Bands Can No Longer Afford to Practice in NYC

Sylvana Joyce & the Moment
Sylvana Joyce & the Moment
Photographs by Robert Menzer

When Josh Copp moved to 248 McKibbin Street, he joined what the Times called "an instant artistic fraternity that is all but extinct in New York." That same 2008 profile made 248 briefly famous as a post-graduate animal house where residents partied non-stop and "people honk saxophones and bang drugs at 3 a.m."

Today, dirty, dilapidated factory lofts are being renovated into expensive units that have attracted a different kind of tenant, professionals who value a good night's rest over music and mayhem. "Now it's a real apartment building," Copp says. "In the past, everyone would be rehearsing. In more recent years, we had to make agreements with our neighbors: If you let us make noise during the day, we won't make noise at night." See also: With the Coming Closing of Death By Audio, Many NYC DIYs Are Going Legit

Copp also has moved on, trading in the perilous finances and iffy future of a rock band for more lucrative and secure work in postproduction and music for commercials. At the end of the month, he and his songwriting partner will join an exodus of musicians seeking cheaper and more lenient digs in Gowanus. But the search wasn't easy, he recalls: "Gowanus has some raw spaces but, like Bushwick, there are more and more professional people. Wherever you looked, the landlord immediately said, 'No noise. No band rehearsal.' "

Alyse Lamb sings and plays guitar in Eula, a band the Voice has hailed as "a force of nature" and "the fine line between chaos and order." Eula also recorded in Gowanus. The neighborhood, long known solely for its foul-smelling creek, has its own Whole Foods. With Bushwick already having gone the way of the East Village and Williamsburg, musicians in New York remain "all but extinct," at the top of the city's critically endangered list.

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The compromises of living in the human equivalent of rabbit warrens can affect a musician's genre. When Lamb first arrived in New York, she says, "My songwriting became very quiet, more cerebral, because I couldn't be loud." What the Voice called her "guttural wails" can be heard for a few hours in the tiny Bushwick space Eula shares with four other bands.

"The time constraint limits our writing and practicing," Lamb sighs. "There's pressure, when you can only play for a few hours. I know several people being pushed out of their rehearsal space from noise complaints as buildings are upgraded. It pushes you to the limit. Where do you go now?"

With the music industry itself in a state of near extinction, the days of a label granting a band production space, let alone a contract, are long gone. "Bands don't get the big record deals," notes studio owner Jon Buck. "They have to record themselves."

After Annabelle Cazel, a classically trained pianist turned art-rock musician, returned to the States six years ago to tour with the Fiery Furnaces, rising prices drove her out of her Soho studio to four different rehearsal spaces in Williamsburg and one in Bushwick before she landed in Gowanus.

"Who knows when the rents will go up there?" she asks. "Most of my musician friends have moved several stops on the L train or further on the G train or way south, to Ditmas Park, Sheepshead Bay, Windsor Terrace, or Flatbush. Gowanus is done with."

Sylvana Joyce & the Moment used to rehearse in her Astoria apartment, where the drummer couldn't use his kit and the guitars were acoustic. Fed up, she and her bandmates relocated en masse to a Jersey City townhouse, where they split the $850 rent.

The landlord lives right below them, but only requested they quit rehearsing by 10:30. He even installed soundproofing. While Joyce appreciates such cheap and spacious digs, "I regret not being able to live in the city," she says. "I grew up in Astoria. The musical community in New York is suffering. People have to leave to afford the room to grow."

Studio owners, already "hanging by their fingernails," Buck says, face a similar predicament. They put more inventory on the market just as demand diminished. Galloping gentrification, meanwhile, is taking more and more buildings off the market. Buck has been scoping properties as far to the east of the five studios he currently rents as Glendale, Queens.

Retrofitting a rundown commercial structure costs at least $500,000. These days, bands demand add-ons like Wi-Fi. As a serial studio renter, Cazel at least has noticed improvements. "The quality of renovations seems to be getting better," she says. "The first space in Soho had no air conditioning. It was little better than a hole in the ground. Now they at least have fresh paint, central air, security cameras."

The improvement in amenities, however, has resulted in even smaller studios. Every Wednesday, Chamber Band meet in an old Williamsburg Pfizer factory that singer-guitarist Chris Littler wryly describes as "the size of a large walk-in closet."

Freelancer Benjamin Ickies fondly recalls gigging with a drummer "who had a studio in Williamsburg that was a palace. You could put a full orchestra in there.

"Now that real estate is so valuable," he says, "a restaurant would probably have trouble meeting the rent."

Ickies considers himself "really, really lucky" to live in Williamsburg near Lorimer Street: "I can practice in my apartment, a pre-war with thick walls between units. I've been there for five years, and I've also been the beneficiary of a generous landlord who didn't raise the rent as much as he could have."

Lisa Niedermeyer, program director for Fractured Atlas, runs SpaceFinder NYC, a free service that matches artists with rehearsal space and helps them negotiate deals. She's scoping the Bushwick border of East New York, to Sunnyside, Queens, all the way north to the South Bronx in the endless quest for potential spaces.  

Galloping gentrification: Modern Bushwick.
Galloping gentrification: Modern Bushwick.

Fractured Atlas has joined up with studio owners, music industry groups, and interested parties like the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce under the umbrella of New York Is Music, a coalition trying to find a solution to the city space race. The immediate goal is a bill that would grant tax credits to struggling musicians.

State Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, whose district includes Williamsburg and Greenpoint, has been pushing for the bill in Albany.

"Unfortunately," he told the Voice, "only a few of us are thinking about it. We're looking for fresh ideas, but it's an enormous problem. The more gentrification that occurs, the worse it gets for the small musicians who want to set up shop."

Lentol's wish list includes affordable housing and rehearsal space. They won't do much good, however, if musicians can't find venues. As the Voice reported earlier this month, the imminent closing of Death by Audio and Glasslands has marked the end of Williamsburg's underground DIY scene.

Massive residential complexes threaten to do the same to clubs in Greenpoint. "Go in and around the West Street area near the waterfront, down the street from Greenpoint Landing," Lentol says. "It's close enough to affect development where these venues are located. Unfortunately, they're going to be pushed out."

As are the musicians themselves, like veteran rocker Leesa Harrington-Squyres. The drummer for tribute band Lez Zeppelin recently had to find new digs after her Greenpoint home -- near the infamous Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, now a tastefully designed nature walk -- was sold to a developer.

And yet, despite such seemingly impassable obstacles, New York continues to attract aspiring musicians. After graduating from NYU, Littler moved to L.A. for three years. If he misses the luxury of transporting his guitar in a car, the tradeoff is more than worth the hassle. "I love my day job, and I love making music," he says.

"It's hard to make a career as a musician, but it can be done," Ickies says. "There are musicians who don't want to do anything but their act, and there are musicians who will play weddings, bar mitzvahs, whatever."

On November 12, Lentol will chair a New York Is Music roundtable at the Wythe Hotel. Although closed to the public, musicians can request an invitation by calling his office at 718-383-7474.

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