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A Place to Bang One’s Head: Heavy Music Fans to Create Coop Venue

Metal and other heavy genres may soon have a permanent home in the Valley — one run by musicians, fans, and workers.

THCC treasurer and board member Joe Nickerson V, left, plays with his band, Problem with Dragons, on the main stage RPM Fest in September 2023. Timothy Brault photo.

For fans of live music, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic shut down everything. No genre of music was spared.

As people began to get vaccinated and venture out into public spaces again, performers and concertgoers realized that the local musical landscape had shrunk during the pandemic. Venues had closed or gone dark, like entertainment mogul Eric Suher’s Iron Horse Music Hall, Calvin Theatre and Pearl Street Nightclub in downtown Northampton. Others had shifted their business models away from live music. That left some — especially those in smaller musical subcultures — with less opportunities to gather. 

But out of the ashes new models also emerged, including nonprofit venues like Bombyx and The Drake. And now, a group of musicians and fans of hardcore, heavy metal, punk rock and other “heavy music” are forming what they hope will become a more democratic and sustainable space for their scene and others to thrive: a collectively owned underground-music and art co-op.

The Heavy Culture Cooperative — THCC or “thick” for short — is an attempt to create “the anti-Suher” model of keeping live music vibrant in western Massachusetts, THCC President Timothy Brault told The Shoestring.

“We really want to be fair to our employees and to musicians who are playing at the venue,” Brault said. “Quite frequently, people who care the most about these kinds of venues are not the ones that benefit from it. If anything, they often get fleeced. We’re thinking that the co-op model and our commitment to being transparent and fair with our revenue and spreading that around is going to make a big difference and make people want to play at our venue instead of playing somewhere else.”

Brault said that he and a group of other founders had long talked about forming a venue to create an alternative outlet for those who didn’t have a home. And as they talked about their reasons for doing so, and about what they disliked about how other venues functioned, the co-op model seemed to make the most sense. 

Tom Peake, another founding member of the co-op, a member of the band Bellower and a city councilor in Easthampton, explained that a collectively owned endeavor isn’t exclusively dictated by profit motive. It’s a way, he said, for people to do something in the present moment to make positive changes.

“You don’t necessarily need to change the government to start participating in something that is a little more just,” Peake said. “If you have an organization which is sort of centered around benefiting either the people working at it or the people using it, you can change some of the ways things work.”

The way that THCC works is on a hybrid model. That means that there are three groups of people who can buy ownership in the venue for a one-time fee of $150: the general public, people who work at the venue and the artists who help with production, play music or exhibit their art there. Each owner gets to vote on how big decisions are made, like who sits on the organization’s board. 

“You can’t buy your way into having any more power than anybody else,” Brault said. “Everybody gets one vote, and I think that’s going to do a lot to add to the longevity of the organization.”

That doesn’t mean that people can’t invest more in the co-op, though. People can invest through debt equity, Brault said, and make returns on their investment “on pretty straightforward terms.” That will help the group buy property, which Brault and Peake said they have been searching for in Easthampton and elsewhere. The idea is to probably create a smaller venue, Brault said, so that they can regularly keep it full.

“We definitely are going to rely a lot on membership shares, but that’s just a part of the overall picture,” Brault said. “We’re definitely going to rely on a beer and wine license at least … to make all the numbers add up and make sure we’re sustainable.”

For now, though, THCC members are looking to recruit others to their vision and searching for property where they can set up their venue. Members were at the three-day heavy-music RPM Fest this past weekend in Montague signing people up.

THCC is hoping that the business model will create a built-in audience in a way that bars and other venues don’t. And Peake said that they’re hoping the excitement when they announce the location of their space, whenever that may be, will drive even more people to get involved.

Peake said that the local heavy-music scene has always had a large degree of solidarity, helping one another out when in need and working together to keep their community strong.

“It’s just impressive the way people look out for each other,” he said. “This community is primed for this kind of set up.”

Dusty Christensen is an independent investigative reporter based in western Massachusetts. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @dustyc123.

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