The next phase for Avatar Studios has been revealed – and its future may prove fascinating.
Avatar Studios’ near-two-year quest to connect with a buyer and successfully complete the transaction has come to an end. And with that, a new beginning: while it had been widely presumed that Berklee College of Music would officially take over the revered space, it turns out that there’s much more to the story.
In a development that was kept firmly under wraps, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Berklee today jointly announced that with the support of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) and the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), along with Berklee Trustee and quantitative investing pioneer Pete Muller, Berklee will renovate the 33,000 sq. ft. 53rd Street facility and transform it. The outcome will be BerkleeNYC, promised to be a next-generation recording and video production facility servicing the city’s music, theater, television, and film industries.
Endowed with funds from both MOME and the EDC, BerkleeNYC will host both free and tuition-based educational programs, performances, and resources for local musicians. In addition to the studio renovation, the building’s lower level will be converted into a flexible-use practice/performance venue, including an affordable rehearsal space featuring a professional-size stage and state-of-the-art sound, lighting, and video technology. A video control room to capture and post-produce video from across the building will be onsite, as well as a virtual reality/augmented reality studio, and flexible spaces for ensemble practice rooms and classrooms.
Muller reportedly acquired the complex for slightly under $20 million. Muller will in turn lease the studios to Berklee. The anticipated cost of renovating the space and operating is expected to require an initial investment of $25 million, with Berklee contributing $19 million to that cost and the other $6 million being provided by NYC.
Addressing the biggest concerns of the professional audio community, Berklee plans to continue operating the studio commercially as the re-christened Power Station at BerkleeNYC, a branding that reconnects the facility to its roots with the name given it by the original owner and designer Tony Bongiovi.
The accompanying preservation and modernization of the facility, which is almost uniquely equipped in NYC to accommodate full orchestra and live Broadway cast album recordings, should ensure that elite recording will continue to record in New York. Coincident, Berklee will have a broader opportunity to nurturing musicians and engage in what they term “meaningful community outreach” – in other words, the plan is to make Power Station at BerkleeNYC a hub of musical and audio activity, and not just wall it off to all but enrolled students.
Revered Rooms Sought New Owners
Avatar’s availability for sale was made known in an unusually public way, with Avatar Entertainment Corporation’s owner Chieko Imamura and its president, Kirk Imamura, launching an organized PR campaign to announce the sale in September of 2015.
The idea behind the full-court press – instead of the industry-standard covert deal – was to keep Avatar in caring musical hands, and hopefully maintain the studio’s status as NYC’s audio production flagship. Spreading a wide net increased that chance, and apparently the Imamura’s were willing to wait the process out a while.
Designed by Bongiovi, Avatar launched as The Power Station in 1977. Bongiovi’s studios at 441 West 53rd Street would prove to be timeless, then and now standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the world’s very best recording studios. Countless TV and movie scores and Broadway cast albums were recorded and mixed there. Platinum was mined constantly for Madonna, The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, and many more — –an incredible 400+ gold and platinum albums were made at Avatar/Power Station. In addition, the complex was an HQ for private producer, mixing, mastering and music business suites over the years, further supporting the NYC music economy in the process.
“The rooms just sound right,” says Robert L. Smith, who went from being an assistant engineer at Power Station in the early ‘90’s to founding Defy Recordings, engineering/producing/mixing for Lady Gaga, David Bowie, U2, Alice Cooper, Chaka Khan, Aerosmith, and many more. “Those studios show that in recording, it’s really about the whole tracking space, not just what goes in between the instrument and the microphone. At Avatar/Power Station, it could be a benefit not to mic things close, so you could get that breathing sound into the microphone. If you couldn’t get a good sound in there, as an engineer or a musician, then you should probably start thinking about that second job.”
Avatar enjoyed the status of being one of the few studios that owned its own building, contributing to its sense of stability for many years. But eventually the disparity between its value as a recording business and as a piece of Manhattan real estate became too much for even the deeply committed Imamuras to look past. A sale simply made too much sense, especially after they’d been keeping at it nonstop since 1996.
By taking over Power Station as relative unknowns in the NYC recording scene, the Imamuras had everybody guessing as to what might come next. Two decades later, their stewardship can only be seen as an uninterrupted commitment to audio excellence. At no point were there ever murmurs about a drop in quality within the complex, with Kirk Imamura emerging as an ideal frontman, as highly respected as he is understated. The studio’s VP of Operations, Tino Passante, became synonymous with Avatar’s extremely professional workflow and personal touch throughout the era as well.
For the Imamuras, running Avatar no doubt felt progressively harder in the decades following their purchase. Despite their leading status, Avatar’s rooms were no less subject to the music industry pressures that have drastically reduced studio profit margins everywhere. Maintaining rooms on the scale of Studio A require constant care and attention. There were also workforce issues, with the 12-person in-house team of assistant engineers, maintenance techs, and production assistants voting to organize, gaining union representation with Local 802 AFM in 2015.
Add on to all of that the fact that the real estate beneath their feet was becoming more and more valuable, at the exact same time that their business was becoming less so. The Imamura’s decision to to sell was a complex one, balancing commerce with commitment and sheer energy levels. While their official announcement to sell Avatar was met grimly by the local pro audio community, it was also generally accepted as understandable.
Interestingly, the Avatar transition comes along at the same time that New York City’s political leadership is putting a fresh emphasis on the music business.
In March, NYC Mayor Bill DeBlasio and the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME) released the findings of a comprehensive study examining the economic impact of the music industry in NYC. The study, conducted by Boston Consulting Group, found that the overall New York City music industry generates 60,000 jobs, $5 billion in wages and $21 billion in economic output. Further, its growth actually outpaces that of the local economy, with music-related jobs and wages growing at annual rates of 4 and 7 percent respectively, compared to 3 and 5 percent in the City overall. As a result of these findings, NYC stands among the largest music ecosystems in the world, and could possibly be the largest.
In particular, the “infrastructure and support services” vertical – one of four revenue pillars identified and encompassing recording studios, lawyers, and various other professionals — was found to represent 4,100 jobs, $400 million in wages, and $1.3 billion in economic output for NYC (part of one of the world’s largest music ecosystems, with $21 billion in economic output.)