Makeshift studio at storage unit shut down

Ryan Zimmerman (left) has been recording Johnny Delaware for his second album, in Zimmerman’s storage unit studio on Line Street.

A large group of downtown Charleston musicians were told last week they’ll have to find a new home for their music after more than six years of using several storage units on Line Street as a makeshift studio and a series of practice spaces.

Chief Fire Marshal Michael Julazadeh got wind of the activity after a story ran in The Post and Courier about how independent musicians were using the AAA Downtown Storage facility as a launch pad for their budding careers.

It inadvertently shed light on activity that wasn’t allowed on the property, according to fire department spokesman Ryan Kunitzer.

After an assistant fire marshal visited the facility on Monday to discuss the issue, property owners decided to enforce a section in the lease agreement that said tenants are not allowed to dwell in the units for an extended period of time.

“Our discussion with the fire marshal and our review of the leases indicates that we have to follow the wishes of the fire marshal in town and tell them that they can’t play here anymore,” said John Hagerty, owner of the facility. “The bad news for AAA is that we’re going to lose valuable customers. We had no complaints about noise, and after all these years, it was never brought to management’s attention.”

For the young musicians, losing the ability to play in the storage units means they’ll have to leave one of the few places near their homes in the middle and upper peninsula that’s both affordable and allows them to play at all hours of the night without disturbing neighbors, or worse, violating any noise ordinances.

“The good thing about AAA is that you could be up there playing drums at 4 a.m. and nobody cared. It allowed for a lot of creativity and freedom,” said Ryan Zimmerman, the drummer of Brave Baby and self-taught recording engineer who has produced many local albums out of one of the units. “It’s just going to be hard to find somewhere else that’s in our budget and is going to continue to give us the freedom to do what we need to do.”

Jordan Lanier, a business development coordinator for the city, said officials in the planning department will offer the musicians help navigating zoning and noise ordinance issues as they search for a new property to set up the studio and practice areas.

He added that there are no city-owned buildings that could serve as an alternative space for the artists in the meantime.

More than a dozen musicians who play in local bands such as SUSTO, the High Divers, Gangrene Machine, The Royal Tinfoil and Brave Baby have rented and collaborated in the storage units for years. Band members and the property manager, Raymond Bowick, who’s on site most of the time, said they weren’t aware any codes were being violated.

Zimmerman said Bowick and others at the facility had been supportive of the musicians, often buying copies of their albums and attending local shows.

“They always tried to look out for us,” he said.

Hagerty said he’s proud of that.

“I appreciate that Raymond is the guy on the ground and that he, over the years, had developed a great rapport with our tenants,” Hagerty said. “There’s part of us that would love to support the arts. ... But when the fire department said that in their judgment, it’s a safety issue. We have to respect that.”

Justin Osborne, lead singer of SUSTO, said this situation has underscored how much local artists need affordable practice spaces on the peninsula.

“I understand the city of Charleston doesn’t have any kind of program in place that provides free or subsidized space for that,” he said. “But I think for a city who claims to hold the arts so close to its values, then that’s something that should be considered and maybe brought up.”

Zimmerman said he’s unsure what the solution will be in the immediate future.

“Maybe from this, somebody who has a warehouse ... would be happy to help us out. But until that happens, we’ll have to see,” he said.

For now, he’s reflecting on years spent recording dozens of his friends’ music, and producing their albums that have started to reach prominent artists in the indie rock scene.

“It’s hard to imagine somebody else who’s going to be storing stuff in that room where we’ve put years in just trying to find ourselves. ... It’s going to be sad. It’s going to be really sad. But we will pick up and move on,” he said. “If anything, it’s going to force us to be more legitimate as we move forward. I’m not giving up on what I do.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.