How I Became a Social Entrepreneur

You’ve probably heard about it, or maybe it’s completely off your radar, but as a lifelong musician, it hit home, and I don’t even live anywhere close to Oakland. The fire that killed 36 people in the Oakland Warehouse known as “The Ghost Ship” was a devastating blow to that creative community, and as the article posits, it “put a spotlight on the lack of affordable spaces for artists.” Damn right it did.

The way it hit home for me was instant. It made me think back to my first “rehearsal space” as a musician in the back of a decrepit building that had once housed an all ages nightclub, bar, and whatever else. It was an absolute dump, and really unsafe on a number of levels. Luckily, we lived. I was more carefree back then, and didn’t think about the potential consequences of these kinds of spaces, and just desperately needed a place to create, which was never going to be my apartment, well, because my neighbors would call the cops. End of band rehearsal. There were zero options generally, but the unsafe one, so we dealt with it, because that’s what artists do, because our passion to create is so closely tied with who we are, that we literally can’t imagine doing anything else.

Finding a place to create is one of the most challenging aspects for so many artists and independent creatives. That, and making money. When The Ghost Ship was founded, I can imagine how thrilled everyone must have been. They found a home, a place to create, a place to collaborate, a place to be. That place didn’t exist for that community before, which is why it materialized. Unfortunately, it materialized in a way that was unsafe. I’m not writing this to place blame, but I’m picking up the gauntlet around the “lack of affordable space.”

Now, excuse me for a minute, because I’m going to jump on my soapbox and it might get a little profane, and I might even sound a little angry. Why the fuck do we allow this to happen? On any given night, in any given city, there is a warehouse very similar to The Ghost Ship. While I know that some are better than others, the vast majority of them are terrible. Believe me, I’ve been in them. They can be filthy, disgusting places, and above all, unsafe. Outside of unsafe, they are often poorly executed.

For example, I’ve rehearsed in situations where there is zero sound isolation between one room and another, and so here you are, trying to perfect four part harmonies, while the post-hardcore band next to you is turning up to 11. Not that I have anything against post-hardcore, it’s purely logistics at this point. Meanwhile, you are a graphic designer or clothing designer, and you are listening to all of this while trying to get in your own creative headspace. All in an old old, loosely retrofitted office building or warehouse with no wifi and poor climate control. Oh, and don’t get me started on the lack of safety features. Let me remind you about Oakland…

But my point is this. It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, I refuse to accept it. Now, I’m a bit older than when we had that rehearsal space. That was 20+ years ago, but one thing hasn’t changed. I am still forced to rehearse in a space that is less than suitable, and I’m tired of that shit, and so are the other artists. I’m tired of seeing people who bring a tremendous amount of beauty into the world get treated like second class citizens. The arts get a lot of lip service for how great they are, and independent creatives are more and more recognizable to the mainstream as a critical part of economies of scale, yet, here is this unsuitable, unprofessional for you. Good luck.

Now, you might say, but there are lots of ways creatives can create. There are basements and garages. Stop right there. Those are terrible places for people with expensive equipment and noise. The garage band is a myth. Neighbors hate garage bands. People have neighbors. But, there are all kinds of co-working spaces popping up around the country. Yes, that’s true, but they do nothing for people who need to create outside office-like needs. People need space to get loud, get dirty, or have a private workspace. That simply doesn’t exist in so many communities…and if it does exist, it’s shitty. It’s a travesty, and it has a downward spiral effect on local economies. There are plenty of studios around the country that demonstrate how integral a strong artistic community is to economic success and development.

In Ypsilanti, Michigan, home to Eastern Michigan University, we live right next door to Ann Arbor, and University of Michigan. Some say we’re the Brooklyn to Ann Arbor’s Manhattan. Any way you slice it, there is nothing around here that constitutes a professional workspace for independent creatives, and in particular, musicians. Even if you drive 30 minutes into Detroit, good luck finding a space, or get ready to get displaced by yet another unsafe situation as we recently experienced with the Russell Industrial Center debacle.

Okay, there are some c0-working spaces in cities, but not what some folks need. We also have two other colleges in our midst here, and thousands of art, music, theatre, and dance students pass through our community each year. Why on earth is there not a place for people to create, that’s not some post-industrial wasteland waiting to burn down, collapse, or be the next Oakland?

Because nobody has done it. That’s it. Nobody has done it. Why not? I’m not really sure. My research has indicated that there is a need. My personal experience of living in this town for 23 years has shown me that there is a need. This is born our of personal frustration, and observation of all of my contemporaries struggle with the same thing. It is definitely going to cost money. It’s definitely a risk. But nothing that’s worth doing comes without risk. It’s risky to build something that’s never been built before in a post-industrial rust-belt town.

Rendering of Grove Studios concept by Breck Crandell. (2017)

So, my partners and I are doing it. We are figuring out a way to use two 20' or 40' shipping containers, smashed together to provide safe, affordable, clean, secure, sound optimized, climate controlled spaces for musicians and other independent creatives. In fact, there is a Norwegian company called Nordic Shelter that already engineers shipping containers for this very purpose, and there are over 150 of them around Norway at community centers and schools. Those crazy socialists. Well, we need some of that crazy shit here in the midwest, and across the country. I’ll keep you up to date in future writings, or just follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. But our idea is being called unique, and we are not having an easy time with zoning and ordinances, but we are persistent. This is the right thing to do.

This is my social entrepreneurship story, born out of frustration, born out of necessity, and a sadness for those folks in Oakland who deserved so much better. Grove Studios, named after the original fur trading town of Woodruff’s Grove, now known as Ypsilanti, wants to be the change that independent creatives deserve, not just in Michigan, but everywhere we can. Wait for it. It’s happening.

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Rendering of Grove Studios concept by Breck Crandell. (2017)

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