The boom in live music has created a new class of rehearsal space that’s sophisticated, hi-tech, and surprisingly sanitary...
The oldest music joke in New York is ‘How do you get to Carnegie Hall?’ The punch line is, of course, ‘Practice, practice, practice!’ While that jest has been amusing and/or annoying those in the entertainment business since Vaudeville was making money, what more recent jokesters might also notice is that the places they can practice have grown in number and niceness in recent years. Urban warrens of dingy rooms rented by the hour, with Fender Twin Reverbs whose pilot lights haven’t worked since Tony Blair was PM, haven’t disappeared; but they are sharing the classifieds with rehearsal facilities that see themselves as having more in common with boutique hotels than with pub bands trying to learn the latest hits.
As the shift in the music industry’s fortunes has favoured live performances over record sales over the course of the last 15 years — 2015 was a record year, with Pollstar’s Top 100 worldwide tours generating $4.71 billion£3.53 billion, up 11 percent over 2014 — the infrastructure for show production has also undergone a seismic shift. “There are more music artists out there now than ever in the history of the music business, and they’re all touring to make money,” observes Ben Jumper, owner of Soundcheck, Nashville’s massive 162,000-square-foot rehearsal palace on the Cumberland River. It was the same river that nearly sank Jumper’s business when the city flooded over the first weekend of May 2010, destroying sound systems, backline, and scores of guitars and other equipment stored there. That Soundcheck pulled itself out of that muck and went on to expand — Jumper has added another 30,000 square feet of rehearsal space in Austin and 10,000 square feet of backline and equipment rental in Houston, Texas since then — attests not only to his personal fortitude but also to the robustness of the live music market of the moment and its need for more high-level rehearsal spaces. “We’re at record capacity now,” he says. “Everyone is touring and a lot of them are starting those tours in Nashville.”
They are, and Soundcheck is well fitted to accommodate them, with nine rehearsal rooms (the largest at 100 x 80 x 24 feet) used regularly by artists like Taylor Swift and Kings Of Leon. Soundcheck is also home to a support network made up of ancillary services, such as storage lockers, and 17 (at last count) other tenants including Shure, Allen & Heath, Meyer Sound, Avid, DiGiCo, Peavey and Fender, as well as major service vendors such as Tour Supply and video provider MooTV, which have their Nashville offices under the same roof. But so are any number of other big rehearsal facilities vying for a piece of the burgeoning live music business.
Over in the East Hollywood neighbourhood of Los Angeles, until recently populated mostly by the homeless and hungover, Swing House, a rehearsal business that began back in 1994, recently celebrated its expansion to 22,000 square feet of space. That covers its four main rehearsal spaces, which range from 400 to 2000 square feet and cost between $25 and $250 per hour to rent, depending upon whether they’re used for basic rehearsal or either showcasing or filming. Genoveva Winsen, the company’s director and a former staff engineer at Radio Recorders (LA’s oldest recording studio till it was demolished in 2010), calls the facility the “Sunset Marquee of rehearsals”, a reference to the legendary West Hollywood rock-centric hotel. And like that hotel, Swing House now also has a recording studio under its roof: one of the two investors who joined the company’s founder to help capitalise the expansion brought with him the assets of the former Skyline Studios in New York, including that facility’s Neve VR60 console and much of its outboard. “It’s all about synergy now,” says Winsen.
The addition of the studio, which uses the largest of the rehearsal rooms as its tracking space, means clients can move between rehearsing and recording without leaving the facility. It’s a piece of a larger strategy that, Winsen says, was developed in reaction to more nuanced changes in live music. She says artists who rarely toured, or did so with just pre-recorded tracks, have come to realise that they need to step their performances up with live musicians. “The road is where the money is, and that’s caused [genres like] EDM and R&B to hit a wall,” she says, referencing artists like the Chainsmokers, a DJ who has added a live band; the expanded line-up have used both aspects of Swing House in developing their next iteration.
Like Soundcheck, Swing House is also using a ‘mothership’ model, with the rehearsal facility acting as a hub for ancillary support businesses. Among them there is Sound Marketing, a national pro-audio rep firm whose anchor client is Harman Professional. While Sound Marketing are ostensibly rent-paying tenants, the relationship is symbiotic, with all of Swing House’s rooms outfitted with Harman products, ranging from mid-sized VRX and SRX PAs paired with small-format Soundcraft digital consoles to a fully outfitted VTX-V20 line array with VTX F-series monitors and 48-channel Soundcraft Vi4 digital consoles, which project backlines made up of Blackstar guitar amps and Mapex drum kits. It’s an arrangement similar to that found at Soundcheck, where Meyer Sound and Avid brands are represented via their speakers, consoles and office outposts.
Speaking from his office on Swing House’s second floor, Sound Marketing vice president Dave Kaiser says the benefit of such proximity to up-and-coming and A-list national artists rehearsing and recording was obvious. “This is an ideal arrangement that allows us to organically drive rider acceptance and familiarity with our touring products among all of Swing House’s clients,” he says. “Engineers working at the facility are exposed to the newest touring products from Harman Pro and have the opportunity to evaluate the product in a controlled environment. We also use the facility to host industry seminars, trainings, and product launches.”
A thousand miles to the east, another large rehearsal facility has been reinventing itself. Fort Knox, founded in 2011 on Chicago’s North side, has grown to a massive 165,000 square feet, with 125 rehearsal ‘suites’ that range from 250 square feet to a canyonesque 5000. Other parts of the building, which could almost qualify for its own postal code, are also occupied by tenants in what Kent Nielsen, the facility’s manager and a principal partner, says are related and complementary businesses. They include artist management, indie record labels and entertainment law firms (some of which use the ‘Starbucks’ model, with little more than a mobile phone and a laptop), as well as four conventional sound-reinforcement and lighting-system providers. On a busy day there could be as many as 1500 people, more than half of them musicians, buzzing around the massive hive.
Like his counterparts elsewhere, Nielsen sees the rehearsal-studio business as an existing infrastructure that can be both burnished and built upon, creating a menu of ancillary services that support careers. “Almost every artist now is an independent artist, even ones with ‘label’ deals,” he asserts. “Artists are responsible for much more of their own career management now. A place like this offers them a number of services they can take advantage of when they need them.” Those include about a dozen recording-studio tenants, which he says also see the rehearsal clients come in and out, often with Pro Tools tracks recorded during rehearsal, the line between live and recorded music blurring still further. “With this many people here all focused on music, we see a lot of interaction taking place,” he says. This interaction is not unlike the kind of creative interplay that was the purview of the large, multi-room destination recording studios 25 years ago. It’s an analogy that Nielsen doesn’t discourage. “It’s a community effect,” he declares, one that the company encourage by holding periodic panels and seminars drawn from their own huge pool of tenants. There are even occasional low-cost, one-day ‘boot camps’ that offer intensive and immersive education experiences on music-business topics. Of course, you’re also welcome to rent a room for three hours and jam with your pub buddies, too.
The rehearsal industry may soon see its competitiveness ratcheted up, as Fort Knox considers expanding into Nashville, aiming at the middle of the market, what Nielsen calls “the professional working-class musician” there, “the ones that tour in a van instead of a bus or a plane” — for these last, he adds, “SIR and Soundcheck already do a fantastic job”. He also hints at a possible relationship with a major recording studio there. “Our goal in Nashville is to be disruptive yet complementary,” he adds archly.
Further East, the nature of the real estate changes. The Music Building, arguably the patriarch of the category, is a time-worn, 12-story building that squats on Eighth Avenue between West 38th and 39th streets in Manhattan. It’s an urban burrow of rehearsal spaces connected by dimly lit corridors. The neighbourhood has long been known as Hell’s Kitchen, but back in 1979 when the building was transformed from a gritty garment-district factory to an even grittier practice hall for New York musicians able to pay its rents, the name had a different connotation. Then, it represented the drug dealers and users who mingled with the prostitutes and porn voyeurs spilling over from then-seedy Times Square.
Today, Hell’s Kitchen has become a desirable residential destination, with multi-million-dollar condos hemmed by a Disney-fied Times Square and glass towers soaring above the Hudson River. But the Music Building remains much as it was then, its bat-cave halls covered in ad hoc murals and graffiti and accessed by a lift whose cab is ventilated by a roof ripped half open like the tinfoil on top of a pack of Gauloises. Walking the halls with business owner Roget Lerner feels like a trip through photographer Walker Evans’ Great Depression-era tour of shadowy Appalachian coal mines, with an eerie soundtrack of muffled thumps and amplified roars wafting through the walls. Yet the Music Building is still fully populated — all 69 of its mostly square rehearsal rooms, which average a cozy 320 square feet — by musicians and bands, joined by as many as a dozen recording studios of various states of technical sophistication and a few percussion schools, and there’s a lengthy waiting list to grab the rare vacancies that arise. It’s a testament to the increasing demand that rehearsal space continues to experience. The Music Building’s verticality is simply an urban response to a city where space — and the ability to make noise in it — is always at a premium.
Where other upper-tier rehearsal facilities emphasise their ancillary services and boutique cachet, the Music Building relies on its Midtown location, its 24-hour access and security, and not least its history, as home to everyone from an early-era Madonna to Billy Idol and the Strokes — a 40-year rock & roll timeline. Unlike most other rehearsal facilities in the city, which allow hourly rentals and provide at least a basic backline and PA, the Music Building’s minimum is a month (though sublets are allowed and are common), and most of its rooms are leased bare and usually on an annual basis, at between $1800 and $2000 a month for rooms considerably smaller than what you’d get in LA or Nashville. This reinforces the building’s status as a haven for professionals only, as does the ability for NDAs to be added to leases upon request. The waiting list grows longer as the number of performing artists continues to increase and the number of available rehearsal spaces in New York dwindles; several rehearsal studios in fashionable Brooklyn have shut in recent years, victims of that borough’s continued gentrification.
One that has dodged that bullet, thanks to its ownership of its real estate, is Music Garage, which has been in the borough’s trendy Williamsburg neighbourhood since 1988, when the area was still crime-ridden. “Rehearsal studios tend to be in not the best neighbourhoods,” understates Joe Lardieri, Music Garage’s GM. And he concedes that the intrinsic property value of its location will eventually overcome the steady cashflow its 43 fully occupied rooms now generate. But Music Garage also has its own Chicago location. Opened in 2006, it has over twice the 30,000 square feet of the Brooklyn site, with a central location and 112 rehearsal rooms that appeal equally to the city’s diverse music-genre population. It also offers more room to address a trend in the sector he’s seen: rehearsal facilities that are geared to preparing for larger productions, which call for fewer, larger rooms but with adjacent spaces for artists’ production and business associates to collaborate. The trend has also prompted Music Garage to fabricate small vocal booths that better suit the needs of more self-contained touring artists, like DJs and rappers, freeing up larger band-rehearsal spaces. “Just like with recording studios, you need to look for how the business is changing,” he says. “You want to ride the waves, not get swamped by them.”
New York’s most durable rehearsal stalwarts, Studio Instrument Rentals, better known as SIR, have taken a different tack. Their mainly backline rentals business has helped them expand to a dozen US cities since they were founded in 1971, with five of them — New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, San Francisco and Miami — also rehearsal studio sites. Event production, remote recording and catering are among the ancillary services they offer.
Bo Holst, who’s been with the company since 1974 and now runs their New York operations, says the rehearsal business is reacting to the new emphasis on live music in a number of ways. For instance, the average rehearsal studio size has increased from about 25 x 30 feet 20 years ago to closer to twice that now, as touring artists have pressed for not only more space but also amenities such as producer offices and green rooms with refrigerators. SIR’s studios, which are all let on an hourly basis, are not soundproofed, which might seem impossible given the urban setting and the SPL that many bands rehearse at, but the rooms have been made as tight as possible, he says, “which often give them a resonance, like an acoustic guitar, a sound of their own”, says Holst.
Rehearsals have also become shorter and more intense, reflecting, says Holst, the shift towards singles and away from LPs; he says bands that once might have spent a week in the facility now spend two or three days, but will bring in more of their staging, such as foggers and lights. The may also rent multiple rooms, letting technical and staging directors get their acts together while the band practise in another room. That, Holst speculates, is because the live shows have to be visually stunning these days. “Millennials!” he grumbles. “If you don’t grab them in the first four seconds, you’re toast. The attention span of the consumer today is so short.” But, he adds, musicians have also changed. “The pressure is on them. They’re running their own businesses now, and they’ll bring a laptop and set it up in the studio while they’re rehearsing. If the Wi-Fi goes out, they panic.”
Rehearsal studios have always had a connection to recording, and that’s become even more pronounced in recent years. Joe Chiccarelli, whose discography as a producer and engineer includes Elton John, U2, Beck, the Strokes and Glenn Frey (the former Eagles member who, coincidentally, was one of the original founders of Nashville’s Soundcheck), says he routinely spends two weeks in rehearsals with bands and artists before going into the recording studio. “I do four albums a year so I’ll spend as much as two months a year in them,” he says. He frequents Bedrock LA in Los Angeles, which also houses two recording suites and has a Pro Tools systems on its rate card for the rehearsal rooms. “Parts or sounds we come up with there often become part of the record,” Chiccarelli explains. “We set up a [Shure] 57 and record it to Pro Tools. Twenty years ago I did the same thing, only to a [Sony] Walkman or an Olympus cassette recorder.” That workflow moves both ways — Chiccarelli says bands will bring the same stems that they’ll use on tour into the rehearsal room, listening to them through IEMs as they play. “There’s a continuous thread running between recording and rehearsal studios, more so than ever now,” he says.
And while they don’t yet rival the frilly comforts of the great ‘destination’ recording studios, rehearsal environments are becoming nicer places to spend time in; several, like Soundcheck, have added amenities like gyms.
The rehearsal studio has become a new growth category. Silver Point Studios in Nashville, a 40,000-plus-square-foot facility that opened in 2008 mainly as a video and event production site, rebranded itself in 2012 aiming at the music touring market. Clients there have included Arcade Fire, the Black Keys, Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Kings Of Leon and the National. Company president Jason Smythe says music now accounts for the vast majority of the facility’s bookings, due, he agrees, to live music’s current dynamic. He says no firm plans are yet in place for the next step for the facility but, he adds, “We need to take a large jump forward.”
Also in Nashville is the rehearsal facility, covering 31,000 square feet in two buildings, owned by artist management company Nove Entertainment. Nove’s clients include Dolly Parton, who also uses it. The company say they have relationships with several tour-system vendors, including Solotech (a noted L-Acoustics house), as equipment suppliers. Nove also hint, in an email, at a planned “multi-phase” expansion in the future, though they provide no details.
But the one that might best represent where this burgeoning industry sector is headed is Rock Lititz Studio, a 52,000-square-foot, purpose-built production rehearsal facility, in Lititz, Pennsylvania. The town is an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, and also notable as the headquarters of Clair Global (née Clair Brothers), the largest live-sound providers in the US, who, along with staging and automation company Tait Towers, are also partners in the project. The companies form a core around which other touring technology companies, such as Atomic Design, Tour Supply and Upstage Video, have taken root, making Clair’s home town the closest thing to a touring theme park yet seen. Rock Lititz’s 96 acres, which will ultimately be home to a 130-plus-room hotel, imply that more production-based vendors and resources will be based there in the future.
Known locally as ‘the Cube’ — from a distance it looks like Mecca’s Grand Kaaba deposited in a dairy pasture — the facility opened in late 2014 and has reportedly already hosted production rehearsals for Taylor Swift, Usher, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj (Rock Lititz management decline to confirm this, citing privacy, and won’t discuss rates). Its main production-rehearsal space alone is 30,000 square feet, including a 100-feet-tall ceiling to accommodate the largest trusses. The remainder of the 52,000 square feet is allocated to related production activities, including a 3200-square-foot room used for back-up band or dancer rehearsals. Later this year, a second phase, dubbed Pod 2, will be completed: a 250,000-square-foot adjunct that will house more offices and facilities for nearly two dozen support companies.
Land in rural Pennsylvania isn’t as dear as it is in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, and this kind of scale would be unattainable in any of those places. Its ownership is privately held, but a local business journal quoted an overall project cost of $21.8 million, with $7 million cited as the cost of constructing the studio and campus infrastructure, and with a combined $5.5 million coming from state-backed loans and grants. The facility will employ between 120 to 200 workers and provide a workplace for as many as three times that when all of its facilities are booked.
Studio manager Sarah Zeitler says the growing sophistication of live-music productions means there’s a need for larger production rehearsal facilities and access to a wider array of support companies. “Pyro, automation, hydraulics, lighting — it’s all getting more spectacular, and all of this is part of a modern high-end concert experience,” she says. She calls Rock Lititz a ‘blank canvas’ for production designers’ and artists’ visions for those spectacular stages, with the forthcoming hotel an acknowledgement of how complex productions have become: the typical production stay there is about 12 days.
In addition to their ownership stake in Rock Lititz, Clair built a 3500-square-foot rehearsal studio into their offices in Nashville last year, which uses and is named for Clair’s own S4 live-sound system. The company are also extending their backline rentals business from current locations in suburban New York City and Philadelphia into Nashville, where it will go up, when it arrives sometime later this year or early next, against SIR’s operations there. The backline expansion is being driven to some extent by Clair’s acquisitions of other, smaller backline providers, like GTO Live, in recent years. But the primary driver, says James Hammer, Clair Global’s marketing coordinator, is the seismic shift away from recorded music and towards live production. “Live music is getting more spectacular, and artists at all levels need spaces where they can create those kinds of shows,” he says.
Nashville’s Soundcheck, which has become ground zero for scores of major tours in all genres, leverages a local infrastructure of touring services — much of it built up over the last 60 years of country music, which historically spends much of its life on the road — in which anything from a sound system as well as someone to mix it to a tour bus and someone to drive it are all within shouting distance. (Bus builders Hemphill Brothers and Diamond Coaches are both based there.) Rock Lititz, on the other hand, can be viewed as that same infrastructure, purpose-built, customised for a dynamically changing music business. Both of them and other rehearsal venues represent an inflection point in the industry.
With live music expected to continue to be the main revenue source for music into the future, the role of the rehearsal studio will continue to evolve, and the facilities will likely continue to increase in number and offerings to meet that demand. But they will have to do so in a changed environment. As Fort Knox’s Kent Nielsen puts it, these facilities will have to be “part of a coming wave of efficiency in the music business”. Musicians will be self-contained artistic and business entities, looking to these new rehearsal agoras to provide a menu of services they can choose from as they pick their way through a landscape no longer paved by the machinery of major record labels. Rehearsal facilities will be subject to the same real-estate vicissitudes that recording studios are now pressured by, but their capital costs could be far less, helped by brands that are happy to have them place their equipment, at cost or for free, in front of a constant stream of potential customers. They’ll also have to find ancillary ways to use their spaces and services, such as for event production, as many now do.
Between large players like Soundcheck, SIR, Fort Knox and Clair Global, the sector has seen millions of new dollars pour into facilities and services just in the last few years. That assures one thing: ‘rehearsal’ is ready to put on quite a show.