By JENNIFER LEVESQUE
For the Advocate
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: The music scene just hasn’t been the same post-COVID. Many venues remain vacant and are quite literally decaying. Some opened for a short period of time, then closed indefinitely. Others were lucky enough to open and continue the flow of regular shows. Even a few new ones sprinkled in.
Being a Hampden County native, I was saddened to see that the old Maximum Capacity building, which turned into Geraldine’s Bar & Grill, is now a martial arts studio. With that in mind, I’m hoping that whoever bought the old Waterfront Tavern building in Holyoke will fix it up and grace us with live shows again.
But the entertainment scene is not all doom and gloom: Just last month, Northampton’s Parlor Room bought the business assets, liquor license and a 15-year lease to operate the Iron Horse Music Hall, a Valley institution that has been sorely missed.
And there’s a new artist cooperative that went public in August.
Founded in 2022, The Heavy Culture Cooperative (THCC) is a co-op owned and operated by workers, artists and music fans in the Valley. Their mission statement: “establishing a music and performing arts venue that embraces various subcultures within the underground arts community.”
I recently connected with some of the members of THCC — or simply “thick” — through email to get a little more knowledge about their co-op ideas to share with the community.
Levesque: Who are the founding members of THCC and what are their roles in the local music scene?
John Gulow (co-founder): THCC was founded by myself, John Gulow, along with Tim Brault, Thomas Peake, Joe Nickerson, Vida Cripps, Nichole Galenski, John McLaughlin and Brian Westbrook. We’re a group of promoters, musicians, artists, bartenders and sound techs with years of experience in the local music and arts scenes.
Levesque: Since the co-op was founded in 2022, I’m assuming it was a result of post-COVID despair of venues in the area?
Tim Brault (co-founder): The idea to open a venue spawned mostly from John Gulow and John McLaughlin’s experiences with Promotorhead Entertainment, specifically the frustrations of building up a regular audience and scene around a venue to abruptly watch it disappear on someone else’s whim. COVID didn’t help of course, but even prior to the pandemic we were all frustrated with the time and money spent by promoters, musicians, and fans serving to enrich people with no connection or contribution to our scene. Having a venue that is collectively owned by the community for the community is our answer to both those issues.
Levesque: Were there any conversations about this type of outlet before the pandemic?
Gulow: Actually yes. Although the cooperative concept is a recent development, Thomas Peake and I have been looking at venues since 2015. We came close to finding a suitable spot a few times but it didn’t work out. It wasn’t until Tim Brault got involved that the idea of THCC really started to take shape.
Levesque: Are there any updates on the search for a venue you want to share?
Brault: Negotiations around our “Plan A” property have drawn on much longer than expected, but there is an offer on the table for the current owner. We’ve also been looking for alternative locations along the way and discovered some really exciting options that are perhaps an even better fit than our original target. We’re cautiously optimistic we’ll be operating early 2024.
Levesque: Once a venue is found, are there any specific types of shows or events already planned?
Brault: We want to be a home for music and art that doesn’t often fit in with what other Valley venues typically host. We’re not limited by genre or art form — member-owners will have the ability to book their own events so whatever the community wants to see is what they’ll get! Based on our current members you should expect to see a lot of heavy/underground music — metal, punk, hardcore, ska — but also burlesque shows, art showings, puppet theater, and whatever else the members can think of.
Levesque: Once the venue part is established, how will it operate in terms of staffing? Do you have specific members already lined up for different roles for events?
Brault: We’ll have regular staff for sound/production, venue operations, bar, etc., like any venue, but those employment opportunities will go to members, or “worker-owners.” We’re prioritizing equitable pay and working conditions for worker-owners, and like all member-owners, workers would be eligible for a share of any profit distributions and to vote for the board of directors each year.
Levesque: Can you tease some of the events that you may be working on or have in mind?
Brault: While the effort for our own venue continues, we’re going to start booking shows under the THCC banner at other locations in order to bring more member-owners on board and raise awareness of THCC’s mission. THCC’s founders, board members, and owners are deeply entrenched in the regional music scene and plan to lean on connections to bring some incredible acts to the area!
Levesque: What are your hopes for the future with the co-op?
Brault: The primary mission is to open a location in western Mass as soon as possible, but the overall concept of a business collectively owned and controlled by the underground music and art community for the benefit of that community is universally applicable. We’re starting with a venue here in the Valley because this is home for us all, but we envision expanding both into other business ventures that would benefit our members as well as opening locations in other places. We won’t rest until there’s a THCC in every city that wants one!
Levesque: Anything else you want to share?
Brault: The best way to support THCC right now is to buy a share and become a member-owner, and the second best is to donate to our Hardship Fund. The Hardship Fund was established to purchase member-ownership shares for folks with financial struggles so they can enjoy all of the benefits of membership and be fully included in our community. We’ll also be soliciting investments in the business when we draw closer to an agreement on property.
For more information and how to become a member, please visit their website https://www.theheavyculture.coop.