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.
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.”
Berlin isn’t the only epicenter for expatriate DJs. In Barcelona, New Yorkers can catch DJ Ilana, once resident at Plant, spinning around town, and run into Ariel Danziger, who was part of the local tech-house production team and record label Matter/:Form. Barcelona locals have the benefit of the annual Sónar festival, a three-day media, music, and arts festival forward-thinking enough to include Kid Koala, Roots Manuva, and Ryuichi Sakamoto. Philip Sherburne, a Voice contributor, sometime DJ, and San Francisco editor of the club-listing website Flavorpill, called Barcelona home for a few months last year, and managed to save money even though he was paying rent in San Francisco as well. And Tronic label owner Christian Smith is set to leave his L.E.S. apartment this month for the seaside Spanish city.
Spain is a huge anti-war center—its citizens ousted its pro-Iraq war president immediately after the terrorist attacks in Madrid earlier this year. In Barcelona, Sherburne says he’s even seen anti-war posters on the walls of the post office.
In Berlin and Barcelona, there is no MARCH, no nightlife task force. When techno DJ and lifelong New Yorker Dave Turov hit Berlin, a friend of his pulled out a bag of weed and rolled a joint in plain view at the bar. There’s no smoking ban, no “No Dancing Allowed” signs on the wall. “The cops don’t interfere so much,” says Turov. “Sometimes they show up, but they very rarely close a party down.” Beer costs two euros, clubs never close, and drinking is a 24-hour sport: Here’s the sleazy vibe that’s been missing from New York for years. It’s a weird role reversal—New York City is the prim and proper maiden, Berlin and Barcelona the slutty mistresses.
“Spaniards, in general, have a history of socializing that is very different than in the U.S.,” Sherburne says. “Life is really lived on the streets.” In Barcelona, Sherburne found himself spinning to a packed dancefloor on Monday nights till five in the morning. In New York these days, that’s rare even on weekends.
Before he left New York for Barcelona in early 2003, Ariel Danziger says, “I felt like someone had given me a really strong sedative tablet like Valium and prescribed me a long stroll through the Lower East Side and left me to drool over the pretty store displays.”
Of course, New York City wasn’t always this difficult for artists. Consider 1978: Studio 54 is in its heyday. The Loft is going strong. Club culture is thriving. Apartments in the East Village go for $220 for a one-bedroom. Krivit, a lifelong New Yorker, remembers when high-end Balducci’s was a “rotten food stand” in the West Village, and when a cab across town cost $3. Clubs didn’t charge a cover, and you could go out with $30 in your pocket and come home with change. Now, “that’s one round, if you’re buying for you and somebody else,” he says. He remembers when everybody rented and nobody owned, and when cops laughed at noise complaints. Now, “as an apartment owner, as an investment you don’t want [a loud club] on your block.” So now, the cops will visit, “and say it’s too loud.”
In New York, “when I was growing up,” says Krivit, “it seemed like there was just an endless amount of places opening.” But by the Giuliani years, any new clubs had usually been another venue before.
And flashy new venues like Marquee are about money first, music last. Inventive music is not getting played. “When someone tells you ‘Ooooh, a new club, it’s really amazing,’ the first thing you think about is, well, the more you tell me how spectacular it is, the more I know they are really trying to get a certain clientele and sell champagne,” says Krivit. “It all starts to look like an MTV video. Bottle service is really annoying. If you don’t see it, you feel it. It’s there underneath. I almost wait for the other new places so that spot is not as shiny and new, and then maybe they do something artistic because they are desperate.”
Danny Wang points out that many New Yorkers, like the artists on the DFA label and the critically acclaimed house duo Metro Area, are more appreciated in Europe than in their hometown. “Meanwhile, New York’s old guard of DJs and club owners [such as at Shelter, Twilo, Roxy] seemed to have no clue that something else has been happening,” says Wang, who cites Berlin’s gay scene as another draw. “The gay nightlife has been dreadful for a decade now—all muscle boys and crystal meth. The diversity of New York City is always there. But it is constantly swimming against an unfriendly tide.”