James Brown’s 1969 track “Funky Drummer” has been running on a loop in my head for the last several weeks, and not only because it’s the most sampled hip-hop track of all time. As Clyde Stubblefield hammers out an epic drum break, a frenetic Brown shouts, “Give the drummer some!”
As a musician in Boston today, it’s a hard verse to get out of one’s mind. Look around and it’s clear that the city simply isn’t giving its drummers, indie songwriters, violinists, and even tuba players the infrastructure they need to keep stoking a diverse music scene. Yet Mayor Walsh, by delivering on two campaign promises, could offer some relief.
One of Walsh’s pledges is to appoint a cabinet-level commissioner for arts and culture. That person, expected to be selected early this summer, will likely oversee the keeping of the mayor’s second pledge — the establishment of a Percent for Art program, which would tether a portion of the cost of large-scale developments to the creation of public art.
Boston’s new “arts czar” must consider the city’s thousands of working musicians as plans are drafted for the arts fund. The program’s funding should be targeted toward affordable practice space and housing for musicians in addition to the production of public concerts.
The city has run out of rehearsal space. These days there’s hardly anywhere for a cello and a marimba to meet. In neighborhoods across Boston, musicians lug unwieldy instruments up the stairs of triple-deckers for “house” rehearsals because it’s the only place to practice. But leases routinely prohibit the playing of instruments, and, in any case, apartment rehearsals are limited to the goodwill and noise tolerance of neighbors. The handful of private rehearsal facilities in the suburbs boast steep rates, and most are tucked away from public transportation.
Some of the cheapest in-city rehearsal rooms cost $20 an hour, and these small, spartan spaces are geared more toward the student garage band scene than the city’s working musicians. Private lessons are an essential second income to many of Boston’s musicians, and $20-an-hour rooms make an unforgiving dent in a lesson’s hourly rate. Rehearsal space at the universities is packed with students — even faculty struggle to find unbooked time in their own college facilities.
What’s more, despite the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s decade-long struggle to bring affordable housing to artists, professional musicians still find the city a painfully expensive town in which to own or rent a home.
Since 2002, the BRA and its Artist Certification program have attempted to carve out a space in the pricey real estate market for affordable artist housing. However, live-work complexes such as the Midway Studios have not become havens for working musicians. Scan through the member list of the Fort Point Arts Community, and you’ll find hardly any musicians among the names.
Boston is home to the oldest continuous artist building in the country, Fenway Studios. However, this is also tailored to visual artists, and there is no equivalent residence for Boston’s musicians.
Although many of Boston’s working musicians would qualify for affordable housing in these or similar communities, the typical loft-style accommodation doesn’t meet musicians’ need for rehearsal spaces to practice their craft and collaborate with others. New York began to address housing needs of performing artists decades ago with spaces like Manhattan Plaza, which has housed hundreds of musicians since opening in 1977.
The solution to the two-pronged problem of rehearsal space and affordable housing lies in the Percent for Art program. Similar initiatives in New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Chicago have funded thousands of works of art such as sculptures and murals. Boston’s Percent for Art should welcome musicians into the fold by earmarking funds to convert industrial spaces into rehearsal studios. Eventually, the program could help pay for a multi-arts complex in the spirit of Brooklyn’s new The Schermerhorn, which provides performance and rehearsal space at a low cost for the community and 100 residential units for performing artists.
Historically, Bostonians have celebrated music as a public art. I’m reminded of this each July 4 as hundreds of thousands of people pour onto the Esplanade to hear the Boston Pops, and throughout the summer as thousands of residents picnic at Boston Landmarks Orchestra concerts.
The Percent for Art initiative could meet Boston’s demand for music all year long with public performances scattered throughout the city. For instance, I can’t think of a single jazz artist who makes a living solely as a performing musician in Boston. So why couldn’t the fund sponsor pop-up jazz quartets to revitalize Downtown Crossing, sculpt our city’s public sounds, and provide our musicians with a livable wage at the same time?
Although many people know Boston as the “Athens of America,” less heralded is the city’s heritage as the birthplace of music education in the United States. Between the Boston Conservatory, Berklee College, the New England Conservatory, and the music programs at the city’s countless other schools, Boston is one of the world’s greatest launching pads for aspiring musicians.
Now let’s work to prove to our students that Boston is a viable town for a music career.