Debt Rehearsal

Vacant buildings abound in St. Louis, but local bands are finding practice space hard to come by

According to the latest statistics from City Hall, St. Louis has 5,699 vacant buildings. In a city of 61 square miles, that translates to about 93 empty buildings per square mile, a staggering figure. The abundance of space would suggest that there's plenty of room for any activity the law allows.

But ask local musicians about the hassles of the rock & roll life, and right away they'll bring up the difficulty of finding a place to practice. Most St. Louisans have a basement, but neighbors are a crapshoot; some never seem to notice the noise, whereas others are willing to call the police every single day. As for renting space, money is always an issue: The cost of a practice room often rivals the rent for an apartment. On any given night, armies of musicians take various stages around town, but precious few ever mint enough coin from it to pay for the luxury of a real practice space. Some desperate souls have even been known to turn to U-Haul-style storage spaces.

Even very active bands that draw good crowds aren't immune. Justin Mank plays guitar in Not Waving But Drowning, a popular St. Charles-based metal/hardcore band that has toured extensively and opened for such genre stalwarts as Downset, Alien Ant Farm, Papa Roach and hed(pe). Given NWBD's success, fans might think that the band is beyond such mundane concerns as practice space. Think again.

"It's ridiculous," says Mank of the area's practice-space situation. Not Waving But Drowning practices in the basement of a home owned by one member's grandmother -- for the time being. "We've got to move out in the next few months. We've been lucky so far. The neighbors have actually been surprisingly cool."

Paying going rates for practice space isn't a viable option for NWBD, as is the case with so many of their peers. "People think we have a ton of cash, but we don't," Mank explains. "We just get by from tour to tour and show to show. The easiest way would be to have a couple of bands chip in to get a room, but I'm pretty particular about my equipment. Some people think it's OK to mess around with your equipment without asking." Indeed, this fear is one of the main reasons musicians are wary of sharing practice space. It may seem paranoid to worry about other bands maladjusting, damaging or stealing your equipment, but such things do occasionally happen. So Not Waving But Drowning may have to resort to the usual St. Louis solution: drive, drive, drive. "Our drummer lives in Farmington, and we could practice there, so we might have to carpool an hour-and-a-half to practice every week," Mank says wearily.

In addition to playing with NWBD, Mank is also the motor behind 636 Productions, a booking agency specializing in all things loud. He knows a lot of people in bands and says they all wrestle with practice-space problems. He tells of one band that got into so much trouble over numerous nuisance citations from the city of St. Peters that the group was effectively banned from doing anything there.

Amy Bidz is also aware of the problem and thinks she has a good solution. When she moved back to St. Louis from London with her husband, Spence Harrison, she was struck by the lack of reliable, comfortable practice space. As musicians themselves, Amy and Spence had taken advantage of the numerous rehearsal rooms for hire by the hour in London. They were dismayed to find that no such option exists here. "We found people just putting padlocks on abandoned buildings and leaving their stuff inside," she says, "or they were renting storage spaces to practice in. It was a bad situation." Although these timeworn strategies hold a certain charm, Bidz recognized the need for a more stable, legitimate arrangement.

The couple decided to launch a rent-by-the-hour rehearsal studio and nabbed the old Premier Studios, at 3033 Locust St. in Midtown. Once it had been the center of the local film and recording industry, hosting the likes of Miles Davis, Ike and Tina Turner, and Marlin Perkins (although not all at once). Now, it's the home of Berzerker Studios, which opened in January. So early in the game, the business results are inconclusive, but Bidz claims they've added a couple of bands to the client list each week. Although that's less than she expected, she believes the time has come for this idea. "We provide a professional atmosphere," she says. "We take all the responsibility on ourselves so bands don't have to worry about it."

Bidz clearly has her marketing eye on the musician with high aspirations. The most expensive studio at Berzerker, which rents for $35 an hour, is a 1,400-square foot minihall equipped with a full live PA, suitable for use as a VIP-showcase or release-party venue. Other rooms vary in size -- the least costly are the one-person isolation booths, which go for $8 an hour. Especially well-heeled acts can inquire about renting the film studio and crew. "There's really nobody else doing what we're doing," Bidz says. "It's like what we saw in London, but our pricing is better."

Berzerker has good answers for many of the objections that musicians have to rehearsal-space rental. For an extra $35 a month, bands can rent a storage locker on-site, to which they have access around the clock. Bidz says she and Spence have spent a lot on security and insurance, and she touts an easy load-in/load-out arrangement. All things considered, Berzerker seems to be a good deal compared with similar companies.

Unfortunately, just because it's a good deal doesn't mean it's a real option for most St. Louis bands. Even a basic practice set-up at Berzerker costs roughly $400 a month. Although renting space from a professional studio might make sense for very successful acts, most local musicians simply can't afford it. So where do the musicians come from who will one day form the bands renting comfortable rehearsal studios? They'll continue to rely on their own inventiveness, turning any available townhouse, warehouse or outhouse into their own sonic laboratories. If it has an outlet and a roof, somebody'll practice there. This system has worked so far -- sort of, anyway -- and it probably builds character.

Some strategic moves could pay off big, though. If local musicians had the savvy of their peers in the visual arts, they'd be snapping up empty buildings and rocking them back to life. Given sufficient organizational skills and a little bureaucratic know-how, local musicians could surely apply for and receive arts grants or development funding. They could make a decent case that the home of Scott Joplin, Miles Davis and Chuck Berry should support its next generation of young musical geniuses.

Until then, the cruel irony of empty buildings and silenced amplifiers will prevail. There are talented musicians in St. Louis, a wide array of them from all over the genre map. What a shame if, instead of creating meaningful music about our city and our lives, they waste all their time moving equipment from basement to basement.

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