Music has always been a significant part of Josh Eastman’s life. But after going to university to study jazz and later becoming a music teacher, he began to notice that his beloved industry felt exclusionary.
“There weren’t music spaces that felt accessible and representative,” he recalls. “They weren’t operating in the way that I felt they ought to be.”
So, he decided to do something about it himself, starting the single-room recording studio that would become known as Helm Studios in 2020. Since then, Helm—which is located in Mount Pleasant—has started a variety of music-centric initiatives to support marginalized communities, and LGBTQ2S+ people in particular.
Dust Cwaine is among the artists who has worked with Helm, recording their debut album, Arcana, there last year. Kimmortal’s single “i like what i like” off their upcoming album, shoebox, was also mixed at Helm.
“Ultimately, I think the thing that we can do is strive to reduce cost barriers,” Eastman explains. “When you take away cost as a barrier, I think it opens a lot of doors for communities and individuals who are systemically marginalized and who are affected by generational classism and colonialism—all these things that don’t always get addressed when we talk about inequities.”
Helm provides a sliding scale and a pay-what-you-can model. The studio also operates as a not-for-profit organization, which is transparent about how money is spent. Eastman describes the studio’s business practice as putting its values first, and hopes this approach will allow artists to show up and express themselves authentically.
“I think [sliding-scale services are] not really expected in the arts,” they say, “just because most artists are already struggling.”
The financial strain is real on both sides, though, with Eastman announcing in July that Helm is taking a step back from operations starting in January 2024.
It was not a decision he took lightly.
“Rather than burning myself out every week,” they share, “it seems like that time might be better spent taking a step back, doing some planning, finding what operations can be supported, and looking at things with a long-term approach.”
Helm is still taking bookings up until December, and Eastman plans to maintain the space and run occasional programming next year while they figure out how to proceed.
“Part of the challenge of making this decision is that most people can’t pay more, and the people who can often already do,” Eastman adds. “Raising our rates isn’t really an option—unless we want to get rid of all the clients that we have and make our services no longer accessible to those people, and abandon the community that we set out to support.”
A core tenet of Helm, after all, is recognizing that every artist has unique needs: more established folks might just want access to a quality recording studio, while others might be brand new to their practice and require help with songwriting, recording, and post-production. What’s important, Eastman says, is “not treating folks any differently” regardless of “where they are in their journey or where they want to go.”
Eastman also acknowledges that not everyone wants to put their music out there—some people may be creating it just for themselves. “Although we do want to see more representation for queer and BIPOC and disabled artists in the music industry,” they say, “taking that on and sort of going up against those gatekeepers of the current industry is a real challenge.”
Creating a “safer” space for those artists—as opposed to a “safe” space—is a big part of Eastman’s philosophy. Recognizing that they’re a white, masculine person, they know there are many experiences they will never understand.
“Everyone has such radically different experiences, and we just need to be empathetic and accept that we probably don’t always know what’s best,” they say. “We certainly can’t guarantee that the space is accessible or comfortable for everyone, but it is something that we care deeply about and want to focus on.”
Despite learning how to start a not-for-profit on the fly, Eastman says the most rewarding part of running Helm is the positive messages he receives from people wanting to launch their own similar endeavours—and working with a team of people who have the same goals in mind.
“There’s not a lot we can do politically to solve these issues or to take huge steps forward,” Eastman says, “but what we can do is make sure that we’re as accessible as possible for folks who might not have other options—so that they can still express themselves and have their voices heard.”
He hopes to continue this work in the future, and emphasizes that Helm isn’t fully closing in January—rather, he’s simply taking a step back to figure out how to secure more funding, and how to ensure long-term sustainability and success.
“Helm was supposed to be this thing that somehow existed liminally outside of systems; it didn’t turn anyone away, it didn’t take more than it needed,” Eastman says. “It didn’t do all these things that are, from my perspective, so flawed and broken—but fighting those systems independently is just not possible.”