Though the industry may be struggling to support the large studios that once thrived in Manhattan, the need for such creative centres is still very much alive.
We've been around the country a few times in this column, from Chicago to Philadelphia, from Nashville to Atlanta. We've even been to Brooklyn before, specifically Williamsburg, the hipster haven with 60 recording studios crammed into barely three densely populated, ethnically garbled and increasingly unaffordable square miles.
Billyburg, as real-estate types have taken to calling it, has become a dense honeycomb of single-room, owner-operated music recording shops; a pro-audio terrain that might have been envisioned in a movie featuring Jack Black, scored by Jack White and based on a novel by Nick Hornby. It was originally a refuge from the high cost of Manhattan, and was settled, like the United States itself, by people who were fed up with the status quo, and willing to pull up stakes and take a chance. They were pioneers, and like the immigrants that made it to Appalachia 200 years ago, they set up their little outposts based on their own belief systems, away from the marketing reach of the so-called civilised world, and went busily to work.
What had been left behind in the wreckage of Manhattan, though, was the memory of a time when multi-room studios acted as the junction between the creative and technical sides of the industry: a crossroads where musicians, engineers and producers mingled and networked, exchanging ideas, phone numbers and various controlled substances, all in pursuit of a synergy that seems to have disappeared along with The Hit Factory, Record Plant, Chung King and more than a few others.
That spirit might be resurrecting itself now in Brooklyn. Studio G is a three-room facility that celebrated its first year in business this April, and its Studios A, B and C are populated with an SSL 8048 G+, a Neve 5216 and an MCI 624, respectively. Co-owner Joel Hamilton, along with partner Tony Maimone, had operated a one-room iteration of Studio G for 17 years in Brooklyn. He says the new multi-room facility evokes the kind of big mothership studios they used to love working in as freelance engineers in Manhattan years ago — but not the business model.
"The 'build it and they will come' concept has so clearly failed in the music business,” he states. The pattern of multi-room studios that came together organically, room by room, in the 1960s in New York would later appear in Los Angeles, and the potential for interactivity between clients was high — God knows how many great guitar solos happened because someone bumped into Waddy Wachtel or Jeff Baxter in the hall on breaks. But operational costs increased exponentially, too.
That kind of purpose-built technical Taj Mahal can't happen anymore, says Hamilton; the recording business simply can't sustain it. Instead, Studio G came together because he and Maimone, and other like-minded engineers and producers, wanted a place where they could collaborate with enough proximity to be friends, and enough drywall between them to stay that way. It's an extension of the Williamsburg paradigm of many studios clustered together, but with a few of them now under one roof. To recall the pioneer analogy I gave earlier, this is how settlements turned into cities.
Of course, some cities, like Central Falls, RI and Harrisburg, PA, didn't manage their growth all that well and are now bankrupt. That's what Hamilton wants to avoid. "The [multi-room] studio isn't like a ranch that can get more productive as it adds more fields; that's the old business model. You have to constantly keep something happening in every room to make it work,” he says. "This came together as the organic outcome of Tony and me and a few others wanting a way to work together.”
The End, a two-room facility in the same neighbourhood, came about just as organically, though it wasn't quite as planned out. Its co-owners, Brian Binsack, Brian Crowe and Neal Sherlock, envisioned the studio as a convolution of multiple art forms, comprising a control room and tracking room, an art gallery and several live-event spaces, including a stage with PA system, and two rooftop gardens. And when nearby studio Rough Magic started needing a new space, they formed a second studio, connected to the same tracking room and other live spaces.
Binsack calls the result a community centre: a setting that not only sees musicians sitting in on one another's sessions, but also graphic artists whose gallery shows have led to commissions for album art. He says the business model is similar to that of the legacy multi-room facilities, but that a wider array of revenues related to but not solely from music, including record release parties and live showcases in addition to the art exhibits, keeps them from relying too heavily on just recording.
"There are lighting directors who are now working with bands that have recorded here,” he says, still marveling at the diversity the place attracts. Its rooftop views of the East River and Manhattan have also made it the local home of Balcony TV, a Dublin start-up that kind of picks up where the Beatles' last live performance left off, recording and distributing live shows from roofs, ledges and other precarious perches from around the world. And that's a useful trope with which to conclude: the Beatles on a rooftop on Savile Row, and the once-dominant multi-room studio both serve as inspiration for this generation's adaptation of what came before. As Joel Hamilton puts it, "I don't think we'll ever see the same conditions that led to a place like The Hit Factory, with a dozen studios under one roof, again. But the need that it served — to help people get together around making music — is still there.”