Five Questions: Stephen Webber

Berklee NYC's executive director has lofty goals for preserving an iconic studio, developing a sustainable music-business model and rethinking music technology education.
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The recording industry breathed a collective sigh of relief earlier this year with the news that Avatar Studios was rescued from the chopping block by Berklee College of Music. The 33,000-square foot complex, which was founded in 1977 by producer Tony Bongiovi as the Power Station, is one of the last big studios in New York. The building had been up for sale since 2015 and was in danger of becoming another casualty of the shrinking studio industry.

But thanks to a public-private-nonprofit deal involving the city of New York, Berklee, and hedge fund investor Pete Muller, a Berklee trustee, Avatar will live on, rebranded Power Station at BerkleeNYC. The school will operate the facility as a commercial studio, adding video capabilities, a rehearsal/performance space, educational programs, and an artist-development company.

At the helm of this ambitious project is Berklee’s Dean of Strategic Initiatives Stephen Webber, an Emmy-winning composer, producer, DJ and recording artist who has been shaping the school’s Music Production and Engineering program since 1994, and designed Berklee’s Master of Music Production, Technology and Innovation program in Valencia, Spain.

How did this project come together?

I was wrapping up my tenure in Spain, when I got the call from Roger Brown, our president. We have this wonderful trustee named Pete Muller, who is a singer, songwriter, and piano player, and is also one the pioneers of quantitative investing. To put it in his own words, he’d “made more money than he ever thought was possible,” and was looking at just the right project to undertake with Berklee.

We approached the city of New York and began working with the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment and the Economic Development Council. It was a pretty complicated process, but I think we’ve positioned the studios and Berklee to be able to embark on a really grand mission, not just to preserve some studios, but to have a shot at prototyping ways to make the capture of music performance relevant again in a way that, hopefully, other studios can emulate, and help turn the large-format studio business back into a sustainable business model.

How did your work in Valencia prepare you for this undertaking?

That was such a great warm-up, because I got to start a new program in music technology with a blank sheet of paper. We decided to focus on innovation and created a program that’s unique in the world right now. It includes recording, but also delves into music video production, projection mapping, electronic music production and DJ’ing, mobile app development, virtual reality, and all the cool things that you never get the chance to delve into the way you want to in an undergraduate program. It got me thinking in an entirely different way.

How will you apply those ideas to a place that serves as both an educational facility and a modern commercial studio?

What it means to capture live musical performances in 2017 has modulated significantly from what it meant in 1977 when Tony built this place. The Power Station studios defined the state of the art at that point, but these days, people discover music in different ways, and they hear with their eyes. So, we’re going to be incorporating video into all the rooms with the goal of making it as seamless as possible; with great lighting as integrated as the acoustic treatment. And then staying up to date with technology, from [Dolby] Atmos systems in control rooms to capturing 360-degree visuals or audio, to putting a VR/AR lab in the lower level.

Something that worked for me very well in Valencia was bringing together all stripes of musical artists—singers, instrumentalists, songwriters, beat makers, DJs, producers, and engineers, with code writers, app makers, and video specialists; bring the nerds together with the creators of musical content, taking advantage of physical proximity. When you get disparate artists here at the same time, you create the potential for collaboration.

What about educational programs?

We’re talking about having music production and engineering majors in Boston, and music production technology innovation master’s students from Valencia, being able to opt to do their last semester here. We’ll be offering senior-level classes and some master’s level classes; students will be able to have a soft landing when they move to New York.

Berklee already is partnering with the Department of Education. We’ve created a partnership called Amp Up, and deployed a free curriculum called PULSE, in which we’ve already trained more than 300 New York City school teachers, reaching over 60,000 public school kids at this point. We really want to get school kids into the building and inspire them, not just make this a place for famous recording artists, but also a place for working musicians and college students and public-school students alike.

How does this venture fit into Berklee’s mission?

I love technology and I think it’s really fantastic that we can all make records in our bedrooms now, but the nice thing about having a physical space where you all come together is that you wind up forging new connections that you didn’t even anticipate.

I’ve been doing sessions here in this past year, and I walked in and there’s Al Schmitt standing there in the lobby, so we had a long conversation, and he wound up introducing me to some friends of his. There are connections that are made that are just totally unexpected.

Part of our whole mission at Berklee is to forge new connections among art forms and musical traditions and technologies and institutions, and in the process, foster innovation and collaboration and community.