Rich Robbins, the owner of Wareham Development and Fantasy Studios, said it breaks his heart to shutter the fabled music business that has operated in Berkeley for 47 years, but that it was struggling financially.
“It could have been closed eleven and a half years ago,” said Robbins in an interview on Monday. (That’s around the time Robbins licensed the rights to the name.) “It’s an industry that’s dead. All the studios are closing. It’s been subsidized the entire time we have owned it, and I mean massively subsidized, even investing in equipment.”
Most people, including many top artists, prefer to use less expensive technologies that allow them to record music in their living room, he said. It’s rare for people to invest in the “recording of the high-end mix of analog and digital.”
Joel Selvin, who has authored numerous books on the Bay Area music scene, echoed Robbins when he said, “the recording business is over. It just doesn’t have a future. Every computer has about $250,000 worth of recording gear in it. Twenty years ago, it would have cost you $250,000 to put in what you can get on a laptop for about $60.”
Another storied recording studio, The Plant in Sausalito, closed in 2008. The last remaining major recording studio in the Bay Area is Skywalker Sound in Marin County, started by George Lucas, said Selvin. It is set up to record entire orchestras for movie soundtracks and is subsidized by the film company, he said. There are still a handful of small studios, such as Tiny Telephone in San Francisco and Greaseland in San Jose.
“The recording business is over. It just doesn’t have a future.” — Joel Selvin
“It breaks my heart that that part of history is going away but it’s happening all over the country to the most storied studios,” said Robbins.
Fantasy Studios, which has been in West Berkeley, mostly at 2600 Tenth St., since 1971, will shutter on Sept. 15. Its demise closes out an era when many greats recorded there, including Sonny Rollins, Green Day, Robert Cray, Flora Purim and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Robbins has also decided to put the building on the market. It is basically an office building now, not a cutting-edge center of music and film. About 75% of the tenants are professionals like attorneys and architects. Wareham Development’s main focus is on building and operating life science, medical, research and biotechnology complexes, and offices are a diversion from that mission, he said. Wareham has about 23 life-sciences buildings in the East Bay, most clustered in Emeryville and West Berkeley.
One other factor that led to the decision to sell is that the Saul Zaentz Company, which was founded by Saul Zaentz who also owned Fantasy from 1968 until 2004, left the building in June, said Robbins. The company split into two parts. Frank Noonan, who was one of the people who acquired Fantasy with Zaentz in 1967, moved the executive officers to Novato. The licensing portion of the company, headed by another original partner, Ralph Kaffel, has moved to Fourth Street.
But the demise of Fantasy Studios and the sale of the building does not mean that there won’t be any film recording or producing happening at 2600 Tenth St., said Robbins. At least two of the building’s seven floors are filled with independent filmmakers, many of them making documentaries, he said. The sound work that was done at Fantasy, such as film editing and looping and sound editing, can easily transfer to those floors, he said.
The engineers and producers at Fantasy plan to continue working at other studios, they said in the email they sent to the community on Friday that announced the studio was closing.
Robbins said he bought 2600 Tenth St. in 2007 as “an act of love.” He often ate lunch nearby at Juan’s Place on Carleton Street and thought about all the people making films and music nearby. That led him to purchase the 2.64-acre property for about $20 million.
Wareham plans to sell the sculptures in the nearby garden, and the collage of the famous people who recorded at the studios that hangs in the entryway, to the new owner, said Robbins. If the new owner doesn’t want the collage, Robbins said he will buy it.
Wareham is planning to develop its other parcels on Tenth Street. The company is building the Saul Zaentz Center at 2621 Tenth St. into a 68,000-square-foot medical office and R&D building, said Robbins. Kaiser Medical Center is planning to take over the space. Kaiser is also interested in developing the nearby Pardee Block. However, that is a future development.
This story was updated after publication to add some smaller recording studios that are doing business around the Bay Area. It was corrected to remove references that Zaentz’s nephew, Paul Zaentz, was still part of the Saul Zaentz Company and to add details about where the two parts of the company now operate.