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‘A Gym For Musicians’: Orbital Music Park Creates New Home For Richmond’s Music Makers

Orbital Music Park co-founder Tom Illmensee (right) plays along with his child Bunny (left) in the lounge.
Orbital Music Park Co-Founder Tom Illmensee (right) plays along with his child Bunny (left) in the lounge. (Crixell Matthews/VPM)

In a red-brick, industrial warehouse on the westside of Richmond, about a dozen people gather for a jam session. It’s blues night, and the group is looking pretty guitar-heavy.

“One of the things we’ll need to watch is we’ve got the guitar-chestra back,” says organizer Dave Clemans.

The group is packed into a soundproof pod no bigger than an average bedroom. As the musicians tune their instruments, Clemans flips through a large paper easel where he’s written some chord progressions. By day, Clemans is an advertising professional. By night, he organizes this weekly blues jam.

Clamens tries to be hands-off. Tonight, he lets things turn a little psychedelic.

Clemans says the group reflects the diverse membership of Orbital Music Park, where musicians of all experience levels come together.

“I have a bass player in here tonight who's 75, the drummer is 80. I've got guys in their twenties playing guitar. It's a mix of everything,” Clemans said.

Richmond has a vibrant local music scene, but many musicians struggle to find places to practice and connect. Orbital Music Park is trying to fill that void by creating a physical community for music makers.

 

Bringing together music makers from different backgrounds has been at the heart of Orbital Music Park since it launched in 2018. Co-founders Tom Illmensee and Morgan Huff originally tried making an app for musicians to organize impromptu gatherings.

But Illmensee said the difficulty was always having a space to play.

“Richmond bands are pretty creative and trying to solve those problems,” he said. “Some of them make practice places in storage lockers, but those spaces are hacked together and can be pretty uncomfortable.” 

Illmensee and Huff quickly switched from trying to organize a digital community to a physical one. They started matching up musicians at Art Works in Richmond’s Manchester neighborhood. And then, earlier this year, they opened up Orbital Music Park in its new warehouse location.

They’ve since grown to more than 200 members who pay a monthly fee to access the space. It’s kind of like a gym membership, but for musicians.

They share the warehouse with a plumbing company and a florist. It’s owned by custom home builder Mark Franco, so some days, Ilmensee says, it also smells like fresh paint.

“It's really jarring,” he said. “You kind of walk into this gray white warehouse and then suddenly you're transported into this cantina, this very strange kind of thing.”

A Community-Centered Approach

Orbital Music Park occupies a 2,000-square-foot corner of the warehouse. The main lounge is filled with mismatched furniture on top of clashing carpets. Brightly colored, salvaged doors line the back wall, where there’s also a stage for both spontaneous and planned performances.

Members have access to a wide range of instruments, placed somewhat haphazardly on a large shelf.

“Some of them rather exotic and strange including a Hurdy Gurdy, which sounds terrible,” Illmensee joked. “It literally sounds bad when you play it.”

(Crixell Matthews/VPM)
Bobby Weagley (left), Jack DeGaetano (center) and Orbital Music Park co-founder Morgan Huff play alongside other musicians in one of the soundproof pods at the weekly Blues Jam. (Crixell Matthews/VPM)

For bands and professional musicians, the two soundproof pods are a big draw. 

The indie-rock/hip hop band Photosynthesizers is just one of the groups that regularly practice at Orbital. For a few hours each week, the 7-member band packs into one of the pods, assembled in a semi-circle to fit everyone in.

When guitarist Joshua Bryant and emcee Maurice "BarCodez" Jackson first formed the band, they practiced out of Jackson’s Manchester apartment. It wasn’t fancy, but it was comfortable. 

Bryant says the eclectic vibe of Orbital Music Park, and the community that has been built around the space, has been exactly what they needed.

“Orbital helped us recapture the sense of having a safe place,” Bryant said. “I was pretty nervous about how it would feel, but once we walked in it immediately felt like this is the right place for us.”

In addition to providing practice space, Orbital Music Park membership allows people to put on cabaret shows, synthesizer nights and birthday performances. Almost all of the programming is by members, for members.

Co-founder Morgan Huff said their community-centered approach is intentional. 

“The place is transformed, whether it's in a pod or in the lounge depending on who gathers,” Huff said. “It's almost like a mood ring. It just changes depending on the day or the hour, and who's assembled around this musical campfire.”

More Than Just A Practice Space

Huff said their goal with Orbital Music Park has been to create a space where organic, unplanned connections can be made and lead to new artistic endeavors.

That’s exactly what happened with Jenni Weatherly and Sarah Kane.

(Crixell Matthews/VPM)
Orbital Music Park strives to be an inclusive community for Richmond's music makers. Members pay a monthly fee to access the space and a large array of instruments and programming. (Crixell Matthews/VPM)

Both had come to an open mic, just to check out the place and see what it was all about. 

Kane said one of the other members pulled her into one of the practice pods.

“He told me ‘Oh, you've got to meet this woman. Her name's Jenny. You guys would sound great together,” she said.

Kane and Weatherly went into one of Orbital’s soundproof pods and played some songs they knew in common like Jolene by Dolly Parton.

Weatherly says the two just clicked. By the end of the night, they even performed some songs together.

“It’s kind of this feeling of like, ‘Well, I'm here with my voice and I don't know where to put it.’ So to find something to do with it is kind of magical,” Weatherly said.

Since that night Kane and Weatherly have become collaborators, meeting regularly to work up their repertoire of country and folk songs. They credit Orbital Music Park as a catalyst for their new partnership. 

Kane said what makes Orbital unique is that, for her, it’s more than just a practice space.

“I don't go to the gym really,” she said. “I don't go to church. And so when I found [Orbital], I knew when I joined that this is where I belonged.”