Rehearsal Room to offer a place for musicians who have been displaced as COVID closes venues

At a time when live performances have been put on hold, a group in Battle Creek is finding ways to help musicians and performance artists produce high-quality recordings that they can use to connect virtually with new audiences.

On Nov. 1, the Rehearsal Room officially opens in the choir room at First Congregational Church for any artist who wants to produce a high-quality recording that they can use to get in front of people who may already be fans of their music and those who may become fans. 

James McGee, whose artist name is Allah, will be the first to perform. 

The concept is modeled after the Tiny Desk Concerts that debuted on National Public Radio in 2008, says McGee. He's the co-founder of the Rehearsal Room, along with Vania Word and Brandon Fitzpatrick. The latter also is a co-founder of Blvck Sheep with McGee, a collaborative music recording label headquartered in Battle Creek that encompasses different genres and artists.

“The Rehearsal Room is a live concert series that’s going to give a virtual and online aspect so people can watch artists representing all types of genres,” says McGee, a counselor at Northwestern Middle School. “If you’ve ever watched the Tiny Desk Concert series, you know what to expect.”

In concert, before the music scene all but shut down.That series came about after Bob Boilen, host of NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NPR Music editor Stephen Thompson left a bar show frustrated that they couldn't hear the music over the crowd noise. Thompson joked that the musician, folk singer Laura Gibson, who was performing at that bar should just perform at Boilen's desk. A month later Boilen arranged for her to do just that. They made an impromptu recording and posted it online.

Views of some of these online performances are in the double-digit millions, according to NPR’s website.

McGee says the Rehearsal Room will give artists an additional, and in some cases, their first dedicated space to perform and showcase their music to others and walk away with a professionally-produced video that they can include in their portfolio.

“It gives artists exposure in a professional setting,” McGee says.

This exposure has become much more critical at a time when a global pandemic has brought the live performance industry to a screeching halt, much to the dismay of performers and their fan base.

The music industry has been hit hard by coronavirus with live performance revenue the biggest casualty, according to a May 27 story on the World Economic Forum’s website. A six-month shutdown is estimated to cost the industry more than $10 billion in sponsorships, with longer delays being even more devastating.

“In the initial wake of bans on mass gatherings, some venues offered live streaming of performances. However, even these formats have been suspended as those sites have closed,” the story says. “Now, artists are going direct to fans from their own homes, using services like Twitch, Instagram TV, and others. This is not new, but the pandemic has expanded the audience available, and record labels are facilitating it by providing live streaming equipment to performers.”

Although McGee, Word, and Fitzpatrick had been having conversations for four years about the need for a high-quality performance and recording space like the Rehearsal Room, McGee says that need became critical after musicians and artists no longer had a live performance revenue stream.

McGee, whose musical artistry includes Hip Hop, says he and Minor Element, a critically-acclaimed jazz fusion group that he and Fitzpatrick both perform in, had a lot of shows canceled due to COVID-19.

The Rehearsal Room “will give artists of all genres the opportunity to come through and create a high-quality recording of performances that they can share virtually as a way to stay connected with their fans,” McGee says. “When I say artists, I mean rappers, singers, or bands. It’s for all artists.”

As an artist himself, McGee says he is “all over the place” in terms of the various genres he performs. He says he thinks it’s important for musicians to create their own identities and not be pigeonholed. And his wide-ranging musical interests have enabled him to bring in a variety of artists.

“We’re contacting all types of genres of artists and musicians,” McGee says. “If we call you, you come on through and we’re down. I’d like to see a lot more Michigan artists, but those in Battle Creek will be the first and we’ll continue to do outreach as we go along.

“When I first started out as an artist, I didn’t know where the best studio was. It’s giving artists who have talent, but don’t know where to go, a place to go.”

FREE, music to the ears

The recording and producing services offered through the Rehearsal Room are completely free to the musicians and artists who perform there, McGee says. About 80 percent of this support will be provided by members of Blvck Sheep with the remainder being professionals who will be brought in.

“It’s completely free,” McGee says. “The church is letting us use the space for free. We pay for mixing and mastering of live sessions and we have audio engineers that we have relationships with who we can call on to help us. This is truly a community service.”

But, the scope of the Rehearsal Room’s impact will go farther than the musicians and artists it serves — it will help create a more vibrant downtown and music scene — and that's how the project came to be the recipient of a $4,000 grant through the Downtown BC Placemakers Challenge, funded as part of a $200,000 two-year grant through the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and implemented by Penetrator Events, a Battle Creek-based event planning organization that was hired as the contractor for the Placemaking Challenge.

McGee and his group submitted one of more than 10 applications during Round One of the Placemaking Challenge, which began in July. Jeremy Andrews, founder and co-owner of Penetrator Events with his wife, Erin, says there will be four rounds in two years and he has already received more than 20 applications for Round Two which began in October.

“We will only be funding awesome projects that get people back together, engage them in their community, bring them downtown,” Andrews says. These projects may be singular one-time events, recurring experiences, value-added moments attached to existing events, etc. Think live music, competitions, team activities, etc.”

The top 5 event winners are each awarded $1,500. Then, they participate in a pitch competition with each of the other recipients. Andrews says during that process each awardee tells the others about their project. 

“The idea here is that each awardee will have an opportunity to sell their project to others, forge relationships, and foster collaborations. Each awardee is given an additional $1,500 that they must award to the others,” Andrews says. “They cannot keep it. So, it’s possible that they could leave with $1,500 or any amount up to $7,500.”

This method is called “participatory funding.”

Andrews designed the concept for the Placemaking Challenge by borrowing from similar models that he researched.

“The program that we’ve created is trying to encourage people to participate in creating a vibrant downtown and a vibrant community through creating events and improving the physical infrastructure of the downtown,” Andrews says.

The format for funds awarded for the infrastructure component of the Placemaking Challenge works a bit differently. Café Rica and a mural project downtown were among the top five winners during the first round of funding.

“These are matching awards, which means that the applicant will have to have half of the funding for their project from a source other than this award,” Andrews says. “These projects can include signage, façade improvements, outdoor areas, and public art. While these projects do not have to be led by business owners, we encourage their partnership and support.”

The top five infrastructure winners are awarded $1,500 and that amount must be matched in order to receive funding.

“This means that if you want to do a $3,000 project, you must fund half of it and provide supporting documentation in your expense report. We will fund projects larger than $3,000, but our pledge towards your total will not exceed $1,500,” Andrews says.

Building community through relationships

McGee says the funds his group received took the Rehearsal Room from a concept to reality. There also will be partnerships with established events and organizations including Leilapalooza and the Music Center, which will be sponsoring episodes of the Rehearsal Room.

“But this isn’t about us wanting peoples’ names on things,” McGee says. “We all support this vision.”

Although he credits Andrews for much of this, Andrews says his is very much a hands-off, behind-the-scenes role that removes him completely from decisions made about the allocation of funds. He says he provides advice and guidance if that is something the recipients need or want to ensure the viability of their efforts.

“I as a person have literally zero votes. I’ve created the challenge and I’m managing the process,” he says.

Of the Rehearsal Room, Andrews says, “It’s a creative way to keep musicians creating their art during this time.”

Borrowing from a meme he recently saw, Andrews says, “During quarantine, you’re bingeing on Netflix and listening to playlists and spending a lot of time absorbing the arts. Don’t forget to appreciate them. It seems like society as a whole doesn’t give the arts the respect it deserves.

“This is about young people taking active ownership of our community and we need that here and we need people to do that without asking permission from the gatekeepers.”

This is a way of thinking that the leadership of First Congregational Church supports and believes in. In 2019, the church began formally opening its doors to provide work and performance space to individuals and organizations that align with their values. The move was an intentional effort to bring in additional revenue to keep the doors open in the face of declining membership, says Jaimie Fales, FCC’s Building Administrator.

“We have opened up the use of our building to community partners who align with our values and one of the things we value is beauty and one of the ways we do that is embodying their art,” Fales says. “We are fulfilling our values and mission in doing this. The musicians and groups bring an energy and joy and music to our space.”

Those renting or using space at FCC increased from two last year to 10 this year, Fales says.

“They are all paying different levels of rent,” Fales says. “There are folks that just reserve community spaces. Those are shared spaces and we have five that are leasing space.”

Prior to 2019, the church had already been making space available to groups, including the Brass Band of Battle Creek, the Music Center, and Minor Element, whose membership included Tom Ryberg, the church’s former pastor.

“So, it was a pretty easy fit. They needed space to rehearse and he had a key to the building,” Fales says. “Right now our choir is not meeting because of COVID and Minor Element was looking for creative ways to get their music out there when they’re not able to have live performances. They were able to do some work in our choir room to make that possible.”

Informally, the Choir Room is known as the Rehearsal Room, so when McGee and his group moved forward with their plans, they kept the name because it fit, he says.

“First Congregational has done a real good job with integrating people who are very community-involved and artists like myself and they’ve been kind enough to open their doors as a place to commune,” McGee says. “It’s peaceful there and we’re really tight with them and they always have our backs. It’s a really great place for the community to come through and be together.”

Allowing the space to be used to create beautiful music and art looks like a lot of different things, Fales says.

“In a normal year it looks like hosting concert series and local piano studios use our space for recitals,” Fales says. “But this is not a typical year. Groups like Minor Element need to find creative ways to share their music with each other. We are all having to find creative ways to empower artists to get their music and art and arts education out there. With the pandemic, it looks very different. We consider Minor Element a community partner for us.”

The need for this type of collaboration is very much there, McGee says.

“We have a lot of musical talent here in Battle Creek and we want to provide a platform and have something for musicians to take home with them and use to get their talents in front of people,” McGee says. “We all need to trust and commit to each other and I think this is the best way to do it.

“Having the Rehearsal Room here will create positive momentum and vibrancy in Battle Creek.”

Read more articles by Jane Simons.

Jane Simons is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.