With Studio Space, Musicians Get Sneakers

By /  NY Times  09/11/11

IF it were not meant to flog sneakers, it could be a sociology experiment. In July, Converse opened a recording studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and invited musicians to use it free. Who would come? With the recording industry on life support, who in New York still wants to be a musician?

During one week in August, here’s who showed up for a day of free recording time: two indie-rock bands in assorted cottons; one rapper seeking “licensing opportunities”; one sprawling multiracial hip-hop group; one married couple; one couple who met while playing in different wedding bands for the same agency; one waiter who lost his job for refusing to shave his chest hair; two M.B.A.’s; two drummers who could not keep time; two supportive parents; one keyboard player who called in sick at work; one singer-songwriter; one National Public Radio engineer; one bank teller; and one rapper who tamed his Twitter updates because he knew his mother was reading them.

Together, they made up a cross-section of young relicts, born too late for the days when the music industry doled out large advances and lavish tour budgets. “I can’t really say we missed out on the golden days,” said Greg Henits, 24, who plays bass and keyboards in a band called Folding Legs.(He also works the front desk at SoulCycle, an indoor cycling studio.) Still, they had missed out on something. Given “the state of the music industry now,” he said, “you know you’re not going to have Sony take you under their wing. You’re schlepping your instruments. You’re marketing yourselves.”

They consumed five six-packs of beer, one bottle of Jameson Irish Whiskey and no cigarettes or marijuana inside the studio. Some had health insurance through their parents or through the state’s Health Plus program; many were uninsured. They had fewer tattoos than you might think. The rappers wrote rhymes on their smartphones. Everyone took the free sneakers and T-shirts.

Lynette Williams, 25, a singer and songwriter from Ridgewood, N.J., came to the studio on Wednesday with a retinue — her parents, her sister, a stylist, three hired musicians — and with her eyes wide open. She has a degree in music business and management from Berklee College of Music and an M.B.A. from Suffolk University. She writes financial reports and does administrative work to support herself. Sometimes, she baby-sits.

“Part of the reason I got the M.B.A. is that you can no longer just be an artist,” she said. “You have to market it.”

Ms. Williams said she hoped to shop her recording for use in a movie, television show or commercial. Maybe a video game. “If Converse would do it, yeah, I would love that,” she said.

In the meantime, she planned to post the songs on Facebook and other social media sites. She said she was shy about using a pseudonym to praise her own videos. It’s “something I’m working on,” she added. “Being a little more bold.”

Does her mother think performing music is the best use of her M.B.A.?

Her mother, Sonia Williams, looked surprised by the question. “Why?” she said. “Do you think they’re incompatible?”

Geoff Cottrill, Converse’s chief marketing officer, would not say how much it cost to build and operate the studio, which occupies a former dry cleaner at 130 Hope Street, behind murals by the street artists Shepard Fairey and Mr. EwokOne.

The studio takes 5 or 6 acts a week, selected from more than 600 that have applied. The acts are selected less for their talent than for their viral energies — their presence on MySpace or Facebook, their hustle in pursuing their careers — and each gets a day or two in the studio, including the services of the engineers. Mr. Cottrill says that the company does not try to curate or influence the music, and that it will not filter out raw or controversial acts, within reason. “Our one guiding rule is,” he said, “don’t come in here and be mean to people.”

Musicians retain all rights to their work, but they may be featured on the studio’s Twitter feed, which had 370 followers as of Monday, or streamed on Converse’s two Facebook pages, each of which has more than 20 million people who “like” it. “That’s a decent-sized country,” Mr. Cottrill said.

On Tuesday in Studio B, a small room, a rapper named Najee the 1 was recording “Elevated,” a song about his troubled life that he hoped would be spiritually uplifting. When he could not remember a lyric, his manager, Marat Berenstein, told him to check his iPad.

“We’d like to aim for licensing opportunities,” Mr. Berenstein said of the recording. With that in mind, they debated a lyric about marijuana.

“We can’t sacrifice the art completely,” Najee said.

Mr. Berenstein, 28, whose profile on Google + reads, “I’ve accepted my position in life as a winner, as a leader, as the example,” said he would work only with a brand whose products he and Najee would use. “We all wear Converse,” he said. “That’s the reason we’re here. And if they were here” — referring to Converse executives — “we’d say we love Converse.”

In fact, neither rapper nor manager was wearing Converse.

“It’d be corny if we came in here rocking Converse on the first day,” said Najee’s producer, DB2, nee Daniel Bazan Jr.

The rapper and manager have a working relationship with Cornerstone Promotions, a marketing company that runs the studio for Converse. Cornerstone, which also publishes the lifestyle magazine Fader, has featured Najee on two of its monthly mix tapes, which it says go to “10,000 key influencers who shape hip-hop culture.”

Najee, 26, whose full name is Najee Horne, called the current period “the golden era of the independent artist,” even if there were no big checks coming from record companies. “You get a few mix tapes together and take it straight to the people,” he said. “Put it on Facebook, Twitter, Bandcamp,” a site that enables musicians to sell songs or merchandise directly to fans.

Mr. Horne, who said he had been shuttled from one foster home to another when he was growing up, now lives near the Grand Concourse in the Bronx and supports himself through music and licensing. He wore dark sunglasses indoors. He had a plan. “You reach the people you want,” he said, “then you go to the record label.”

All the talk of social media was a bit much for Stephen Ortega, 29, who sings and plays guitar for a Bergen County band called Happy People. Mr. Ortega, whose band started the week, was wearing a new pair of distressed jeans, a birthday gift from his mother. Before getting them, he’d worn the same jeans every day for a year and a half, he said. Between takes, Mr. Ortega, who does “freelance coffee-getting” for a reality television company, opened bottles of beer using his cellphone.

He said he was daunted by all the music and social media Web sites a band needed to use — not just the obvious, but also Reverb Nation, rcrdlbl.com and countless personal blogs or Tumblr accounts. Who could keep up? “Twitter, I haven’t been able to wrap my head around,” he said.

The final act of the week was a hip-hop duo named Tanya Morgan, whose members have been together since 2003, with limited success. They no longer have a manager, publicist or booking agent.

“We’re in a rebuilding phase,” said William Donald Freeman, 34, half the duo, who records as Donwill. Financially, he said, the duo has good months and “ramen” months.

“We had a very clear glass ceiling,” he said. “Like we’ve played Pittsburgh a lot, and we still only get 100 to 150 people.”

His musical partner, Devon Callender, 29, looked up. “I’d say that’s generous, 150 people,” said Mr. Callender, who records as Von Pea.

To change its luck, the duo brought in a producer named 6th Sense, who brought in a full band of musicians, all working free. Before the first song was finished, someone had posted about the session on Twitter.

In the booth, the musicians worked out a chorus for one song.

“Don’t say, ‘All the girls across the world,’ ” Mr. Callender said. “Say, ‘All ’em girls.’ ” The others nodded.

“We use bad grammar so it’ll be on BET,” Mr. Callender deadpanned.

As a sociological experiment, what did the week say about the hopes and dreams of New York musicians, circa 2011? Why do they do it?

Jon Cohen, 43, a partner in Cornerstone, said that being a musician was still cool, and that New York, especially Williamsburg, was still the center of the universe. But Pedro Costa, 26, manager of Folding Legs, took a more Yogi Berra-ish view. Since coming to the United States from Portugal to get a master’s degree in the music business at New York University, Mr. Costa has held several jobs that entailed writing bogus praise on musicians’ Facebook pages.

Being a musician these days, he said, “is not cool, because so many people are trying to be musicians. If everybody can do it, it’s not cool.”

But Mr. Costa saw an opportunity there. “Hopefully, people will stop because it’s not cool,” he said. “Maybe only the real ones will continue.”



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