Is There Room for Music in Peterborough?

Dave Searle of Guerilla Studios
Dave Searle of Guerilla Studios
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The abrupt closure of the Spill prompted many discussions on performance spaces in Peterborough. November’s Precarious Festival—the month-long arts festival organized by Kate Story—examined the economic insecurity of local artists, and was inspired in part by looming gentrification of our downtown and the potential for lost artist spaces.

There is a greater concern here, however: accessibility. The Spill was the venue downtown that anyone could use, regardless of their experience, draw, or resources. Many of Peterborough’s musicians cite the Spill as where they got their start.

Musicians are at risk of losing a space to learn.

The Spill provided a middle-step between amateur opportunities, like open mics, and professional (i.e. paying) gigs. Furthermore, the gentrification threatening performance spaces also threatens affordable housing. According to the most recent Community Foundation Vital Signs report, almost a third of the city’s population makes under $20,000 annually, and a quarter of the population lives in unaffordable housing.

Peterborough musicians need access to a space where they can develop their skills, collaborate, and grow as artists. Not only is music gear expensive, but it takes up space—a luxury here in Peterborough, where rental rates have been rising steadily over the last few years.

Self-described “downtown guy” Dave Searle has one solution. Dave is the founder of Guerilla Studios, an “artists’ hub” located in the heart of downtown Peterborough.

“Everyone and their mother seemed to be jamming and recording out of my woodshop,” Dave explains.

He designed and built Guerilla Studios to meet this need. Guerilla Studios features a 750-square-foot live room, a control room, an isolation booth, a small kitchen, and a bathroom. Booking studio time includes the use of gear, including a fully equipped guitar rig, drum kit, backline, and, of course, mics, cords, stands, and various creative software. The rooms are sound-treated, insulated, and diffused, “all the things you need,” he boasts. What Dave doesn’t say, is how warm and welcoming the space is; the care Dave put into designing and building Guerilla Studios reflects his love of music and community.

“I’ve got a vested interest in keeping the music community strong in Peterborough,” he says softly, while bouncing my fussing toddler on his knee. He reflects on his success as a self-employed contractor over the last 15 years, crediting the support of his community, and his desire to give back. “I kind of feel a responsibility to make sure that is there for other people behind me.”

Guerilla Studios “is for everyone,” says Dave, and can function as a space for rehearsal, recording, or performing. The concept was originally based on “DIY share space model” but has since evolved to meet a variety of needs. In the short time Guerilla Studios has been open, it has been visited by musicians from all walks of life.

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While Dave may say that Guerilla Studios “is for everyone,” the $25 per hour fee is a barrier for many local musicians who are living below the poverty line—the same people who are least likely to own a house with a garage they can jam in, or rent an apartment with adequate space (and sound-proofing) to practice. It is also a barrier for musicians who do not identify as underemployed, but also don’t identify as a “professional” musician.

Rob Hailman is one such musician. Rob is “a guitarist, first and foremost;” he’s a member of the local band No Pussyfooting and occasionally performs as an acoustic solo act. Despite over a decade of performances, Rob does not see himself as a “professional” musician; for Rob, “money is a nice bonus when it shows up.”

Currently, No Pussyfooting is renting space at Bareknuckle Studios in Peterborough, after hours, when it’s not being used for recording music. For a fee of $40 a month, the band has access to the space one night a week between 5pm and 10pm.

Rob points out a lack of jam spaces that you can “rent on demand” in Peterborough, especially for musicians in his situation. He has used Guerilla Studios in the past, and describes it as a quality resource for professional musicians: “a really wonderful space… It’s a great value for what you get, but it’s more than we need.”

Rob describes the arrangement as “really fortunate,” stating it “would be a real problem” if they did not have their current arrangement—made possible because of a personal relationship. Other musicians are not as fortunate.

Young musicians lacking in experience and industry connections are especially vulnerable.

It’s a privileged assumption that any kid with an interest in learning an instrument has parents who are capable of, and willing to, nurture that interest. Jill Staveley, a cofounder of Rock Camp for Girls Peterborough, organizer of Rock Block! and a long-time participant in the Peterborough music scene, believes there is a need “carve out space” in Peterborough for young musicians, especially “girls, non-binary, and transgender youth,” who are often excluded from local music communities. Jill began Rock Block! to provide such a space, in the form of monthly all-ages jam sessions. Originally held at the Spill, Rock Block! has since relocated to Sadleir House, isolated from the downtown community.

If Peterborough is going to enjoy a healthy music scene, there needs to be a better way to cultivate talent. Guerilla Studios is an option for those who can afford it, and those cannot may be able to negotiate something with one of the studios in town, if they’re lucky; neither option is sufficient to sustain the potential in Peterborough. If we want to discourage our developing musicians from having to relocate to Toronto, we need to invest in the music community and offer the support necessary to keep them here; this includes places to play and places to learn.


Find out more about Guerilla Studios and Rock Camp for Girls Peterborough on their websites.

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Sarah Bea

Sarah Bea

Sarah Bea is a musician and recovering graduate student, living in Peterborough Ontario.