The multimedia studio is carving out its own niche while COVID drags on.
People who see a lot of live music in Madison have likely come across Dustin Boyle’s work, whether through his time running live sound for venues like the High Noon Saloon and The Frequency, his recording studio, or his other audio production work. After carving out a space as a familiar face in Madison’s music community, Boyle’s focus now lays largely with emergent venue/studio The Spaceship, which is fatefully connected to the recording studio he’s run for the past 10 years in the far-East Side industrial expanse of Pflaum Road.
“I asked the landlord, half-jokingly, if he knew of any spaces opening up,” Boyle explains while offering a guided tour of the space, “and when he said that next door was going to be available, I knew I had to take a look.” Before long, Boyle had secured the space and immediately set to work on transforming it into what has become The Spaceship: a video and audio hub designed to provide the Madison area a dedicated, personalized space to showcase live content across several mediums, with an emphasis on live music. His recording studio, formerly known as Detune Audio and Class A, is now grouped in with The Spaceship. Since last spring, its online channel, “The Spaceship.TV,” has largely featured performances from Madison-based musicians, from folk stalwart Josh Harty to the one-man surf-rock explosion known as Roboman.
The COVID pandemic sent musicians and live performers everywhere scrambling to come up with replacements for live events. Anyone with an internet connection can stream an online performance, but will run into serious obstacles without access to certain equipment and a bit of technical know-how. Production values and sound quality are all over the place. When live shows all but vanished from our lives last March, there weren’t many accessible spaces in town that readily provided the resources for local bands to play high-quality live-streamed events—despite Madison’s wealth of venues and recording studios. Several venues, including Willy Street jazz club Café Coda and the Wisconsin Union Theater, have worked to reinvent themselves as live-streamed outlets. The Spaceship was never really an in-person venue in the first place, and aims to fill the void with a flexible space and a raft of high-end audio gear.
Boyle’s had control of the space since August 2019 and has been running The Spaceship’s shows out of it since April 2020, adjusting quickly to the constrictive demands of COVID. Now, he’s trying to make sure that The Spaceship is meeting an extensive list of health protocols and offering an atmosphere one attuned to the needs of performers. Boyle and a small crew of passionate volunteers have made it their business to ensure that visitors aren’t going to be put in any compromising positions, arranging the space so they can safely accommodate up to five-person bands with at least six feet of space between each member. When they film, there’s a strict capacity rule of 10 people total, band members included.
So far, The Spaceship’s bookings have been limited to roughly two per month, for multiple reasons. Boyle readily admits that musicians are justifiably hesitant to commit to performances during the pandemic. He wanted to make it clear that losing potential confirmations can be disheartening, there are no hard feelings and that everyone should be looking out for themselves as best as they’re able. Additionally, with the venue’s commitment to cleanliness, it would make it difficult to more frequently host shows at this point. Because the project is still relatively new and he’s still trying to build The Spaceship’s profile, Boyle also doesn’t want to take advantage of his volunteers, who he dreams of one day being able to pay in something outside of food and beverage.
Boyle has looked to his immediate circle for bookings so far, but hopes to keep casting a wider net—always a challenge in Madison’s fragmented, niche-heavy music community. His message to bands who haven’t been booked at The Spaceship yet is a simple “Come play!”
Currently, the most visible aspects of the operation are split between a series highlighting solo artists called H.U.M. (Human Unit Music) and Darwin Sampson’s Higher Frequency segment, which stands as a welcome extension of one of Madison’s most celebrated—and sorely missed—independent venues. Boyle and Sampson, The Frequency’s co-owner, worked together for roughly a decade at the venue and have become natural collaborators. The Frequency’s legacy is something they hope to further integrate into The Spaceship’s identity. “I worked at The Frequency all 10 years,” Boyle says, “and I recorded every set I worked. I have about seven hard drives’ worth of multi-tracked recordings that I’d love to clean up and release at some point.”
During the course of our conversation in late January, Boyle raced through every aspect of the operation, talking a million miles a minute out of nothing but sheer excitement. “I’m usually a lot more quiet,” he admits sheepishly towards the end of a three-hour walkthrough, but it’s clear why Boyle’s struck upon this much genuine passion. Operational scale and The Spaceship’s orientation provide a clear differential point for the venue among others in the city. The Spaceship is also one of a select few providing a direct line to live performances as safely as possible, filling a void while heavily reducing the risks that come with live in-person events. Where others saw a setback, The Spaceship saw an opportunity to capitalize on streaming events by providing a professional backdrop.
Boyle was thinking about creating a space like this even before the pandemic created a new interest in live-streamed events. He was taken with the overall approach of Daytrotter—the formerly Quad Cities-based project that captured thousands of intimate live-in-studio sessions from up-and-coming independent bands and established stars alike—but wanted to expand the visual aspect for performers. To date, the space has acquired a good deal of equipment to make that a reality, including high-end projectors, as has loose plans for implementing a green screen, among other visual accoutrements. If The Spaceship does wind up being profitable enough, Boyle is also curious to look further into the evolving world of virtual reality.
“Imagine if you could recreate The Frequency and watch a show in that setting,” Boyle ponders. “Imagine O’Cayz Corral or something like CBGB’s. The pyramids of Egypt. Even something like Starship Enterprise. Imagine being able to feel like you’re seeing a show on the Holodeck.”
Those plans are far off and perhaps unattainable, given the potential contractual difficulties. But the fact that the venue’s already thinking that ambitiously does speak to the underlying drive that’s brought The Spaceship into existence. First, The Spaceship is looking to expand on the foothold it has carved out in Madison, an imprint that’s been expanding through Boyle’s efforts in establishing a social media presence on Facebook and Reddit’s Madison Music community.
Success hasn’t come overnight for the operation, which is still developing as it grows. In its early months, The Spaceship was hosting the streams of its shows for free but ran into an unexpected, pervasive issue: online fraud. A number of people started selling tickets to The Spaceship’s shows to unsuspecting buyers, who voiced frustration after being caught in the crosshairs of a predatory practice. Shortly after those instances, Boyle implemented a ticket gate for the shows. The turnaround for what The Spaceship was generating for both itself and its performers was immediate and significant. In its first attempt at a ticketed show, the venue tripled the money it had made collectively over its first several months of hosting shows. Higher Frequency shows now ticket at $4, while H.U.M. shows ticket at $10. All of the streams are archived, and typically become free to stream around two weeks after the initial broadcast.
After introducing its ticketing policy, the venue saw an uptick in donations that the audience made directly to the artists, in addition to its own increased intake, a welcome knock-on effect that Boyle attributes to a spending-oriented mindset. In January, The Spaceship earned its own rent for the first time via ticketing and donations. While The Spaceship is still, relatively, a fledgling operation, Boyle and Sampson’s combined experience and knowledge make it a formidable prospect. The close-knit team is focused on taking things incrementally to cultivate stability, pacing themselves for a marathon rather than taking off at a sprint. Still, Boyle does see available, realistic paths towards sensible expansions.
One of the paths that has been under consideration for a while is potentially bridging Studio A’s technology and space with The Spaceship’s. Presently, that potential marriage is more of a physical logistics dilemma than anything else: Boyle’s recording studio and its Spaceship expansion are entirely dependent on digital setups, foregoing analog equipment, which allows for immediate and comprehensive signal communication between each space’s key areas.
Digitization suits Boyle’s expertise, something that was evident on more than a few occasions during our tour, which extended to a comprehensive walkthrough of the adjacent studio. There was a palpable, hard-earned sense of pride in both audio equipment and hardware-based setups, with lengthy explanations offered to underscore the importance of each.
Even with an extensive professional background, The Spaceship’s still hitting some bumps as it solidifies its mark, especially on its still-developing website, https://The Spaceship.tv/. Boyle was grateful and confident to have the option of handing off the task of debugging problem areas to other Spaceship crew members more versed in that area of technology, noting the need for symbiosis if The Spaceship’s ever going to realize its ambitions.
Fortunately, apart from Boyle and Sampson, the team of hands-on volunteers Boyle has at his disposal seem extremely well-equipped to grow the venue. Boyle’s partner, Kat Muraski, handles a lot of stage management and other odds and ends, including developing graphic design ideas for merchandising. For audio/visual support, The Spaceship has a crew of people with a variety of experiences onstage and behind the scenes in local music: Steven Renfro (a beloved long-time bartender and bar manager at the High Noon Saloon), Chad Ovshak and Eric Cobb (of Madison bands including Helliphant), Adam Macintosh (the lead sound engineer at BarleyPop Live and owner of combination recording studio and brewery Purple Haus), and James Pederson (a freelance photographer who often works local concerts). Shawn Boyle and Eric McFadden make up The Spaceship’s web development team.
Dustin Boyle ceaselessly praises his team’s relentless efforts, which he describes as humbling. To de-stress from their strenuous undertaking, Boyle and Muraski sometimes play games on a Nintendo hooked up to the venue’s oversize projector, finding the practice to be an important reminder that not everything has to be centered around work.
While The Spaceship, and its streaming setup, was intentionally calibrated for hosting live music, Boyle wants the space to get as much use as possible, by as many people as possible, in as many ways as possible. That could include hosting conferences, taking on a burlesque troupe, adding more comedy shows (they’ve already hosted one), more film premieres and presentations, or starting up a program resembling a public access show. Boyle wants the space to be as useful, inclusive, and fair, to all its performers and audiences saying, simply, “I come from a worker’s perspective. I want to help people.”
The Spaceship has three forthcoming shows lined up: Kelsey Miles (February 20), Or Does It Explode? (March 6), and Pistol Pete (April 17), all of which will be running under the Higher Frequency umbrella.