Community Music Workspace Expansion

Boston, MA

Contact Name
Matt McArthur
Project Dates
March 2011-November 2018
Workshop Leader
Creative Communities Exchange (CCX) 2019
Real Estate, Networking, Entrepreneurship, Workforce Development
After 8 years of offering high quality, low-cost community recording studios our facility is now operating at full capacity. We host more than 1,300 recording sessions for more than 3,500 music makers each year and freelance producers and engineers run their own small businesses out of our space. Today we turn makers away daily so in 2019 we’ll break ground on an expanded 12,500 square foot music workspace with recording, rehearsal, and community event capabilities. Here we present our learning over the past 8 years including the planning taken on that led us to our current concept for expansion.
Project Goals
What were the specific goals of this creative economy project? Describe the community development challenge or opportunity that your project was designed to address:
The space was originally designed to address issues of community access to music recording space, both for musicians but also for music producers and recording engineers who lacked access to a professional space to serve their clients. The concept for the project originated from the realization that no one needed to own a recording studio but a great number of people needed access to one. We wanted to create a space where anyone could walk in and record and that involves issues of cost, issues of cultural competence, flexible operating practices so folks can work however they like to work.

Music makers in our community have a very difficult time accessing space to create. On top of Boston’s general space crisis and the real estate pressure that is shuttering music spaces every month, leasing/renovating/operating real estate is not a music maker’s primary goal, and it certainly isn’t their core competency. We find this is true with small organizations as well. We are the space operators for the benefit of any individual or organization who needs it.
If the goals change over time, please describe how:
The biggest adjustment over the years was from an age-based access model to a universal access model. Originally we had programming for specific age groups, a teen program, and we ultimately found that the most authentic and effective programming we could offer was a more hands off, “let the community use the space however they want”, approach. We also had educational workshops for some time. We ultimately cut those in favor of making more studio time, and thereby more experiential learning opportunities available to our users.

In recent planning processes we tested a number of assumptions and were surprised about some of the answers. For example, as we considered expansion of our space, we assumed that music performance space was a high priority for our community. We learned that rehearsal was a greater need and priority and as result our expansion strategy pivoted to focus on music rehearsal space.
Who was involved in this project and what did they do? (be sure to include the partners from outside of the creative sector and how local voices were included):
The start of the space was a very bootstrapped, hands on process. It was essentially myself, a co-founder, a soldering iron and our credit cards. I did the 501c3 paperwork on my living room floor and we begged and borrowed and scrapped together our first space. Today a team of 12 runs the space, and there have been countless volunteer contractors and staffers and donors that have helped get us to where we are today including a number of community foundations like The Boston Foundation and, more recently, the Barr and Klarman Family Foundations.

The truth is our earliest partners were our makers in the community. We operated (unsustainably) on about 90% earned revenue for the first three years. We relied entirely on fee for service. As we worked to beef up our staff and our capacity we had to learn to fundraise to cover the gaps without passing the increase cost on to our users. Today we operate on 25% earned revenue, but our expansion will have use moving back to 75% earned revenue over the next 3 years.
How does this project relate to a larger community development strategy?
There are some community development initiatives outside of our organization that our work fits into, like Mayor Walsh’s small business economic develop plan as well as the Boston Creates Cultural Plan.

There’s an interesting tension with music workspace, specifically recording space, because affordable technology has now made it possible to recording and create music very successfully in almost any technical environment: a bedroom, a classroom, a living room, a recording studio, a name it. For us it’s about the importance of getting together with other humans in an intentional space to make a thing. You can pray at home, but you go to church. (Or perhaps closer to home: you can drink at home but you to to a bar!) Why? To commune with other people, to participate in a greater human experience. Music making is the same...under the best conditions the outcome is greater than the sum of its parts. The psychological benefit of leaving home and going to work can’t be understated.

Our larger community development strategy is empathy through making something with other people. Getting together in person and looking them in the eye and participating in the intimate and vulnerable process of making music together. We can’t tell you exactly what the outcome of universal creative expression through music is, but we are committed to finding out.

Creating a physical community space to encourage that culture of making together to develop is our current tactic. Future tactics include professional development programming for those with the least access, community events designed to invite users with a variety of experiences to get to get together and know one another, and programming partnerships with organizations across neighborhoods, likely related to operating music making space within their existing facilities, to improve the accessibility and connectivity of community music workspace.
What projects or places, if any, inspired your approach to this creative economy project?
We didn’t look at any other projects specifically in the beginning, but we since have found a number that inspire us:

AS220 in Providence
The Center for New Music in San Francisco
Music City San Francisco
Ft. Knox and 2112 in Chicago
Women’s Audio Mission in San Francisco
Project Specifics
Please list the steps taken to implement the project:
Early 2010 - Built 1st facility in basement of youth center in Cambridge, MA. Flooded and was destroyed in the summer of 2010.
Fall 2010 - Sign lease and begin construction on existing facility.
March 2011 - Open 1st half of current facility.
April 2012 - Operating at capacity, planning expansion
March 2013 - Open 2nd half of current facility. (Studio B)
March 2016 - Operating at capacity, begin discussing expansion
Fall 2016 - Begin first long range strategic plan
Mid 2018 - Complete strategic plan, begin expansion campaign planning
Fall 2018 - Lease negotiation / capital campaign begins
(Fall 2019 - construction commencement)
If the project steps changed over time, please describe how:
As you can probably tell, they changed a lot. I describe the last 7 years of building the space as 3 years of having absolutely no idea what we were doing, 2 years of getting intentional and selective about what work we were going to do vs. what we weren’t, and 2 years of actually being strategic. But here we are...more effective and more organized than ever before!
What were your major obstacles for the completion of the project?
Our first location flooded about a month after we completed that was not helpful.
In the second iteration, the location we currently operate, the funding catch-22 was a major hurdle. You can’t raise money until you’re providing a meaningful service, but you can’t provide meaningful service without money.

Getting clear about priorities and theory of change. As a small upstart nonprofit we’re so busy just trying to keep the lights on we don’t have a lot of opportunities to step outside and look back at what we’re doing. It literally took years to build the capacity to do that.

Legibility. To this day we are still borderline illegible to donors, individual and institutional. I sometimes describe our work as the work of Fedex. What you really emotionally care about is who sent the package to you and what’s in the package. But what about who delivers the package? That’s us, we enable the who and the what, and as a service organization, an intermediary, that makes telling our own story and making our own case for support very difficult.
Who or what was instrumental in overcoming these obstacles?
Leaving! We made the decision that night to move out. We didn’t wait around to find out if the space was going to be repaired or what the future held there, we just knew we had to go and we did.

Very risky financial decisions. My co-founder and I put a great deal of faith in the organization in the form of using our personal credit facilities to start it. I would definitely not recommend it, but it was ultimately a good decision for us. We both have since been repaid and the community benefit we’ve created was more than worth the risk.

Time and patience. It just took time and experience and some good leadership along the way, from board members and a few institutional donors, like The Boston Foundation, that made small planning grants in the 3rd and 4th years. I shouldn't make it sound only like a financial issue, it took will and a desire for self improvement. We’ve stayed hungry...never accepting what we’re currently doing as good enough. There’s always something to learn, always something to improve.

This is our biggest challenge to date. We have some of our catchy phrases we’ve developed over time “you can pray at home but you go to church” “every music maker. No barriers” “music was always there for you. We’re there for those who make it” but even the catchiest of phrases and the glossiest of booklets can’t overcome the un-sexiness of being an intermediary. Some of the work involves better data and impact collection, better multimedia collection (our users sharing their stories) but mostly it involves our own internal re-orientation to describing the work that we do in simpler and simpler terms. “A public park for music making” “it should be as easy to get together and make music as it is to gather in a park and play basketball”. This will be a never ending process, continually trying to explain and justify our work.
What top three suggestions would you give to others attempting a similar project?
DO IT. Just do it. You’ll never have a perfect business plan, a perfect financial model, the right advisory board, the best logo or tag some point you just have to do it. And looking back we did some crazy things, like throwing our credit cards down for an organization that we would never own, but when you just throw yourself into something you come up with solutions along the way. It’s been a critical part of our process.

Building off of point 1: I would try and “do it” on a slightly less-risky scale. I think our original concept of trading space for programming in a youth center was a good one. The flood was an anomaly, overall that was a good strategy because it allowed us to experiment without signing a long term lease.

Challenge your assumptions sooner than we did. We spent about 2 years assuming that music performance space was a critical need and a simple community survey proved us wrong. We could have put that survey into the field much sooner and we’d probably be further along today (and more importantly might have brought some rehearsal capacity online before the local environment became as desperate as it is today).
Project Impact
How has this project strategically connected arts and cultural activities to social, economic, and cultural issues in your community? What is different in your community as a result of this project?
3,500 people a year have a place to record and produce their own music which many use to advance their professional careers. 250+ recording engineers have a space to run their own small businesses on annual basis. That’s the economic part of it at least.

The relationship between music making and social and cultural issues are deep and complex. As an intermediary, a facilitator of the art of others, we’re not catering to a particular musical goal or outcome, but it’s true that a significant number of our users are participating in music making as a means of amplifying their voice and building power. Telling one’s story and building empathy in the community. Just think about all of the things that music has made you think and feel over the course of your life. It’s hugely influential.

The music scene in Boston is segregated: by race, by genre, by class, by professional orientation. And what we’ve been able to do is build a space that is used, daily, but a great diversity of people. One of our users recently won a grammy for work he did in Studio B, and yesterday the Boys and Girls Club was here with a group of young people, building on the skills and experience they had gained in the music clubhouse at their youth center. Tomorrow it could be Arnie, the professional masseuse who loves singing Barbra Streisand covers for fun and to share with family.

Our core values speak to the belief that “more is more” an, abundance mentality. It's opposite, scarcity mentality, the idea that there isn’t enough to go around, is the real enemy. Another value of ours “no heroes, no assholes” is about building a community of people who are both supportive and nurturing in helping people accomplish their goals TOGETHER. You don’t have to be a hero - and we all have to be kind to each other. That’s what creativity is about...shared understanding and a deep human goodness.
Why do you consider the project successful, as related to your project goals above?
Our success really is in our utilization. We built a resource and it’s heavily trafficked. So heavily in fact that we have to build a bigger one!

There’s some more qualitative success factors as well: the things people say about us on social media, the stories we see online and hear in person, the music we hear on the other side of the door. We’re helping people share their stories and live their fullest lives…how could you not call that success?
How did you measure this success or progress?
Impact measurement is a huge growth area for us. We’ve got a long way to go. Historically we’ve measured the success of the community studios in numbers: how many people used it, how many hours of recording, how many unique projects, etc. That’s gotten us to a certain point.

In the last 2 years we’ve started looking at other factors. We’ve analyzed “.edu” in the email addresses of users as a means of determining approximately how many student users we’re serving. We’ve been working to serve fewer students and more native bostonians and as a result of intentional outreach and marketing efforts have achieved a 30% reduction in student users while still maintaining near 100% utilization.

We did similar intentional outreach to grow our base of hip hop users, knowing that hip hop was being made in Boston in a large proportion and our facility users were not representing that. In the last two years we’ve gone from 7% to 28% hip hop, with hip hop as the dominant genre of the facility.

We’ve also implemented a check in process where visitors and participants in sessions must all check in and provide information about their role as well as a zip code.

Still, for me the success is in the amount of content that’s being created. We’ve not come up with an effective way to measure it, but it can be found by looking at social media posts we’re tagged in. Just an incredible number of smiling faces, of links to albums, of mini testimonials about how having TRC and one’s own space to create is positively impacting people.
Please describe any unexpected impacts:
Diversity of user - we were very career oriented in the early days, which no doubt was a reflection of the founders. We learned over time that there are so many other reasons that people make music that are incredibly important. And most recently we made the connection that hobby musicians are often patrons of the emerging professional musicians and that we were having a positive impact on the businesses of career artists by connecting them with hobbyists through use of our facility.

The freelance impact - it was always a part of our mandate to have an “open shop” where anyone that wanted to act as recording engineer or producer could do so. This isn’t typical in most commercial recording studios these days, the house often provides that technical service. We knew this would be an important part of our work, but we couldn’t have guessed just how impactful it would be. Today we have interns that quit their internships because they’re too busy freelancing out of the facility. In our ongoing space transition we’ve had to close our larger recording studio temporarily, and it’s caused a bit of an uproar with freelancers concerned about how they’ll make ends meet with the room closed. It’s honestly more alarming than we’d anticipated.
CCX Workshop Handout