Ben Vehorn made a nice chunk of change as an early Amazon shareholder. When he cashed out, he sank some of that money into his growing obsession with analog synthesizers. Then he bought some vintage equipment and sound software, and started producing bands. He recorded an album with New York City's Love as Laughter, which was released on Sub Pop, the label that brought the world Nirvana. After the startup investment, Vehorn had enough cash left over to set up shop anywhere in the country - within reason.
Vehorn had lived in Northern Virginia. He'd spent the '90s in Seattle. He and a friend considered moving to Pittsburgh. But Akron was cheaper than the Pacific Northwest and NoVa, and cooler than the Burgh. So Vehorn became an Akronite and small-business owner. He's a partner in Tangerine Sound Studios with Pat Carney, the drummer in the Black Keys, Akron's respected ambassadors to the international rock 'n' roll community.
Vehorn, who grew up all over the world as a military kid, was living in Delaware when he met the Keys at a show. The duo invited him to Akron, where singer-guitarist Dan Auerbach gave him a tour, showing him old industrial buildings and big lawns. Akron looked like his kind of place. Once he moved there, he couldn't believe his eyes when he saw the "Studio for Rent" sign on the former Neon Cactus complex, a big white-brick block in North Hill.
"It seems like an undervalued city," says the soft-spoken and focused Vehorn. With pointy tattoos on his forearms, long brown hair and plastic glasses, he looks like a smaller version of American Chopper's Mikey - but more likable and 10 times as smart. "The inherent value of the architecture, all these cool old houses that sell for nothing ... It's nice to not have all the traffic problems and people and pent-up urban angst. People seem more relaxed here. And it's beautiful - the parks and the weather."
Last week, the Coldwell Banker Home Price Comparison Index ranked Akron as the country's third-most affordable housing market (with Canton just behind at No. 4). Carney quickly adds another factor Coldwell didn't cite: "It's one of the few places you can pay $150 a month for rent, and all your neighbors will have a full set of teeth. It's cheap. And you can start a band and live [for] peanuts. Not a lot of people are doing that."
Since becoming a rock star, Carney has been sinking his paychecks into his independent record label, Audio Eagle. He's recorded and released records by regional acts like Gil Mantera's Party Dream and Beaten Awake, and recently added Tennessee's Royal Bangs to the roster. Before Tangerine, he was recording groups in his Highland Square basement, and it may have cost him a major-league opportunity. In 2005, the Breeders' Kim and Kelley Deal drove to Akron from their native Dayton to meet Carney and talk about recording in his hometown. They discussed it over coffee one afternoon, pumping some money into a local Starbucks. Then the Deals went home and stayed there.
"[My basement studio] was a total shithole," says Carney. "If I'd had [Tangerine], I probably could have talked [them] into doing the album." It's easy to imagine the Deal twins sipping cappuccino in Tangerine's dimly lit lounge area. The building houses a pair of audio and digital studios, but the lounge makes it the kind of place where you can comfortably hunker down for a month. With a cathedral ceiling and a plush couch, it's a living room you can endlessly geek out in, stocked with vinyl LPs, boxes of bagged comics, a big-screen TV, a Wii, an old Yamaha CP 35 electric piano and a tribe of gnome statues.
Like rubber factories, recording studios have seen better days. Every computer is a potential studio now. Apple's Macs even bundle the mixing-recording software GarageBand. The pro-level programs Vehorn uses cost only $200. But without capable hands and ears, it's hard to make the sound in your head a reality. And that's the service Vehorn and Carney provide - with the help of a massive modular synthesizer and some guitars that survived the '60s.
Vehorn says he's "about breaking even" at this point; two solid projects a month should keep him afloat. Carney and Vehorn figure they can work at 20 percent of the going rates of major markets. "I never understood the mentality of a band that gets signed and gets a $10,000 advance and spends it all to record in New York City for two weeks," says Carney. "That's ignorant, and you'll never succeed, thinking like that."
"The studio business is a dying business," adds Vehorn. "So it's maybe not a good business plan to open one. But I think a combination of factors could make it work: competitive rates, good gear, a comfortable physical space."
And Tangerine, fully functional but not yet completed, already has all three of these things. So far, word-of-mouth has attracted bands like Cleveland indie-rockers Black Girls and Akron power-poppers Goodbye Ohio. Carney has the studio's first big-name projects lined up for the fall, but he's not allowed to talk about them yet. Plus, they're in a good market - Pennsylvania, Michigan, the whole Midwest. Cleveland studios include some expensive recording boards, but between vibes and rates, Carney says you'd be hard-pressed to find a better recording spot this side of Cincinnati. And then there's the Black Keys connection - you can't get that in Cleveland either.
The studio's clients won't single-handedly stoke Akron's economic embers. But they could help fill the cash drawer at the Northside blues restaurant or the Angel Falls coffee shop. And if Vehorn shows them his bargain of a home in West Akron, they might notice the foreclosure sale on the four-bedroom house two doors down. And they might stay. And if they stay, they might invite friends. And those friends might enjoy a night of cheap imported beers on the Lockview's rooftop patio. And they might stay. "Northeast Ohio has a decent music scene," says Vehorn. "It's low-key, it's fertile. [Akron's] vibe reminds me of the people I first met in Seattle, before it turned into a yuppie hell."
It's a long shot, but affordable coolness might be Akron's best bet to stem the brain drain - if not reverse it. It could have happened before, but everyone cashed in their chips. When Devo - one of the 330's biggest rock exports - said their hometown was like Liverpool, the world's eyes and ears turned to the city. The boom turned bust when the best bands signed major-label deals and moved to L.A., leaving the Rubber City strip-mined. "Devo, one of my favorite bands ever," says Carney. "The fact that they left, I hate it. When something good goes away, it's something everybody's missing."
But the Keys stayed. And they've been sharing the spotlight with their friends. Rolling Stone is all over Summit County rock. One article name-checked artists like Houseguest and Jessica Lea Mayfield. In another story, the magazine sent a varsity reporter to Akron to check out local sites with Carney. The Keys may be generating more PR for Akron than Bridgestone Firestone's new technical center.
"All Akron needs to be a cooler place is more people that are into being creative," says Carney. "I've stayed, hoping people will show up. And if a couple hundred people in bands would come here, I think the whole city would change. If more people were doing shit like Ben, Akron would be better."