BerkleeNYC: A Student’s Perspective

Story by Darcy Davis

If you’re a student at Berklee, you’ve probably heard about the recent acquisition of Power Station studios, read the press release, watched the video and thought “this is awesome but what does this mean for us?” As an MP&E student, I wanted to know what sort of opportunities we would get to utilize the space in order to expand our careers in New York, and where other technology majors such as EPD and CWP would fit into the vision. So I caught up with Stephen Webber, Executive Director of BerkleeNYC, to talk more about the grand plan for the studio and why we should be excited.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Stephen, he is the man responsible for creating the Master of Music Production, Technology and Innovation program at Berklee’s campus in Valencia and developing the first college-level classes in turntablism and DJing. His former role as professor in the MP&E department on Berklee’s Boston campus and his wealth of engineering and producing experience worldwide has put him in a great position to lead operations at Power Station at BerkleeNYC.

The studio building itself that resides at 441 W 53rd St is over 100 years old, started its life as an actual power plant that powered the ‘L-Train’ before being taken over in 1977 by business partners Tony Bongiovi and Bob Walters and rebuilt to create what was recognized to be one of the finest acoustic environments for recording in the world.

So why was it important for Berklee, with the aid of philanthropic donors to ‘save’ the studio financially and administratively?

“The studio represents hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars of work for studio musicians every year in New York – if it shut down, some of it would go to other studios in New York but at least half of it would be in danger of just going away,” explained Stephen. “We have over 7,000 alumni living in New York so we are interested in the ecosystem of NY being a thriving place [for musicians].”

And since the acquisition of the studio in late 2017, it seems that the stabilization is well underway, already bringing in 240% of the projected earnings after doing Pro-Tools, headphone and infrastructure upgrades. Some recent clients of Power Station at BerkleeNYC have included Mick Jagger, Buddy Guy, Paul Simon, John Legend, Andrew Lloyd Webber and string recordings for Lady Gaga. Not to mention the recording of the new Letterman theme for Netflix, five Broadway cast albums and the soundtrack for the Oceans Eight movie (the all female sequel to Oceans 11).

Needless to say, Power Station at BerkleeNYC has wasted no time in developing themselves as a non-for-profit business facility and asset for music recording in New York.

So how will the hybrid professional/educational nature of the studio work in a practical context for Berklee students?

“There’s a studio in Nashville called Ocean Way that is owned by Belmont University,” explained Stephen in reference to the business model he sees for Power Station at BerkleeNYC. “The way I see it, the educational side is just like another client to us, we just have to book it in.”

As for the nature of such educational events and seminars that will be open to Berklee students at Power Station at BerkleeNYC, a lot is still in the prototyping phase, and Stephen says they are open to hearing ideas from current students and alumni alike. BerkleeNYC is doing a series of alumni engagement brainstorming sessions in the coming weeks and months.

“We’ve had ideas put forward,” explained Stephen. “I say let’s figure out how we can fund it and try it out.” This seems to be a time where the execution of the vision is still in data gathering mode, and Berklee students have a chance to get involved. “People like to think that places like Berklee are faceless bureaucracies, but it takes people to come up with and pitch ideas – if it’s an especially good idea, we’re likely to say, ‘if you have the desire and the bandwidth to pull that together, we’re open to giving it a try.’”

Major renovations will start in August that will put the studio business on hold for 11 months, involving making the building more accessible for people with physical challenges as well as upgrades to the equipment and facilities inside to bring it into the 21st century. “The acoustic spaces are already amazing but we’re going to add video capability and 360° cinematic VR capture, but it’s mainly the rest of the building [that we are renovating],” elaborated Stephen. “There is lots of space in the lower level, we’ll be putting a black box theater down there and a VR/AR laboratory. The 2nd floor is underbuilt, so we’re adding a couple of rehearsal space/classrooms/listening/writing rooms.”

The plan is eventually to start offering MP&E students the opportunity to do their final semester and culminating classes in New York, including MP475 (Masters Engineering Lab) and MP461 (Advanced Production Projects) and even design a couple of classes that are specific to Power Station and capitalize on being in New York. Stephen is currently working with MP&E chair Rob Jaczko and assistant chair Dan Thompson on developing these new courses.

As for students who are not majoring in MP&E, there are also exciting developments, including talks with Sony Masterworks for ideas such as ‘Artist Incubation’ programs, based on business incubators in Silicon Valley. “[with an idea like this] if you were accepted into the program you could get studio time, practice time and business mentorship to build your brand and realize yourself as an artist.”

“The thing about Power Station is that for the first three years, each year is gonna look totally different to the year before. I want to employ ‘design thinking’ to this, prototype things, iterate them, learn from our mistakes and be flexible enough to pivot.”

So there it is folks, straight ‘from the horse’s mouth’ – the potential of BerkleeNYC and Power Station at BerkleeNYC is humungous and a great deal of thought and consideration is going into making it the best resource possible for students and the community of New York alike. The floor is open for your input as students – so what ideas have you got? Contact BerkleeNYC.