Microphone on stage

Space Matters: A Call for Community Action

With our collective action, it is within our grasp to begin to create a new kind of concert hall for the 21st century—bringing in new audiences, inspiring new generations through art and music, and building stronger communities.

Written By

Brian Chin

Microphone on stage

Carnegie Hall. Covent Garden. The Louvre. Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame Cathedral. No doubt, venue matters. Watching baseball in Yankee Stadium is a completely different experience compared to watching a game at the local high school. A concert in Disney Hall is a different experience than at the downtown proscenium theater. Hearing a rock band in an arena is different than at the club down the street.

For thousands of years, we have built grand structures to honor what we deem most important—the temples of Greece, the Roman coliseum, the capitol building, and the concert hall. We have been consuming music in opulent European-style churches, gilded halls, and luxurious salons for hundreds of years. These settings lift up and support a musical art form built upon the shoulders of wealthy aristocrats and the social elite. These locations helped to elevate the music of the Western art tradition.

But times have changed. Symphonies now struggle to pack houses as their core demographic yearning for Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms has aged. Subsequent generations of symphony goers raised on electrified music are accustomed to the related changes in music venues—from huge sports arenas to intimate jazz clubs. In recent years, we have witnessed musicians producing concerts in even more nontraditional spaces—from suburban living rooms to dance studios. An even younger audience is increasingly more accustomed to an internet experience, and we’ve already seen live webcasting become a part of our space equation.

This quest for new spaces is valid and important but is not without challenge. The biggest obstacle for new music is the price tag. Traditional halls are extremely expensive to rent and often come with a high degree of associated labor expenses and financial risk. The typical individual composer, performer, or small organization has an uphill battle in finding traditional spaces that are affordable and available. Many of us also want to find spaces that are flexible and where a sense of intimacy can be created. To find this, we often look at multi-purpose venues that are not necessarily designed for acoustic music. This can create a wonderful atmosphere and intimacy with the performers but can be challenging when it comes to acoustic quality, location familiarity, and the need for additional equipment (lighting, pianos, percussion loading). We are also often competing for access with other groups such as the theater companies and dance troupes that typically use these spaces. Still others are crossing genre lines and performing in traditional jazz and rock venues to mixed results.

I have been getting the message for quite some time now that the new, adventurous, artistic music of today needs a new kind of concert hall that can lift up the sounds, honor the audience experience in the artistic process, and frame the work of a community of fearless music makers.   The bottom line: we need more dedicated spaces for music of the 21st century.

Nationally we are seeing this need met with a couple of different models. Venues like Le Poisson Rouge, Redcat, and National Sawdust are unique, dedicated music spaces outfitted with the latest technology that are hip, fun, and quality places to listen. But these are rare and special places. Privately owned venues provide an enterprising option for access to music but most need to make sure that the financial bottom line is always the first consideration. All too often, clubs are unwilling to take chances on new or developing shows, and we need more spaces to create access for all artists.

The artist consortium models like iBeam (Brooklyn), The Center for New Music (San Francisco), and Exapno (Brooklyn) are brilliant models that provide access to rehearsal and performance spaces, share resources, and build audiences using their collective power. Across the country we can work together to create more venues that honor the music and help audiences engage. Even now I am involved with creating a much needed physical space here in Seattle and know that much work lies ahead. Ultimately, the difficulty of pulling off this model is why it will be hard to scale this nationally—creating partnerships, finding adequate physical space, the time equity required, and the financial risk are just some of the barriers.

Every once in a while, we get a developer with vision (and often a financial incentive) to build into their plans a public performance space. The Seattle area has had several developers independently commit to taking this on and they have brought us 12th Ave Arts and Resonance Hall at Soma Towers. While these spaces are much appreciated, they are still not enough to impact the whole city, and there are few cities in the world that are experiencing the level of rapid growth and development that Seattle is. What more developers need is an incentive and a mandate.

Nationally, 28 of our state government’s have a Percent for Art program that funds public art at a percentage of the total cost for all new federal building projects. Many municipalities also have city ordinances that require new buildings to spend a percentage (usually around 1%) on art for the public benefit. We must work together as advocates to demonstrate the importance of contemporary performing space as well and find a way to sell the need for such support to a larger public.

Our formal symphony venues will continue to honor the standard Western European repertoire of the past, but we have grown beyond the 19th century-style hall. Our cities are changing rapidly and it’s time to pick up the cutting-edge contemporary performance space as a platform to honor the values of our society in the same way we continue to fund libraries in a digital age. With our collective action, I think it is easily within our grasp to begin to create a new kind of concert hall for the 21st century—bringing in new audiences, inspiring new generations through art and music, and building stronger communities. This is doable. This is my call to action.