Local musicians struggle to find affordable practice spaces

PLAY STATION: On a Sunday in late August, local rock trio Nest held its last practice in unit 398 at the Extra Space storage facility. Though storage units were long an affordable solution for bands in need of rehearsal rooms, Extra Space’s policy prohibits rentals to musicians for that purpose.
PLAY STATION: On a Sunday in late August, local rock trio Nest held its last practice in unit 398 at the Extra Space storage facility. Though storage units were long an affordable solution for bands in need of rehearsal rooms, Extra Space’s policy prohibits rentals to musicians for that purpose. Photo by Cindy Kunst

While Asheville regularly racks up accolades on lists (“10 Small Cities With World Class Food Scene,” “12 Best Places to Retire in the U.S,” “10 Best Outdoor Towns in America”), one honor the town is not likely to receive is “Best Place for a Band to Practice.” Despite having one of the “10 Must-See Southern Music Venues” last year and being among the “Top 10 Music Cities Other Than Nashville” in 2015, Asheville comes up short on affordable practice spaces for its many local musical acts.

That’s been the story for years, but it recently took a turn for the worse: One of the temperature-controlled storage facilities where dozens of local artists have rented units for rehearsals and equipment storage asked those artists to leave last month. “There are bands that have gigs lined up with national touring acts, and they’re going to have nowhere to rehearse for these national shows,” says Papillon “Poppy” DeBoer of rock trio Nest. “If they can’t practice, there’s no band.”

No vacancy

DeBoer’s group (with Greg and Jo Mosser) and others — including Shadow of the Destroyer, Low Earth and Black Mountain Hunger — leased units at the former Ample Storage, which was purchased by Secure Care about two years ago. Recently, the facility was taken over by national company Extra Space Storage, which in the FAQ section of its website, states that it does not rent units to bands to be used as practice space.

“The policy resulted from a couple of concerns. The first was complaints from other tenants related to the noise,” says Jeff Norman, vice president of investor relations and corporate communications for Extra Space. The second concern was that when units were being used for anything other than storage, it meant tenants and nontenants spent more time on the property, “which increases risk to Extra Space Storage as a company. This could be related to accidents (slips and falls), damage to the property or vandalism of other units.”

Norman says Extra Space’s primary goal is for the safety of customers, employees and the goods being stored. Sick guitar solos need not apply.

At the same time, it’s arguable that those guitar solos (and banjo riffs, keyboard runs and drum rolls) are as valuable a part of Asheville’s creative culture as its arts districts and craft breweries. In 2016, the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau launched a destination music strategy and new music website, with a $150,000 music marketing initiative. Results from a study by the Economic Development Commission of Asheville-Buncombe County released earlier this year found Buncombe County’s music industry grew 52 percent from 2010 to ’16, outpacing the growth in Nashville.

24-hour access

Such an uptick in the music industry’s size necessitates growth in its infrastructure. When musician, producer and engineer Patrick Doyle relocated to Asheville from Los Angeles seven months ago, he still had unfinished projects. “I started looking for a lockout space,” he says, referring to 24-hour-access rehearsal rooms — often in a large building full of various-sized practice spaces and studios — rented by companies such as Bedrock.LA.

To Doyle’s surprise, no such service was offered in Asheville. “A band would always have a lockout space,” he says. Doyle has worked and toured with a number of acts, all of which used those rented rooms to store equipment, to load in and out, and to practice away from neighborhoods where noise ordinances discouraged loud and late rehearsals.

Doyle says he’s of two minds about the local storage-unit solution. “As a band member, I’d be thrilled I could spend $250 to rent a [space] and do that. I’m surprised the storage units would let them do that, but I’m all for it,” he says. Looking for something more conducive to quality sound, he ended up renting a production suite at the Roots + Wings Creative Campus in Oakley.

There, Doyle runs his own production business but also uses his live room — complete with a drum kit and bass amp — as a rehearsal space with a backline that bands can rent by the hour. It provides a solution for some local musicians and, “I’d like to do more of it, but my situation is unique,” he points out. The studio is in the back of a school, so there’s a cutoff time of 10 p.m. For many musicians, that’s when they’re just getting started.

If you build it

Other bands have made do with makeshift rehearsal spaces. An early version of Secret B-Sides practiced, after hours, in a Warren Wilson College classroom. Fashion Bath gathered in a tiny room above Maté Factor’s yerba maté processing facility. “We practice all over — sometimes in a shed in Black Mountain, sometimes in basements, living rooms, occasionally my shop,” says local rocker David Earl Tomlinson of his group. There’s something distinctly Asheville about such arrangements — and, for many artists, distinctly frustrating.

Claude Coleman Jr., drummer for Ween and his own project, Amandala, was also surprised to find that Asheville has no dedicated rehearsal space for local bands — or for the touring acts coming through town. “It’s difficult for me to function and go about my work,” he says. “There seems to be two or three [rehearsal facilities] in every city in America. They’re everywhere that there’s a music scene going on. … I use them on the road with Ween.”

So Coleman and his business partner Brett Spivey, bassist of Wham Bam Bowie Band, decided to create their own lockout and rehearsal space business. “The whole thing is motivated by self-serving interests,” Coleman says with a laugh. He’d like to practice drums in his house, but his neighbor works from home. Lately Coleman, who’s lived in Asheville for 4 1/2 years, “practices” at his gigs. “It’s something your teacher wouldn’t teach you,” he admits.

For the past two years, Coleman and Spivey have been working to secure a building that could be outfitted as a rehearsal facility. The business, called SoundSpace, picked up steam when the bands that were using Extra Space learned they were losing their leases. “The phases of our business are pretty much set in order, and we’re really excited to get that happening,” says Coleman. He’s already looked at dozens of properties and came close to signing leases on several occasions. Now, though he can’t share too many details, he says, “It seems like we have someone who is willing to work with us [in a location] where there are bands already.”

OUT LOUD: Drummer Claude Coleman Jr., left, and bassist Brett Spivey turned their own needs for affordable practice space — and a dearth of such rentals in Asheville — into an opportunity to start SoundSpace, a rehearsal facility. The new business is currently in development. Photo by Cindy Kunst
OUT LOUD: Drummer Claude Coleman Jr., left, and bassist Brett Spivey turned their own needs for affordable practice space — and a dearth of such rentals in Asheville — into an opportunity to start SoundSpace, a rehearsal facility. The new business is currently in development. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Community-driven

SoundSpace’s plan includes rehearsal rooms as well as storage for bands. “Monthly spaces are common and popular,” says Coleman, and two or three bands can share a single room if they schedule accordingly. “And we’ll have a certain amount of rooms that will be hourly rentals.” The second phase of the SoundSpace project includes expanding the property, and, during the third phase, a performance space will be added, along with potential programming for the public.

“We very much want to cater to national touring productions and artists,” says Coleman. The SoundSpace plan includes room for tour buses and box trucks, and envisions a dance studio as well, as local dancers are also struggling to find affordable rehearsal space.

Coleman and Spivey hope to launch SoundSpace’s first phase this fall, but, due to the urgent need precipitated by Extra Space’s no-bands policy, “What we are going to do in the interim [is] a pop-up … until our permanent space is ready,” says Coleman. It will be less uplifted and more bare-bones than the vision of the permanent space, but the building — likely on Asheville’s outskirts — will offer practice rooms and even a place for retail.

“The point of SoundSpace is it’s community-driven, and community at heart, and user-first,” says Coleman, who hopes to open the pop-up this fall. “I see a lot of bands that are losing their spaces, and we’re trying to open this business, so we see an opportunity to solve a lot of issues.”

Room enough

Even if the effort to create affordable rehearsal rooms in and around Asheville hasn’t been widespread or organized across interested parties — city planners seem unaware of the problem — there are ideas for solutions coming from many directions. “We obviously are concerned and want all of our citizens, whether it’s people who are looking for housing or local businesses or artists or musicians … we know affordability is an issue,” says Sam Powers, director of community and economic development for the city. “What we’re encouraging in some projects is [for] developers to include affordable housing but also, if the city is involved, to include some space that could be carved out for small-business space or incubator space.”

No such project is completed at this time, says Powers, “but we certainly know that’s a continuing need.”

There is a practice-room option already in place for musicians who live southwest of Asheville or don’t mind a bit of a drive from downtown. “I’ve always wanted to host a building somewhat like this,” Crushed Leaf Studios owner David Cohen says of his business in Pisgah Forest, which offers practice and recording facilities. Bands can pay $10 per hour for rehearsals with a full backline.

“I also have monthly rentals, which are 24/7 access,” says Cohen. “I give you the keys, and it’s yours for the month.” There are currently five of those rooms.

The idea was inspired by a practice space Cohen — a drummer — rented for himself when he lived in New York. He opened Crushed Leaf Studios about three years ago and hopes to expand the bottom floor of the facility to include more monthly rentals. “We’re looking for that community feeling. I’m looking to help bands out,” he says. When rooms open in his space, it’s because the bands that had been booking them decide to go on tour: a positive result in the local music scene.

Cohen hopes to help leverage that success. If more local bands show interest in renting practice spaces at Crushed Leaf Studios, “I’ll build a ton more rooms,” he says with a laugh. “I’m OK with that.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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5 thoughts on “Local musicians struggle to find affordable practice spaces

  1. Jake

    I hope that the lockout space idea can be made feasible. For many bands, like the artists of the former River Arts District, income from their work isn’t likely to cover the rents now being asked around town: shared space or not.

    There are lots of musically-creative folks in this town, but very few who are making a living at it. Not to be too Darwinian, but maybe a higher bar to entry will reduce the band supply, and force club owners to start paying better for entertainment.

    • Claude Coleman Jr

      We are working with all of our hearts to make SoundSpace happen, and we get closer everyday. On the developer-side of the citiy growth, there are an equal set of challenges plus some – social-financial-political factors, city trends and attitude. Fortunately for us the wind is very much in our sail. The development of the music industry community in Asheville is the fastest growing segment of the tourism industry, and it’s growth is now outpacing the ‘music-city’ capitals such as Nashville, Austin, et. There is city data to show this.

      The issues of over-saturation you mention is definitely a threat, and yes very real. I am from the NY area where the musicians and artists making a steady living at gigs is infinitesimal. Obviously the big artists are everywhere but even they even have to keep hustling. It’s not that there isn’t work, but there’s work everywhere, it’s in over-supply. Also the cost-of living is impossibly high.

      I don’t think anyone has the ability to ‘raise bars’ per se , or that this will affect supply/demand. I have known and toured through Asheville since the late 90’s and lived here for 4 years, and at least in my opinion the talent here has always been beyond exceptional. We wouldn’t want to create a situation where there are even more talented musicians with even less work.

      I think what’s really important is the coalescing of artists and creatives in the city to form alliances with some kind of political standing, that works on behalf of the protections of the very artists the city’s sells as a commodity. Mentioning Austin, for instance they have they own musicians’ heath care; in New Orleans there is a beautiful tree lined immaculate neighborhood of new homes built and reserved exclusively for musicians and freelancers. This was spearheaded by Jason Marsalis. People have to be educated about the theory of allowing people to stay, not pricing them the hell out of town and making the system work fairly, and that’s kind of what we’ve been doing – having to show people what is happening with the musicians in this area.

      • Thomas grant

        My conception of a music scene in a city are venues that generate revenue to that city and brings in tourists at the same time its a city that really should have affordable practice spaces to local musicians and bands, its a win win situation, if a city is to grow, it must have the soil to grow in, as in space for bands to rehearse.

        • Thomas grant

          Music in my opinion has always been and always will be a part of wnc heritage, the mountains of wnc was actually elvis pressleys last known desired final destinations before he left unexpectedly at the age of 42, he had 2 back to back shows scheduled to be performed at the old asheville civic center, sadly he didnt make it, its now known as the us cellular center.

  2. Claude Coleman Jr

    Music here reminds me of music in New Orleans or other places where it runs deep across generations and a lot of people are are brought up in it, it’s just a deep part of everything here. That’s why I personally love Asheville because music means more to people here – the festival after festival, the Tuesday night funk jam slammed with 400 people; even when I’m playing a couple of folks in the bars or breweries there’s real attention to what you’re doing. I play every Monday night in Asheville’s only live karaoke honky tonk band, Taking the Wheel. It’s just ridiculously satisfying fun with an incredible band making party folks sound like the grand ole opry – on a Monday the place is raging. it’s awesome. Stop by! But very deep in the spirit here. Plus they have to claim to their own music and all the original mountain music sounds.

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