Broadway’s New Beat

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Broadway’s New Beat

Inside Lerner’s student run recording space

by Ben Schneider

Like the rest of Lerner, the hallway leading to the new recording studio on the fifth floor is grey and disorienting. Large photos of happy, well lit Columbians enliven the journey somewhat, only to make their real life compatriots, staring sleepily at their screens on the other side of SGO’s doors, look that much more grim. Twenty paces past a set of double doors, the unceremonious portal to the studio appears on the right. It unlocks with a Pavlovian beep.

 

The so-called “ante room” of the studio jolts you from the institutional stupor of Lerner’s corridors. The walls are a bright white, highlighted by matte black shelves overflowing with old TV equipment. On the wall opposite the entrance, there’s a mixing table, with all manner of knobs and dials that magically turn sounds into bits.

 

Next to the desk, grey double doors—the kind that can be mysteriously difficult to open—lead to the studio itself. This room is big and dark and busy. Black sound-dampening quilts line the walls, except on the south side, where a three foot space between quilt and wall serves as an improvised vocal booth. Tapestries hang from the exposed ceilings, and wires trace the patterns of kashan rugs on the floor, creating a complex network of microphones, instruments, amplifiers, and eclectic light fixtures. Many hours a day, people can be seen milling about the room with the purposeful nonchalance characteristic of musicians setting things up.

 

The quest for a recording studio on campus, at least in its most recent iteration, began in December 2014, when Caleb Oldham and Graham Johnson, both CC ’17 and founding members of the campus music magazine/collective Rare Candy, sent an email to the administration requesting a student run recording space. Oldham, who has spearheaded the creation of the studio over the last two years, said his initial meeting with Executive Director of University Event Management, Joseph Ricciutti, wasn’t very practical. “When we said we wanted a student run recording space, they said, you should be thinking bigger! We should have a students’ performing arts center building!”

 

Despite these frustrating early efforts, unexpected opportunities began to fall into Oldham’s lap. In April of 2015, Ben Kornick, CC ’16, one of the leaders of Bacchanal Committee, invited Oldham — ostensibly due to his leadership in Rare Candy — to take-over his club, CU Records. At the time, CU Records was a “ghost club,” with Kornick as “the sole member,” Oldham told me. The club had done virtually no programming, and had accumulated $1000 from four years of untouched ABC funding. All of a sudden Oldham had an institutional structure and a pool of money to pursue his vision of a recording studio on campus.

 

The newly rejuvenated CU Records, led by Mark Brathwaite and Zach Calluori, both CC ’17, in addition to Oldham, began working on a documentary about Columbia music history in the hopes of galvanizing funding and institutional support for a recording studio. While looking for clips for the film, Oldham stumbled upon the archives of CTV, which happened to film a number of Columbia’s most significant musical moments. He did a little more research on the group and learned about their studio in Lerner, located just steps from the club advising offices where he had pleaded with administrators. He also found out that the club was in disarray. Their closed circuit cable network, which featured news and variety shows, had gone defunct in 1999. After a long dormancy, the club experienced a Renaissance between 2007 and 2011, mostly by posting funny videos to Youtube. By the time Oldham began talking to the club in the fall of 2015, there were only five or six members who were struggling to produce any- thing with equipment that was functionally obsolete.

 

“I approached them and said, ‘You’ve got a problem, which is no interest in your club. And we’ve got a problem, which is no space and lots of interest,’” Oldham recalled.

 

CU Records and CTV quickly came up with a written agreement to share the space, brokered by their club advisors. Meanwhile, administrative support for a recording studio began to pick up in earnest, according to Oldham and Brathwaite. At the club fair that September, Dean of Undergraduate Student Life Cristen Kromm approached the CU Records/Rare Candy table, and began talking to the members about the possibilities for a student recording studio. Up until that point none of the members of CU Records had spoken directly with Dean Kromm. They were pleasantly surprised that she initiated contact with them. Oldham told me Dean Kromm’s role in this process has been “only positive.”

 

While CU Records and Rare Candy were growing immensely popular, with 250 names on their shared listserv that semester and over 100 attendees at their first meeting, CTV continued to flounder. By the end of the semester, interest in CTV was simply too low to justify its continued existence, and the club was de-recognized. Miraculously, a year after he began his advocacy, Oldham had secured a space for a student recording studio.

 

Because the TV studio was already in use by a student club, the process of converting it into a recording studio was relatively straightforward from an administrative perspective, Dean Kromm told me. However, she emphasized that this was a unique case, and should not be applied as precedent for other recently vacated rooms in Lerner. “Students are talking about what’s going to happen in the former mailroom space,” she said, “but it’s not already student group space, it’s university space.” (For the time being, the old mailroom has been converted into conference rooms until a more permanent use is agreed upon.)

 

Knowing how fortunate they were, CU Records went right to work cleaning up and retool- ing the space, assisted by Dean Kromm’s team and University Facilities. Aside from a few holes in the ceiling that needed to be patched up, nearly all of the work was done by CU Records members. “They did quite a bit of manual labor over the summer to make some of this happen,” Dean Kromm noted.

 

Part of the clean-up involved picking out equipment that could be salvaged. The Journalism School and School of the arts “took a few pieces,” Dean Kromm said, “but the overall message was this is so antiquated.”

 

In the the fall of 2015, CU Records Treasurer, Susanna de Martino, BC ’18, won a $2700 grant from the University as part of the Capital Investment Fund—intended to help clubs make long term investments in their ongoing needs—to help outfit the studio with the proper equipment. In the spring, Calluori identified all of the components necessary for a functional recording studio, and scoured the internet for deals. “We have to be really strategic about what we buy,” de Martino said.

 

As of this fall the studio is open and function- al, but only in a trial capacity. Oldham told me that CU Records members are currently getting trained on all of the equipment, in order to foster “a community of people that have a responsibility to the space.” By next semester, CU Records plans to have a formal online booking system, so individuals and groups can schedule time to record. Already, a number of cam- pus performers have recorded in the space, including King of Nothing, Jimbo, Patchwerk, Sunspeaker, and Party Tricks—Oldham and Brathwaite’s “beach soul” band, which is recording its first album in the studio.

 

For Brathwaite, having access to a recording studio on campus has been “really encouraging… There’s already great chemistry within the band,” he continued, “and now we’re trying to reorient that in the context of a recording studio.”

 

Oldham envisions the studio as “a resource for people who don’t have resources.” In addition to serving well-funded student a-capella groups and the like, he wants to create more opportunities for bands like his own, which wouldn’t have had access to a studio otherwise.

 

“We want to encourage people who aren’t in clubs to come and record. The people who are in their rooms playing music,” Oldham said.

 

In order to fulfill this mission, CU Records intends to continually improve the space. “The near five term plan is just going to be constant fundraising, either to gather new equipment or improve what we have,” Brathwaite said, adding, “We’d also like to make it a little homey in there, and keep records of this culture on campus as well.” Eventually, the studio could be a dynamic, physical extension of the club’s Columbia music history documentary, which is now focused primarily on the ’80s scene, and is currently finishing up production. Someday, the sterile walls of the ante-room will be covered in paintings, concert fliers and moody photographs of the bands that record there.

 

Columbia music history is also a part of CU Records’ long term funding plans. Oldham told me he hopes to sell naming rights for the recording studio. He would particularly like to attract Wendy Carlos, SoA ’65, the grammy award-winning electronic composer and inventor of the Moog Synthesizer, or Art Garfunkel, CC ’62. The name on the door would serve as a constant reminder of what Columbia student musicians are capable of.

 

Speaking to other members of CU Records, it’s apparent whose name they think should grace the space. Maurice Goldberg, CC ’17, whose electronic alias is Sunspeaker, told me, “Caleb kind of single handedly re-galvanized Columbia’s music scene… Rare candy, and what Caleb did, and what this studio is a culmination of,” Goldberg said, “vastly opened up musical opportunities for people on campus.” Indeed, when speaking to students and administra- tors for this article, I frequently got responses like, “You should talk to Caleb about that,” or “That’s more of Caleb’s thing.”

 

For his part, Oldham views the new studio as a communal, grassroots effort, which he contrasts with the origins of CTV in 1977. “CTV started because one alumni gave $75,000 for there to be a closed circuit television network, whereas this was started by students.”

 

By the time Oldham encountered the club, “CTV was billing itself as a pre-professional group for people who want to go into TV.” He contrasts that mentality with the community of Columbia musicians, most of whom will not end up pursuing a career in music, but will nonetheless benefit from the studio. On a campus where so much of student life is about the next meritocratic hurdle, the recording studio will remain, in Oldham’s words, “a passion kind of thing.”