessica Tybursky from Somerville Music Spaces. 

The Somerville Arts Council is the City department with a mandate to work with local creative communities. More than a year after the release of the Somerville Arts Space Risk Assessment Report, a study on the city’s need for arts spaces, the Somerville Arts Council recently hired an Arts Development Manager, Michael Rosenberg, to carry out the recommendations of the report. 

The SAC also launched an Arts Space Connector tool which connects artists with available spaces. But that’s been a challenging process.

“It’s not zoning, incentives, sometimes it’s not even space—it’s who’s going to run it?” said SAC Director Gregory Jenkins. Recently, the SAC notified its list of musicians in need of space about a lease availability on a 4,000 square-foot building. They received three responses. 

What is preventing operators from stepping up or getting in touch with the SAC to start a permanent music space is not entirely clear—beyond the mounting effects of the ongoing economic crisis on local arts communities that the Somerville Wire will try to delve into more deeply over time—but some players on the cultural scene believe that pop-ups offer a less high-stakes option.

Pop-ups can be a low-barrier, high-impact way to meet an immediate need for music space while simultaneously proving new concepts that can be preeminently implemented,” said Aaron Greiner, the director of CultureHouse, a nonprofit that specializes in creating temporary arts spaces around the Boston area. “Pop-ups can also activate unused spaces temporarily, keeping them active and benefiting property owners and musicians alike,” he said.

Permanent or pop-up the Somerville music community needs a public space to unite, but it currently lacks the community organization to advocate for one. 

“I would anecdotally say the arts and culture sector in some ways does not have very much advocacy period—that’s speaking outside of government,” said Ami Bennitt of the Art Stays Here Coalition. Art Stays Here’s work in preventing displacement is creating an organic network of artists and musicians, but the organization is focused on saving particular existing arts spaces.

Ethan Dussault serves on the steering committee for Art Stays Here. “I’ve become much closer to people in other buildings through Art Stays Here. Now those people are connected to the Coalition and we’re constantly trying to figure out how to get artists what they want.” 

Even with better connections, music advocates like Jenn Harrington are concerned about efficacy. “We can co-write letters; we can demand answers; we can try to push especially during the election year for some sort of help but in the end, the musicians just don’t have money to buy in this market. There’s a lot of frustration because people are putting in the hours trying to make something work, but there’s very little coming out of it,” said Harrington. 

Dussault thinks better incentives for development and more subsidies for the arts would help address economic challenges. “The creative economy has been forced to scrape by forever. Everyone wants what we make but no one wants to pay for it. Art has to be paid for in new ways because the old ways don’t cut it,” he said.

“It’s amazing that a small group met for one afternoon and documented six pages of solutions. I want you to hear these important thoughts from the musicians and promoters who do the good work every day,” Harrington said, addressing the City Council during a regular meeting May 25. 

“I ask that you reserve a meaningful platform, as the city council of Boston did, for those in the local music industry to speak, to share their stories, and to convince you that action is imperative to save and allow for new music spaces right now. City Council, I hope you create this forum for our musicians, promoters, and venue owners, employees, and volunteers. I hope you create this forum for our community, and every community, who thrive … not on another bank, another brew pub, another empty storefront … but on the arts … that rare, often undefinable thing, that reminds us why we persist.” 

The City Council tabled the topic for later discussion in anticipation of an order calling for the forum.

*5/30/23 Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the meeting in question was called “a bit spontaneously” rather than the product of deliberate organizing by the Somerville Arts Council. We regret the error.

This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service—a project of the IRS 501(c)(3) tax-deductible nonprofit Somerville Media Fund.

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Ryan DiLello is the staff reporter for the Somerville Wire

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