On a quiet block of W53rd St, shrouded in scaffolding, there’s a building that is almost mythical in the music business. Nile Rogers produced the first session there, and it became a recording home for artists from Springsteen to the Stones, McCartney to Madonna. The albums produced there are legendary – Brothers in Arms, Bowie’s Changes. Born in the USA. Sting’s 2016 album 57th & 9th is named after the intersection he crossed every day to get there.
It’s called the Power Station. And the refurbishments taking place behind that scaffolding might have been turning this iconic building into luxury condos, had Berklee college not bought it in 2017 – preserving its musical heritage and bringing the historic studio into the new millennium (official moniker: Power Station at BerkleeNYC).
“This whole area used to be full of studios like this,” says Stephen Webber, executive director of BerkleeNYC. “ There was Clinton Studios, and Columbia, which became Sony, and The Hit Factory.”
Gavin Berger, director of advancement at BerkleeNYC, actually worked at the Power Station 36 years ago, making this quite the homecoming. “Yeah, same neighborhood different world,” he says.
“That was when Hit Factory and Power Station had a big rivalry going on,” says Stephen. “The Hit Factory was the more chichi, upscale kind of place. Power Station was more working class.”
The plan for the Power Station 2.0 is one of preservation through transformation. “When Power Station was built in 1977, it was the most high-tech thing for 10 blocks. Now it’s a bit of museum piece. We’re not going to change the way that any of the studios look because they’re iconic and people would freak out. But we’re hoping to redefine what it means to capture live musical performances, so one of the things we’re doing is putting high-end video capability throughout all of the studios. The idea is that we could do a super high-end video shoot without even setting up a camera.”
They’re installing the highest spec lighting, and a video control room on the lower level. “You’ll be able to have a director and multiple camera ops, and the color correction person all working in real time, so you could live stream it on social media. Or it will be broadcast quality, so if CBS or somebody wanted to do something live from there, they could.
“We’re also delving very deeply into capturing live performance in 360 virtual reality with ambisonic spacial audio. I feel like virtual reality is going to be much more of a reality in the next 10 years, and we’re committed to trying to push the envelope there.”
Meanwhile, all the vintage equipment – currently being stored safe and sound off site – will be restored to perfect working order.
Which all comes at a cost. Ballpark: between $10m and $20m.
And when it reopens next spring, it will remain a commercial studio, “because New York really needs that,” says Stephen.
“New York is this wonderful music town, and if you’re going to call yourself a music capital, you have to have some great recording studios. That’s especially difficult here because of the real estate prices.”
But while the financial climate is challenging, there’s still a lot of work to be done. “Especially right here. Every Broadway show needs a cast album. Even aspiring plays want to make cast albums, as a way to share the music and hopefully build up an audience.”
A perfect example is Be More Chill. “Ian [Kagey], our new director of operations, engineered their album way back in the day. If it wasn’t for that album, they never would have made it to Broadway because it wound up blowing up on Spotify.”
They’re in demand for film and TV scores too, including Ocean’s 8 and The Marvelous Mrs Maisel. “New York is starting to see some film score work again, because of the tax incentives.”
Back in the day, few people knew what went on behind that anonymous front door on W53rd St. But that’s all set to change too.
“In the past, it was very secretive, because celebs tried to be private instead of being on social media all the time. But we want to open the place up to nurture deserving artists,” says Stephen. “So we’ve been doing a lot of sessions for the Department of Education. We’ve been recording their all city jazz bands. We’ve been recording after-school programs. We’ve done teacher training sessions, professional development for teachers, and a bunch of free educational programs for the community.
“We’re also going to be adding an educational mission when we reopen. Right now, the first and third floors of Power Station are where the main studios are. The second floor and the basement were underutilized spaces, so we’re reclaiming more space in the building and adding rehearsal rooms, classrooms, and a black box theater. There will be a little green room and a couple of dressing rooms.
“The whole ecosystem will be professional music but also education. On the higher end, we’re going to be offering three different masters programs. One in live experience design, one in an integrated approach to production and songwriting, and one in writing and design for musical theater.”
And while all that heavy lifting takes place, they’ve found a temporary home just a block away, in an old piano factory on W52nd St owned by Clinton Housing. “The space is awesome,” says Stephen. “We’d been looking like crazy to figure out where we were going to go once we had to leave the building.”
Gavin says: “I’ve done a lot of work for the 52nd Street Project and I know all about all the non-profits. I know Joe [Restuccia] so I reached out, met at this place ….”
Next thing you know, the walls are painted, a new floor is laid, and The Safehouse is open for business. “We basically just brought stuff over from the recording studio,” says Stephen. “We haven’t done that much to it. We bought bistro lights for $20 a strand and they do a lot just to brighten things up.”
The grand piano where Freddy Mercury played Under Pressure is there. And Stephen’s own collection of guitars lines the walls. The battered leather sofas – the tales they could tell! – are all from the original Power Station. Their future remains to be written.