As a student and multi-disciplinary artist pursuing a master's degree in architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Darien Carr spends a lot of time thinking about what it means to exist in the many spaces we inhabit. He's using those learnings to help conceptualize a new facility for The Record Co., a nonprofit that provides affordable rehearsal and recording space for Boston-based music makers. "Right now, I'm trying to develop a vocabulary on how architecture and space can address identity," Carr tells me. "It's a deeper concept that confronts what it feels like to have race, gender, and class. When you start to consider that, and how people feel inside spaces, it becomes a topic we don't talk about enough."
It's a fine line to be walked when the institution says to be there, you have to exist in a specific way. You can't have the culture and ignore the people who are making the culture.Darien Carr
In October, Carr wrote an article for NPR Music about the resiliency of Boston's hip-hop community, whose talent has found themselves with fewer performance opportunities due to the pandemic. This is especially true for the city's hip-hop musicians, who historically have been forced to find surrogate spaces to make music and connect with their fans in a city that heavily favors rock acts. But many of the artists Carr spoke with also shared the experience of being invited into spaces to perform, yet not expected to bring their whole selves. It's a level of tokenism that local hip-hop artist Oompa says is "part and parcel of being a Bostonian, a Black Bostonian... People have the ability — and they constantly do — [to] tell you ways that you don't belong in a space," she says in the article.
"It's a fine line to be walked when the institution says to be there, you have to exist in a specific way," Carr adds. "You can't have the culture and ignore the people who are making the culture."
To Carr, hip-hop is much more than just a music genre: "It also represents a framework of creativity and essentially making it work with what you've got."
While the ingenuity of this community deserves praise, it's equally essential that the many inequalities it faces are addressed. The Record Co. aims to do just that.
A space by and for the community
Matt McArthur was 19 years old and in college when he founded The Record Co. "I had no clue what I was doing; I just knew that there were a lot of musicians in Boston who didn't have access to recording studios and equipment," he says. "The idea was simple: let's make a space that belongs to no one because it belongs to everyone."
Over the past ten years, The Record Co. has helped nurture the aspirations of local talent across musical genres, including Cliff Notez, who received six Boston Music Award nominations this year. Anjimile, whose critically-acclaimed debut album Giver Taker released in September via Father/Daughter Records, considers The Record Co. a critical community resource. "It's one of the few affordable recording studios in the city," they tell me. "I can't wait for them to reopen!"
Despite an industry-shuttering pandemic, The Record Co. is growing and has spent the last year working with the architecture and design firm Silverman Trykowski Associates to build a larger facility — a significant upgrade to their current two-room area — located at 960 Mass Ave. in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood. The new space, which today The Record Co. announced will be opening on Thursday, January 14, 2021, will have 15 rehearsal rooms, four recording studios, workshop training rooms, a meeting lab, a multipurpose room, and the building's largest recording studio will also double as an open community space.
"We thought we were just going to build more performance space," McArthur tells me, "But when we went to the community, they said, 'Actually, we don't need performance space; we need space to rehearse and write.' So we pivoted to build that instead."
McArthur jokes about parachuting in and telling people what they need, but I know he takes his commitment to this community seriously. For starters, the leadership council at The Record Co. is stacked with musicians and other members of the community it serves. Oompa and artist and producer Tim Hall are among the local music makers who currently hold seats, where they advise, inform, and make decisions alongside the board of directors. From the location to the equipment and everything else that goes into creating a shared workspace — even including the kind of fabric used for the furniture — the community is involved every step of the way. It's a strategy tied to the organization's mission to find new and unexplored ways to provide and make space even more accessible.
"People want to participate," McArthur says. "They want to be called in, not called out."
"This is the test"
Carr was an undergrad when he took an internship at The Record Co. in 2018. "I was making music, and I wanted to learn more about audio engineering, and I ended up working at the front desk," he says. "I decided that I wasn't going to be an audio engineer, but the experience helped me to pivot to applying to architecture school."
Carr returned to The Record Co. this year to work alongside Maria Bartolotta, Community Manager at The Record Co., on community-driven design initiatives for the expansion. After the pandemic hit, he pivoted his work to research how local musicians were responding, ultimately focusing on the hip-hop community.
"My first 'wow' moment was when Darien introduced us to the concept of alternative spaces," Bartolotta says. "He also showed us how the hip-hop community has been innovating due to the lack of access they have experienced. When we tie that all back to COVID-19 and what the music community is dealing with now — creating, distributing, and performing online — this is something that's not new to them. All of the discrimination they've experienced has equipped them with a special skill set to navigate this better than anyone else."
For years, Boston hip-hop artists have been using "second" spaces, like yoga studios or coffee shops, to perform and make music. Carr learned that while using non-traditional spaces for music may not seem ideal, many actually prefer the approach because it allows them to curate their experience and removes the expectations that traditional venues often place on their work.
"We're not bound to anything," hip-hop artist Brandie Blaze says in the NPR Music article. "We can do whatever we want and have an amazing time."
Carr says that when institutions place limits on people, it becomes difficult to identify their value. "But when you're opening your doors to people, and you're like, 'Hey, come in. We aren't going to tell you what to do, just do something that's of value to you,' then an institution becomes an essential part of empowering the community it serves," he says.
The question is, how will The Record Co. take this DIY experience and use it to create a primary space? "Well, if that ain't the $6 million question," McArthur laughs. "I think that's the biggest thing we're on the cusp of learning. Taking institutional resources and repackaging them in a way that's useful to non-institutional parties might be our legacy," he says. "This is the test."
"We're purposefully like a blank slate," Bartolotta adds. "We provide the space — and not just the physical space, but the communal figurative space — for people to form connections and community. That experience will look different for every person because they get to decide what they're going to use The Record Co. for."
But space is just one of the resources that this community needs. Across all genres, Boston's music makers are also looking for help with marketing, distribution, management, and other professional services to support their work. McArthur says it's impossible to say whether or not these types of resources will ever become a part of The Record Co.'s long-term roadmap. Still, he hopes that those conversations will start within the walls of the new location.
One of the projects that Carr has been helping with is designing a storefront space for the expansion. He tells me it was a magical moment for him when his research on the hip-hop community intersected with his design intentions. "Connecting those dots was an exciting part of it for me," he says. "How do you take a space that is traditionally used for advertising and subvert it to develop meaning to that space?"
"If you ask a signage vendor what should go in the window, they come up with vinyl cut advertisements about all the services we offer," McArthur adds. "But when you ask a member of the community what should be in that window (in the case of Darien's work), what you get is much more abstract and celebratory."
The final design for the storefront is still coming together, but McArthur says that Carr's research has helped the organization move past the idea of, literally, what should be in the window. "What should that window represent when we're talking about a community that's never had that point of pride before?" he says. "They've never had 500 square feet of space on Mass. Ave in Boston to say something. We don't need to advertise The Record Co. What we need to do is uplift and provide hope for the community that we serve."
All we need to do is ask
Carr has two-and-a-half years left in his architecture master's program and tells me that his work at The Record Co. has reinvigorated his desire to understand the many nuanced ways that spaces exist. He plans to explore them through several mediums, including video and making music of his own. "I'm just really trying to find the maximum amount of avenues to communicate and get ideas and stories out that I think are important," he tells me.
"I'm excited to see him make a dent in this space, one that's more human-driven, more community-driven," Bartolotta says of Carr. "He's more aware of so many things that might not be the main focus of other architects."
"I learned so much from literally just listening to people and asking their opinions about things," Carr replies. "It's those things that speak to the level of commitment The Record Co. has to this community and the services they will provide once they open up."
Bartolotta smiles. "The communication piece, we just take it for granted," she says. "All we need to do is ask. That's all we ever need to do."
The Record Co. will be opening the doors to its new location on January 14, 2021. They're currently taking reservations online at therecordco.org.