When I graduated from college in Orlando (shout to Full Sail!), I had a very important decision to make: which city was I going to move to? I wanted to work with all of my favourite artists; I wanted to win Grammys; I wanted to help influence culture. Gone were the days of the Backstreet Boys and N’Sync, who got their start in Orlando. It was 2005, and I had only a few options: New York, Los Angeles, and to a lesser extent, Atlanta and Miami, which both had a pretty healthy urban music scene. But for me, it was really a decision between New York and LA. LA had the great weather, but I’m from Toronto! I can handle any weather New York can throw at me. Plus, I had always wanted to live in NYC. It really came down to the music.
New York was still the mecca of hip hop (and in many ways still is), and that’s what I wanted to be around. So, in August 2005, I made the move, got myself set up in a little studio apartment in Chelsea, and started my career. At that time, New York had already begun to witness some changes in the music industry. Just a few months before I made it to the city, The Hit Factory closed its doors for good - one of the most iconic studios of its time, which I regretfully never got to experience. It closed down to make way for condos, something which I’ve seen and experienced first hand multiple times over the last few years. Technology was now progressing fast, which created a multitude of problems for studios.
Album sales were declining, and most attribute this to the availability of mp3s and file sharing services. The labels started to tighten their belts, and the first people to take the hit are the studios, engineers, and producers. First, the food budgets go; next, the car services; and eventually, the labels force everyone to drop their rates. Slowly, this becomes a major problem. At the same time, the artists themselves start to see the label asking for more from them. Labels can’t stay afloat (or rather, appease shareholders) if their revenues are down, so executives start asking how they can increase those revenues. Along comes the 360 deal. Now, labels want a piece of an artist’s touring, merchandise, endorsements, and any other ancillary business. Of course, this is all while cutting recording budgets and forcing everyone to adapt. The artist starts seeing the label cutting into their pockets, so how do they fix this? Well, they build their own studio at home. This cuts down on their recording expenses, so maybe, just maybe, they’ll see some royalties after they’ve recouped their recording and marketing expenses.
I’m not going to get into the intricacies of an artist deal, but the simple description is, the artist gets paid last, after every expense has been returned to the label. The point is, all of this is bad news for the recording studios. But wait - there’s another major problem for the studios. Rents. I’m not sure how many of our readers are in New York or have lived in New York, but if you have, you’d know, this city ain’t cheap!
Rents, which are already some of the highest in the country, go up and up at a steady pace; a pace of about 2-3% each year. When you own a large recording studio with upwards of 50,000 square feet of space, even a few percent makes a major difference on your overhead costs. It’s hard paying off the loan for the one million dollar console while your rents are up, revenues are down, and utility charges are through the roof!
Studios began to close; one by one, I watched them all go - casualties of an economic war, squeezed from both sides until they couldn’t breathe any longer: Sony; Mirror Image; Sound On Sound; Chung King; and recently even KMA (a relatively new studio, and one of my favourites). I’m sure I’m missing a few, too.
So what happens next? Well, now the talent still living in New York begins to face the same problems the studio faced: rising rents, paired with lower income. Die hard New Yorkers start to rationalise the idea of moving; they’re getting squeezed so tight that eventually Los Angeles looks mighty appealing with its great weather, cheaper rent, and abundance of studios; one by one, talent started to leave.
I’ve seen the vast majority of my closest friends pack up for sunny California; producers, songwriters, A&Rs, artists, managers, publishers - you name it. Everyone in every aspect of this business has thought about moving, and nine years after I first moved to NYC, a significant portion have. I have to be honest, I’ve thought about it more than once, but I’m still holding on for dear life. I love New York, and everything about the city; I feel at home here, and I’m not ready to give that up.
Despite all the problems artists face living in New York, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I have been actively working on ways to improve not only the recording scene here, but the art scene as a whole; it’s been a long process of discovery, but there’s a solution to every problem, and if everything lines up accordingly, I’ll share more about the project in the coming months through this column.
One thing is for certain, though: for the time being, New York will still be a major part of the music business. Most of the record labels still have their offices here, which means the talent will always have to make their way back. Now, New York needs to give them a reason to stay.