Driven away from Manhattan by skyrocketing real‑estate prices, studio owners in Williamsburg are finding that even high‑profile acts are drawn to their lower rates.
The hipster culture of the Williamsburg neighbourhood of Brooklyn has become the gravitational centre of New York's music scene, and, like all pioneers, those who left the increasingly expensive island of Manhattan have brought along the tools of their culture, from craft beer to recording studios. Many of the latter are named like the indie bands they serve — the Civil Defense, Danny Screams, MetroSonic, Monsterland, The Bunker, Fluxivity... Mostly whimsical, occasionally eccentric, rarely earnest. The New York Musician web site (www.newyorkmusician.com) lists 25 studios and is certainly incomplete; most are handbuilt by their owners and are producer/engineer owned; a cohort usually way too busy to take time to properly toot their own horns.
Oliver Straus, owner and chief engineer at Mission Sound, estimates that there are closer to 60 studios in the neighbourhood, which covers fewer than three square miles. He set up his studio there in 1992 with a Neve 8026 desk and ultimately bought a building to house it, underscoring the economics that drive the Williamsburg studio phenomenon. "The move was in response to looking for cheaper real estate than you could get in Manhattan,” he says. Ironically, Williamsburg's hipness may ultimately price many of those same studios out of the area (the 'Shoreditch Syndrome'). Straus cites the case of Coyote Studios, one of the very first to open there two decades ago, but which closed four years ago when its rent more than doubled — an increasingly common occurrence on Williamsburg's trendier avenues.
Williamsburg's studios didn't arise in a vacuum. The area became a destination for the same kinds of urban fine and graphic artists that renovated Manhattan's downtown factory lofts and tenements into the affluent Soho and Tribeca sections in the 1980s, in the process pricing themselves out of Manhattan. Williamsburg conveniently has its own bridge across the East River to Manhattan, which is also just one subway stop away from the Lower East Side. The musicians followed in the late '90s and the first decade of the century, lured by a proliferation of little live-music venues as well as the area's edginess (NYPD officer Frank Serpico, of the film of the same name, was shot at a drug den there in 1971). The area's diversity — the ultra-conservative Hasidic Jews in South Williamsburg abutting the Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, themselves forming a boundary between the Italians and Polish on the north side — helped assure a mini-Manhattan of quality bagels, empanadas and kielbasa. Once artists stopped commuting and put down roots, the studios quickly mushroomed.
The first boom of independent recording studios in New York, in the early 1970s, was fueled by the explosive growth of major‑label rock & roll. Williamsburg's studio scene, by contrast, grew as that same industry cratered, with CD sales plummeting throughout the decade. Straus says that while his studio and a few others do get some major-label work, the vast majority is funded by the recording artists themselves. That keeps rates low — Mission charges $1000 a day but most rooms are closer to $700, including the services of the owner/engineer/producer, which is half to a third less than at large facilities across the river. "It's all about bang for the buck, even for the major labels,” says Straus. "The studios are able to charge less per day [than in Manhattan] but deliver the same product.”
It helps, though, that Williamsburg has also become a destination. Mission hosted part of the Arctic Monkeys' last LP, and Straus says more English bands are coming over, drawn by a combination of a soft dollar versus the pound and Williamsburg's sonic allure, a sound he describes as "super‑indie meets dance.” It might also have received an unintended boost after the September 11th terrorist attacks. Matt Boynton, owner and engineer/producer at Vacation Island Recording, which opened in 2007 and where acts including MGMT and Lemonheads have worked on its '80s Neotek console, says there was a period when some bands simply wanted to avoid Manhattan. "The East River became kind of a moat for us,” he says.
Besides a river, what sets Williamsburg apart from Manhattan is the highly idiosyncratic nature of each studio, tailored to fit the proprietor/engineer's tastes rather than trying to appeal to a broad market. "The [studios] in Brooklyn have an esthetic that's more like a salon or a tattoo parlor in that they're about styling,” comments Hugh Pool, owner/operator of Excello, which opened in 1992 with a former‑BBC Calrec OB Series B console and The Hit Factory's reverb plates. Excello is located almost directly across the street from Mission, but this highly personal nature of Williamsburg's studio shops means that he and Straus are friends rather than competitors, as are their wives and kids.
But even Pool wonders if Williamsburg will begin to sag under its own weight. The outer boroughs, as Manhattanites like to call everywhere else in New York, are seeing more studio activity. Rooms are cropping up in adjacent areas like Greenpoint and Bushwick (where Amy Winehouse tracked much of her breakthrough album at the Daptones' studio), and even into next-door Queens. Kieran Kelly, proprietor and one of a loose confederation of producers who use his studio The Buddy Project in Astoria, says the parking is easier there than Brooklyn, and the focus less on fashion than on music — a condition Williamsburg is not often accused of. "But after a while all of these neighbourhoods kind of bleed together — and it's all cheaper than Manhattan.”