As Boston changes, local bands forced to become musical migrants

By Olivia Gehrke

On a Sunday night at the Middle East Upstairs, locals gathered to hear the jagged, jangly rock of Philadelphia’s Palm, supported by local rock band Kal Marks and Boston indie pop band Bat House. The edgy guitar riffs and sporadic drum beats cut through the hum of locals laughing and swaying along to the music. The small dark room filled with the smell of cigarette smoke coming through the door tucked away in the back, as the resident show promoter, Alex Pickert, looked on at Bat House’s guitarist, Ally Juleen, who soloed to an applauding crowd. The show was electric, but the local bands responsible for generating these energetic shows in Boston have been changing.

A year before, the bill might have been complemented by IAN SWEET, a melodic art pop band hailing from Boston. The three-piece would play a show what seemed like every other week, whether it was in a dim, grimy basement in Allston, or on the humble stage of the longstanding pub, the Great Scott. Nowadays, IAN SWEET playing a show in Boston is a celebratory homecoming rather than a usual installment in the weekend’s events. This is due to a recent exodus of Boston DIY bands to other cities.

In the past year, Boston lost bands like Steep Leans (Philadelphia), IAN SWEET (NYC), Ursula (Philadelphia), Guerilla Toss (NYC), and the now-defunct TeleVibes (who had planned to move to Austin, Texas shortly before taking an indefinite hiatus). Some say this is making the scene slowly lose its characteristic eclecticism. Between the expensive costs of living and booking shows in Boston and artists feeling like art and culture is being undervalued, the city has started becoming less and less of a musician’s haven.

“There was a lot more wacky, wild, extreme music happening five years ago than there is right now,” said Jeff Somers of the band Steep Leans.

Somers started playing as Steep Leans in 2013. His first album, Grips on Heat, came out in 2015. A few months and one U.S. tour later, he moved to Philadelphia. A Temple University graduate, he knew the city and wanted to go back and try playing music in the more “human” scene there.

“[In Boston] everything is so safe and so controlled—there’s no room for punk rock. You need some sort of lack of structure for that to exist,” said Somers. “Philly’s DIY scene, there’s less paranoia about noise complaints, pissing off your fancy neighbors. You can just play music in your basement all night.”

Jilian Medford of IAN SWEET also felt that Boston had been losing some of its “weirdness” the past few years and, as a result, has become less musically accessible.

“After a lot of the house shows shut down, a lot of the weirder, avant-garde generally slightly out-of-reach music started to disappear. I feel like a lot of people did move to New York, or get out of Boston,” said Medford. “People were discouraged and didn’t want to go to shows and stuff anymore.”

For Medford, a Berklee College of Music graduate, New York City was the logical next step in her creative musical career after graduating in 2015. She said she has been able to meet other people in the music industry helping her to “acknowledge everyone that has a part in music, even if it’s not on the creative side.”

“Boston is an incredible place to start a creative project, because people will really hop on and support it no matter what, but…at a certain point you do feel like you’re in a loop and coming back to the same place, playing at the same venues, playing with the same bands,” said Medford.

Venues like Shea Stadium—a show space up some creaky stairs in an abandoned warehouse building in the hidden depths of Brooklyn—that are not quite a DIY basement venue or a legitimate club venue, bur rather somewhere inbetween, allowed for Medford to see a lot of different music” and “constantly be playing with new bands and creating new things” which wasn’t necessarily possible in Boston.

Despite the advantages of other cities’ music scenes, some say Boston’s still has its perks.

Like Medford, Somers appreciated the musical community and opportunities that were available in Boston. In fact, he returned to Boston in the latter half of 2016 after his third tour with Steep Leans to continue making music.

“I realized I had way more connections and just more accessibility to playing music, and devices, tools, spaces,” said Somers. “All the things you need to play music were actually here in Boston.”

However, Chris DeCarlo, a promoter who books shows through the collective and blog Kids Like You and Me (KLYAM), noted how money, or the lack thereof, is making it difficult for anyone involved in the city’s music scene to be able to make art while simultaneously being able to live in Boston.

“I think, unfortunately, the city really doesn’t value art, at least in a monetary sense. It boils down to that. It’s tough in general, even booking shows, where a lot of the places have these huge rental fees you have to pay for,” said DeCarlo. “And then most of the bands don’t really make that much money, because they’re constantly spending money on different things, like recording and buying instruments and everything. It’s tough.”

The average rental price for an apartment in Boston averages around $2,700 a month, up nearly $1,000 since 2011, according to Zillow. To compare, apartments in Philadelphia rent for just under $1,500 a month on average.

Paying rent, working a job to pay for that rent and then still having the time and energy to make art is a near impossible feat, according to Somers. But the musicians who have remained here have relocated to areas just outside the city like Somerville and Jamaica Plain, where Somers currently resides, to be able to take advantage of what the city still has to offer. Or it’s become increasingly likely that they relocate to more affordable cities altogether.

Though the housing market is projected to be just as difficult for musicians moving forward, there continues to be local artists who are sticking it out. And with organizations and promoters like Boston Hassle, Allston Pudding, KLYAM, Illegally Blind and Deep Shred (to name only a few) that are dedicated to supporting Boston’s DIY artists in any way possible, perhaps musicians will hold their ground despite the otherwise unfavorable changes the city has been undergoing.

“The community is definitely strong,” said Medford. “It’s a very special place.”

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