The down side of upsizing Boston’s music venues

New Balance World Headquarters is the anchor for the Boston Landing development, which is soon to include addition of a 3,500-capacity music hall.


It may be hypocrisy for an advocate of the arts to find fault with adding more music venues in a city that is having trouble keeping ones it has. While I do welcome anything that adds to the cultural opportunities in Boston, I see a troubling side to the insatiable desire of developers to maximize capacity and, hence, the bottom line in the trend of building oversized music venues such as the three currently in planning stages.
These include this week’s announcement of a 3,500-capacity music hall planned by The Bowery Presents for the now sprawling Boston Landing complex in Brighton, and previously revealed designs for a cooperative Live Nation/Boston Red Sox venue in a 5,000-seat concert theater adjacent to Fenway Park, and Big Night Live, another Live Nation partnership, with plans for 40,000 square feet of “live entertainment and nightlife space” to be incorporated into the Hub on Causeway, part of the new entrance to TD Garden. (Though Live Nation and Big Night Entertainment Group have not offered any firm capacity projections, initial estimates placed it at about 2,000.)
These very large rooms purport to fill a void between the large available venues, such as the Wilbur Theater (1,093 seated capacity) and Royale (775 SRO), and obscenely cavernous landings for the 15,000-plus arena shows.
All this begs the question: What about the local artists and fans within our rich music community? The appetite for bigger spaces and revenues will soon outpace the market, just as the residential building boom is doing in Boston. With the proliferation of “luxury living” developments spiking the city’s housing costs and driving out folks of lower and moderate incomes, the same is sure to happen with overly ambitious music halls — which result in inflated ticket prices. We’ll soon find out how much the average person’s entertainment budget can endure when shelling out for big-ticket shows by big-budget promoters in grossly oversized rooms.
Yes, I understand that the new financial reality for professional musicians means album sales no longer drive earnings. The prolific Jim Lauderdale, 61, who has released as many as three albums in one year, once lamented to a Ryman Auditorium audience that he must tour for more shows in his later years than he did earlier in his career. “Do I want to be on the road that much?” he said. “No, but I have to if I’m going to make a living.”
And there is another financial reality in the music industry. As I learned in one of the first music marketing workshops I attended, the panelists reported that 99% of industry revenue goes to the top 1% of musicians. These big-ticket developments planned for Boston will only deepen the divide and tip the scales further toward the one-percenters.
Unless our local musicians are invited to perform opening acts in the new mega-halls, the proliferation of such places is sure to erode both their fans’ budgets and continued viability of the smaller places in which they currently play. Evidence shows that it’s a challenge to make a go of smaller establishments that cater to music in greater Boston. We have lost a slew of them over the past several years. The large majority of the smaller venues have capacities that hover around 100 — Lizard Lounge, Club Passim, Sally O’Brien’s, Burren Backroom, etc. These are the sorts of intimate performance spaces that I favor and frequent. I want nothing to do with Big Night Live’s vision of offering “VIP tables with bottle service, LED walls surrounding the stage … [and] luxurious private suites overlooking the stage.” This sounds more like the Fenway Park style of corporatizing its base of patrons. Soon the music venues in this city will similarly be the domain of the ultra-wealthy individual and businesses looking to ply clients with access to such exclusive offerings.
On a cautionary note, one of the first of this new wave of mammoth music halls planned for Boston, a 4,000-capacity venue first proposed in 2017 for Hood Park in Charlestown, saw the plug pulled before construction ever began. The would-be developers cited concerns over financial feasibility in both construction costs and future returns. They initially projected a need to book about 250 nights per year, around 100 of those at full capacity, to make a go of it. That means booking and selling more than four shows per week. The project was scrapped about a year later due to those economic concerns and pushback from fearful residents.
Granted, Boston is one of the few large American cities to lack a 1,000-plus general admission venue beyond the 2,500-capacity House of Blues, the big-box store equivalent of music rooms. But do we really need to simultaneously add three music halls that would more than double that need?
What greater Boston really needs is a replacement for the much beloved Johnny D’s Uptown Music Club. Its comfortable space with cabaret style seating fit 300 for shows, and was an attractive stop for national touring musicians and locals alike. It was not a lack of financial viability that closed the Davis Square institution. Given that her family’s stewardship of the club spanned 47 years, owner Carla DeLellis said it was simply time to get out from the burden of day-to-day management. I’d love to see a similar model — especially since Boston City Winery whiffed badly in trying to fill that mid-sized model. 
Until that happens, I look to continue communing with 99 of my finest music-loving friends at the Lizard, where there is no need for all the trappings, “LED walls and bottle service.” Just the ear-candy: music.