New York’s Avatar Studios — au revoir, but not goodbye.
In an industry used to deathwatches over flagship-level multiroom studio facilities, New York’s Avatar Studios had been a long-running saga. The facility was founded by producer/engineer Tony Bongiovi in 1977 as the Power Station and operated since 1996 by husband-and-wife team Chieko and Kirk Imamura, who put it up for sale in 2015 as costs increased and revenues declined. The studio continued to run throughout that period — a refuge for large-scale projects like Broadway cast albums and well-heeled artists, as well as bands that treasured big rooms — but covering the overhead of a three-studio facility at a time when Manhattan real estate developers were eyeing the big parcel of land that the studio occupied (it was a former Con Edison electrical substation) seemed to spell an ineluctable outcome. It increasingly looked as though Avatar would share the same fate as The Hit Factory, which became condominiums in 2006.
Then, something happened. The Berklee College Of Music, in concert with New York’s Mayor’s Office Of Media & Entertainment and the Economic Development Corporation, stepped in with $25 million between them. Enough, Berklee president Roger H Brown told the New York Times, “to launch, renovate and operate for a decade.”
It’s an interesting twist. On the one hand, Avatar being acquired by an educational institution fits a narrative that’s emerged in recent years: Ocean Way Nashville and Sound Emporium, also in Nashville, were both sold by their owners to university institutions with extensive music-production training programs, Belmont University and Lipscomb University, respectively. On the other hand, an alternate ending in another drama saw the classic RCA Studio A on Nashville’s Music Row saved three years ago from a developer’s wrecking ball by a consortium of wealthy music aficionados. They’ve installed Dave Cobb, the pre-eminent Americana music producer, in there as producer in residence. The studio still generates revenue, through commercial bookings and as an event space, but won’t ever have to worry about meeting the monthly bills again, thanks to its new benefactors. Both Ocean Way Nashville and Sound Emporium also accommodate commercial clients, between classroom uses.
Avatar Studios’ outcome is a hybrid of the two — saved by a large educational institution with deep music and production interests and even deeper pockets, and Pete Muller, a finance-industry entrepreneur, a trustee of Berklee, and apparently a musician himself. In what might be the most Cinderella of all happy endings, Muller had done sessions in the studio and had become aware of its precarious financial picture. He brought the pieces — including $6 million of the $25 million deal from the municipal agency — into a neat package and presented it to the Imamuras.
“We’re very happy that it turned out this way,” Kirk Imamura told me a few days after the deal had closed on September 1st, “It was nerve-wracking at times.” It’s also clear he felt that he was safeguarding a legacy, a way of making records that seems almost quaint now, but which produced music that has endured for decades and, if the soundtrack of life now is any indication, will continue to endure for a long time to come. Much of that canon came out of Power Station/Avatar, including seminal records from Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Nile Rodgers, Herbie Hancock and others. In fact, Chieko Imamura said as much to the New York Times, telling the paper in 2015, “I think I got this studio from God. I didn’t own it. I’m just a custodian.”
Avatar will still need to find its place in a much-changed music production landscape. Berklee isn’t a bad partner to have in that pursuit. Founded as a small jazz school in 1945, Berklee has a history of investing in both pro audio and real estate.
The school has also been a proactive advocate around the business of music and music production. For instance, in 2015 it issued a white paper that pointed out that “anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of music payments don’t make it to their rightful owners.”
However, Berklee is also a business. At $41,398 tuition per year, it’s in line with the kind of Ivy League schools that surround its Boston campus; add on $18,000 for room and board and you’re looking at a potentially hefty student-loan debt. This column has been consistently critical of the costs of media-arts programs that put graduates into a difficult job market with large debt loads. Some will educate their graduates/customers better than others, and from what I can tell Berklee is among them. But that doesn’t make paying back a loan any easier.
What that kind of tuition, across the school’s 5000 or so students, plus its reported endowment fund of $327 million, also does is allow Berklee to be assertive about its investments. That would include Manhattan real estate.
The short-term future for Avatar looks positive. The school has announced it will invest in capital improvements in the facility, and Muller said that the public-private structure of the facility means that Berklee can keep operating as a conventional studio, “but isn’t going to have to hustle for every last penny.”
Avatar Studios deserves to remain in place, not so much as a monument to what was, but as an affirmation of what can be. As Power Station, the studio was an assertion of what a privately owned, non-label-affiliated studio could achieve. When it became Avatar, the Imamuras were buying a studio at what turned out to be the top of the market. But they never looked at it as purely a fiduciary investment; if they had, they would have sold a long time ago. Kirk Imamura says he’s not sure what he’ll do next — “It’s been a long time since I had to look for a job,” he joked gently — but he knows it won’t be a recording studio. He’s been there and done that, and we’re all the better for it.