Berklee to Save, Renovate Iconic Power Station Studio With Help From NYC
New York City's iconic Power Station studio (renamed Avatar Studios in 1996), the recording home for artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, John Mayer, Norah Jones, the Rolling Stones and, more recently, the cast album for Hamilton, has been sold in a deal that will see it taken over by Boston-based Berklee College of Music.
As part of the deal, New York City's Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, alongside its sister agency the Economic Development Corporation, will invest $6 million into a large-scale renovation project, part of what Berklee president Roger Brown says is more than $20 million in philanthropic investment to save and upgrade the legendary studio on Manhattan's west side.
"Renovating this amazing, historic music venue is a powerful nod to New York City as a continuing center for innovative art, culture and creativity," NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement provided to Billboard. "I commend Berklee and Trustee Peter Muller for their investments, their vision and for the public programing space that will benefit many budding and future New York recording artists."
The plan for Berklee to take over the studio began more than 18 months ago, when two Berklee alums, musician and college trustee Peter Muller and engineer/musician Rick DePofi, were working a session at the studio and began discussing its impending closure, with the likeliest outcome that the building would be converted into condominiums, similar to the fate that awaited the Hit Factory a few blocks away. The two came up with the idea to find a way to finance the purchase of the building and turn it over to Berklee to both preserve its use as a commercial facility and to use it as an educational and community resource for both Berklee students and local musicians.
"There is so much happening in New York, so many of our alumni want to be there," Brown tells Billboard about Berklee's initial interest in the project. "[We said], what if we had a runway where people leaving Boston could go get their feet wet, do internships, do final projects in New York, and use that as a way to increase their odds of having a sustained, successful career as an artist? And the idea of not only preserving, but re-imagining, one of the greatest and most legendary recording studios on earth, that has almost like a mystical reputation in terms of the sound quality, that really appealed to us."
Among the upgrades the college plans for the building include a full renovation that will result in it being re-opened as BerkleeNYC, with the commercial studios re-named Power Station at BerkleeNYC, with each recording studio receiving a full upgrade of its audio systems as well as being outfitted with modern video capabilities that will allow for simultaneous audio and video recording. It will also include new rehearsal and performance spaces in the basement of the building, as well as a new virtual reality / augmented reality studio, and will provide free and tuition-based educational programming and other events for both the local music community in NYC and Berklee's students.
"We really want to make this a place where innovators are attracted there and are doing things and collaborating with artists and creators from the music scene," says Stephen Webber, dean of strategic initiatives at Berklee and now the executive director of BerkleeNYC. "We want to make this into a hub of creative activity. We want this to be the premier studio, not just in New York, but in the world. If you're recording multiple musicians at the same time, we want you to come here. We just really endeavor to make this into a place where great music can happen."
Renovations are expected to begin by the end of 2017 or early 2018, and Berklee is hoping the work will be done within 12 to 18 months, though the time frame is still flexible. For the Mayor's Office of Media and Entertainment, which added music to its purview within the past two years, the new Power Station at BerkleeNYC serves several purposes: it saves another big-name studio from going under; provides a space for local musicians to rehearse and perform at a time when both studios and small venues are closing at high rates; and provides an educational and historic outlet, with classes, programming and museum-level installations about the history of the studio and the music industry in the city.
"The idea that we can help the next generation of musicians who are currently students in New York City get free access to programming and have the programs that Berklee offers was of great interest to us," says Julie Menin, commissioner of the MOME. "When arts funding is unfortunately being cut in so many sectors, we in New York City are very focused on making sure that we provide access and inclusion to those who are often left out of the system. For many public school music students, it can be hard for them to have those opportunities for rehearsal space and for free music programming. And that's what will be provided in this space."
"I think the reason Berklee has become an important educational facility is that we've been the first ones to say we need to figure out where technology is going and we need to get ahead of that curve," says Brown. "Berklee alumni have won 275 Grammys and 88 Latin Grammys and we intend to continue to train people who are going to go make a living and go change the world of music. And I think that this studio is going to allow us to continue to do this."