The Times They Are A-Changin’ (Again)

By Olivia Gehrke

Morrissey once sang “I thought that if you had an acoustic guitar, then it meant that you were a protest singer,” in The Smiths’ 1985 hit “Shakespeare’s Sister.” Though this could have been true for Bob Dylan as he sang “The Times They are A-Changin’,” making waves with his quivering voice, the statement perhaps doesn’t hold as true today.

With the times a-changing once again in light of the recent presidential election, musicians are raising their voices to force political change as if on cue. But this time around, all that is needed is a computer, a determined DIY, grassroots ethic, and some creativity.

“[In the past] if you wanted to protest something, you had to be a band as big as Rage Against the Machine and you literally had to light a flag on fire to get your message across,” said Nick Regan, the founder of Deep Shred, a DIY collective Regan books shows under around Boston. It’s also described as being an “inclusive, virtual show space” that hosts online, livestreamed concerts.

“But now it’s as easy as organizing and clicking and typing. You don’t even need to light a flag on fire at Woodstock. It’s a lot easier now,” he said.

Under Deep Shred, Regan put together an extensive two-tape, 40-track compilation album titled Smooches. It features 39 local, national, and international artists, and all the proceeds from the tapes go directly to the American Civil Liberties Union, Planned Parenthood, National Immigration Law Center, and the Human Rights Campaign.

“Back in November when shit hit the fan politically, I was like ‘Wow, this sucks,’ and then I had a couple friends that weren’t too involved with Deep Shred reach out about being interested in releasing a kind of cassette,” said Regan. And Smooches was born.

Over the course of the next month, Regan and his friends reached out to countless bands, decided on charities, and put in orders for physical copies of the album.

The compilation was supposed to be released on cassette tapes by Trump’s inauguration, but due to a few “hiccups” in the tape orders, the release date was pushed back. However, because of the availability of the digital streaming platform for music like Bandcamp, Deep Shred was able to release the compilation immediately online and have it available for February 3, when Bandcamp donated their 25% profit from bands’ music to the ACLU.

“Before this fall, before this current presidency, I can’t really remember a time when anybody was really doing stuff like that. It kind of sucks that this is what it had to take for people to smarten up and be like ‘Yeah, yeah giving money to the ACLU is good,’” said Regan.

While some bands donated songs to put on compilations like Smooches, other took advantage of the online platforms to personally spread their thoughts on the current political climate. The Prefab Messiahs, a garage psych pop band formed in Mass. in 1981, released a kind of a protest song called “The Man Who Killed Reality” in March of this year. It’s accompanied by a cartoon animation of Trump, created by singer Xeth Feinberg.

Kris Thompson, the band’s bassist, said the band had “always grouched together about the state of things” and offered “social criticism” in the past, but was never that pointed or “specific” with their songs until they wrote “The Man Who Killed Reality.” Feinberg had started writing the song and finished it with the entire band, then animated the video that went along with it, which has since collected over 4,500 plays just on YouTube.

“[The music video] definitely helps [spread the message] because in the case of this song specifically, Trump isn’t named at all,” said Kris Thompson, the band’s bassist. “Probably someone could hear it any number of times and not necessarily suspect it’s about him. But when you hear the song as part of the video, there’s no question because it’s just lampooning him the whole way through.”

The grassroots activist music, especially in DIY scenes in Boston and other cities like NYC and Providence, is seemingly placing their roots in the digital domain. After Shea Stadium, an iconic DIY venue that supports independent musicians, was shut down, the venue raised just over $99,000 via an online fundraising campaign to help them get the proper permits to be a venue. Additionally, Deep Shred hosts online benefit shows, where a concert is livestreamed over the internet, and people can tune in and donate just as if they were at a live concert. Regan has raised money for the Dakota Access Pipeline protestors at Sacred Stone and also Ladyfest Boston, a music festival that took place in mid-April benefiting Rosie’s Place and Girls Rock Campaign Boston.

Even if the modern musical activism has taken a digital tangent, the premise remains much the same as it did decades ago.

Ruth Perry, an MIT humanities professor, recently held a protest song singing session during MIT’s Day of Action. She, being a folk musician and activist herself, is particularly interested in traditional folk songs of which protest songs are “a very large and serious component.”

“Genuine traditional folk music is not music that has been composed and produced in order to make money,” said Perry. “It’s the musical expression of people themselves…it comes out of people’s need to make music on these themes.”

And it’s this common philosophy of doing good out of internal necessity and a conscious mind that remains a theme in politically active music no matter the era or the scale of the platform, whether it’s to the millions who tuned in to hear Dylan on the radio, or the few hundred livestreaming a benefit show on their laptop.

“Using the platform that you’re on to spread good is the next best thing to do. When I wake up, I’m not like ‘It’s time to make some money! Let’s make some fans!’…You should wake up and be like ‘I’m going to do the next best thing. Oh, I can’t do that? I’m going to do the next best thing,’” said Regan. “It’s just paying it forward.”

 

Protest Song Timeline

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Harvard law student continues to share a 50-year-old message during Boston Marathon

Fifty years after the first female, Kathrine Switzer, raced in the Boston Marathon sending an empowering message to females around the globe, Harvard Law Student, Neha Sabharwal, ran the marathon hoping to relay the same message to young girls in the greater Boston area.

Sabharwal ran for the Girls on the Run marathon team, which raised money to benefit Girls on the Run, a national organization that empowers girls from third to eighth grade through a motivational curriculum based upon running.

Sabharwal got involved with the organization when she herself began running as an undergraduate student at Duke University, and continued her involvement when she began law school at Harvard University. Her love for running developed alongside the girls’ who she coached and mentored in the program.

“[Girls on the Run] provides a really healthy environment that fosters what we think is truly an opportunity to push self-esteem development and honestly, through teamwork itself, which is a really beautiful thing,” said Sabharwal. “And they get to become confident through sheer physical strength and fitness, which is something we do think is a natural form of empowerment for girls.”

For the marathon, Sabharwal along with her teammates who also have been engaged with Girls on the Run, raised almost $100,000 for the organization.

“Our policy is to not turn any girl away based on her family’s ability to pay for the program, so the runners are helping to raise scholarship funds for girls otherwise can’t afford the program,” said Bethany McDonald, the executive director of the Greater Boston Girls on the Run chapter.

After completing the marathon with a 4:24:44 time, Sabharwal hopes that girls realize their potential through the sport of running.

“I think that’s just a powerful reminder that this sport is really something that both men and women can do equally well and equally beautifully,” she said.

 

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.”

Quotes from Upcoming Profile: Part 2

More quotes from Jeff Somers for my upcoming profile on the exodus of Boston bands.

Philly feels more like a city because you have diversity and culture. It’s culture—that’s all it is. When everything is a state-of-the-art, modern condominium, that’s the death of art.

~

I think [Boston] is pushing artists out. I don’t think people want to leave the place where their network is and their friends are.

Quotes from Upcoming Profile

Here are some quotes from my upcoming feature on the current micro-exodus of Boston bands leaving to go to other U.S. cities. I spoke to Jeff Somers of Boston-turned-Philadelphia-turned-Boston (again)-based band about why he left Boston and why others have been following in his footsteps in the past year.

“The double-edged sword of these liberal modern cities [like Boston] is the regulations and too much sterility. 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.”

~

“[Boston’s DIY scene] was better five years ago, four years ago. It was a little bit crazier. A lot of artists have moved out. There was a lot more wacky, wild, extreme music happening five years ago than there is right now. 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. It’s a mixed-up city.”

No Ban, No Wall: Protesters gather at Marsh Plaza to “rally against xenophobia”

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside Marsh Plaza at Boston University on Jan. 30 to voice their frustration with President Trump’s recent ban on immigration.

“Boston is an incredibly diverse city and it’s so important for a city like Boston to stand in solidarity with the affected groups,” said Yasmin Younis, one of the rally’s organizers.

The idea for the rally arose after Trump enforced a ban on immigrants from seven primarily Islamic countries. As immigrants were being detained in airports around the country, Younis was working to gather Boston’s community to express their discontent.

“I think what [Trump] did with this executive order has sent a very terrifying message to the rest of the world,” said Rose Smith, one of the protesters present at the rally Monday.

“The fact that Trump has signed so many executive orders in such a short amount of time, and is pushing something that none of the people actually want is horrifying,” said Emily Lainet, an Emerson College student who also attended the rally.

Though fear and anger motivated protestors, the rally also offered a sense of solace to those present. Poems were read expressing sadness, but also optimism. Hopeful slogans like “The people united will never be defeated,” echoed throughout Marsh Plaza.

The protest was followed by a “debriefing session” arranged by Younis in order to discuss practical steps to take moving forward in the fight against xenophobia.

“I hope this makes noise and gets the attention of those who don’t necessarily understand why what’s happening is wrong,” said Younis. “I hope people will use this momentum to continue to strive to make a difference.”