The Next Brooklyns

New York's DJs flee overseas to Berlin and Barcelona

Troy Pierce's perfect apartment has a huge glass dome, three bedrooms, and 20-foot ceilings. At $900, it's one of the more expensive and extravagant dwellings he looked at. "It was one of those insane places," he says wistfully.

There's one catch. It's 4,000 miles away, in Berlin. But after many months of mulling the possibility, he, like many other New York DJs and musicians, jumped ship early this year.

Of course, there was the girl he met; that helped. There were also all his friends, most of whom work in the minuscule world of minimal techno, and all of whom moved a few months before he did. "Of the people I hang out with all the time, six of them have moved away," he said in an interview last fall.

Ariel Danziger, resting in Barcelona
photo: Sandra Myhrberg
Ariel Danziger, resting in Barcelona

What took him so long? Before he left, he admitted, not a little shamefully, that "the only reason I am staying here now is because I have a nice apartment."

So in February, Pierce, a former fashion designer turned DJ, followed the trail of fellow DJs who have left New York in the past year—Dinky, Magda, Dave Turov, Danny Wang—for Berlin. Even before them, Khan, the owner of the specialist 12-inch record store Temple Records, moved to the German city. Temple Records, it should be noted, like at least five other dance music stores in the past few years, has gone out of business.

New York's dance music scene is undergoing a brain drain. DJs and musicians feel constrained by cabaret and smoking laws, the oppressive rental market, and general lack of interest. "Electronic music is in a lull in America," says Stewart Walker, a Boston musician who moved to Berlin last fall. "You're either on the rave circuit or you're starving."

A generation of expats has abandoned a city where the average gig at the local watering hole pays maybe $50 and cab fare, for cities where rent is closer to $400 than $1,200, and apartments are way more spacious than most New York rat holes. DJs get paid hundreds of dollars for a gig, or they can hop on a plane for 100 euros and land in club-friendly Madrid, Paris, or London.

"New York has become prohibitively expensive for people without professional careers," says house-music producer Wang. "A very spacious apartment in Berlin for 400 or 500 euros a month can still be found; in the East Village, $950 for my cramped studio was a steal. Downtown New York now seems overrun with drab NYU students and tacky yuppies from the show Friends."

A Guy Called Gerald, a British expat who lived in Brooklyn for years, has also resurfaced in Berlin. Iconic downtown DJ Dimitri of Deee-Lite is rumored to be there as well. Richie Hawtin left his beloved Windsor, Ontario, hometown for Williamsburg in 2002 and lasted just a year before moving to the German city. "Europe and Germany are so much more open than America these days," he says. "If you're into anything which is under the radar or left of center, America is not the place to be. Even the most progressive city in America, New York—even that is not the place to be anymore. Berlin—this is like how New York was, and how New York should be."

"I was never a political person during the Clinton administration," says Walker. "I just felt like I was free to pursue life's work. But the growth of conservatism in America has caused me to be political against my will. All of a sudden, I can't do what I want to do, because there are laws against what I do."

Richie Hawtin, who is Canadian, chose Berlin because "I really don't want to be part of what's going on in America. The lack of freedoms and the lack of privacy, it's unbelievable." He continues: "You can hardly even do parties in New York. You can't do anything in America, it's so locked down. The fact that powers that be have taken the unfortunate incidents of the last few years to further clamp down is ridiculous. For music which is based upon development and experimentation and progression, you need freedom."

But now that the secret's out, Berlin is flooded with DJs, says Wang: "There are too many DJs here! But it is much easier to get gigs at clubs and festivals throughout Europe."

"Berlin is one of the most competitive DJ markets in the world," agrees Turov. "Every label, every producer, every booking agent is just moving there, is trying to move there, or is already there." But he adds, "To the rest of the world, being from New York is a really big deal, which helps me marketing-wise."

Former Body & Soul DJ Danny Krivit has witnessed this cycle of DJs leaving the city before and warns, "They hear about these job opportunities. Somebody wants them because they are from New York. Once they are there, now they are not from New York. They are not special."

And while it may be cheaper to live in Berlin, the economy is a shambles. Berlin's unemployment rate is 18.1 percent, more than double the 7.5 percent that, in 2003, ranked New York the 49th worst among 51 U.S. metropolitan areas. If New York is overrun by type-A personalities looking to make the most money, Berlin is a place where 30-year-olds have just finished college, where living off the "dole" is not frowned upon, and where people are so poor they resort to communal living. "The American way is independence, commerce, making money, working, and graduating college at 21. It's two weeks' vacation a year. It's work, work, work. We consume more, we make more, we almost single-mindedly pursue money," says Turov. In Berlin, "Nobody has any money. We are all super fucking broke. You almost never finish a drink by yourself. It's passed around like it's a bong."

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