On a warm night in mid-August, a dozen New Yorkers sit behind iMacs on the fourth floor of a walk-up in New York’s fashionable Chelsea district. None have much musical experience, but they are all transfixed by their individual Abletons, the popular beat-making program that allows producers — professional and otherwise — to program drums, record instrumentation and remix hit songs. Some take to it quick, deftly moving between the computer and a checkered MIDI controller, while others ask a pair of instructors for a little extra help.
This is the Foxgrove, a new, low-stakes school where the most important lesson is that anyone — regardless of expertise — can create a track. With some participants learning music production for the first time tonight, it may not be a “good” track by professional standards. But here, perfection is less important than the act of creation.
“What we’re trying to do here is break down the barrier that says, ‘You have to be a professional in order to want to create music,'” co-founder David Maurice, a producer and engineer who has worked with Culture Club, ‘NSync and Jay Z, tells Rolling Stone. “It’s this off-limits thing, which it shouldn’t be. Everyone has the software on their computer, but people don’t use it because they have this fear that they’re not cool enough or worthy enough.”
DJ and beat-making schools long pre-date the current explosion of electronic music, but the Foxgrove presents an alternative to the approach taken by venues like Scratch Academy and Dubspot, which offer serious courses that train aspiring artists over as many as six months. At the Foxgrove, aspiring beatmakers can sign up for as little as one session and are encouraged to bring a friend.
Natalie Lam, Maurice’s business partner, sees this type of exploration as a change-of-pace from other group activities like karaoke and happy hour.
“Everybody in New York is always looking for something new to do, and the choices are always go to a bar or yoga class or spin class,” she says. “We created an experience where you can make a track and delve in. If you want to take it further, you can, but at the very least you will have had a good time. If you can afford 200 or 300 dollars to go to the French Culinary Institute to learn how to make a soufflé, you don’t want to be a chef; you just want the experience of learning more things.”
The course begins with a history lesson tracing electronic music back to its 19th century roots. One of the Foxgrove’s teachers then guides the class through the basics of Ableton, which come pre-loaded with loops and samples from popular songs including the Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” and Tiësto’s “Secrets.” Later, the teachers demonstrate how to create drum patterns and build tracks on a gridded “Push” controller.
The Author’s Foxgrove-Created Beat
Maurice arranged the three-hour session with the help of a certified Ableton instructor and drew on a career in music going back to the late Eighties. In the early Nineties, he broke through producing Britpop records, and by the end of the decade, he had earned a reputation as a master of the recording software Pro Tools.
Then the music business changed completely.
“As my career was really going up, the record industry was really going down,” he says. “I got jaded by the whole thing, as a producer-writer doing all that stuff for major labels. I have songs that have 4 or 5 million plays on YouTube, and I got paid 50 bucks for it.”
The philosophy behind the Foxgrove was born of this change. “130 years ago, 90 percent of the music you listened to was amateur music,” he continues. “Since the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, 90 percent of the music we’ve listened to has been made by professionals in professional studios and specifically marketed to you as a product. Now that’s changing: We’re seeing it going back into the hands of the amateurs again.”
Lam typified that “eager amateur,” with the Razorfish creative director and her friends becoming the school’s first students — and first critics. “It was great because I could say, ‘This is confusing,'” she says. “Or, ‘We don’t need that.'” Lam and Maurice soon reduced the length of the history lesson from Maurice’s original plan and added more “playtime” for everyone to experiment.
Both partners are confident that they’ve created something that can teach newcomers the basics while pushing them to rethink the way music fits into their daily lives.
“Say it’s a bunch of guys from Goldman Sachs,” says Maurice, explaining the Foxgrove’s potential reach. “If they want to do a group bonding event, it’s more fun than paintball. The same with bachelorette parties or bachelor parties. It’s a great, fun activity where everyone is going to participate, make something, play it back and have a laugh about it.”