Collaborative community brings together musicians from across Detroit's fragmented music scene
It’s 6 p.m. on a Monday and a group of resident artists and studio interns march in past the black steel and white double doors of a renovated church in Corktown and pile into Assemble Sound.
Some folks lag behind to savor the last few puffs of a cigarette.
Everyone finds a seat in Studio A, the former office of a church pastor, the previous owner of the building that is now home to this collaborative musician community and studio.
Garret Koehler and Seth Anderson, owners of Assemble Sound, are stationed in front of an iMac, sharing laughs as they prepare for the biweekly song review. Resident artist Tunde Olaniran walks in, places a bag of juices on the coffee table, and offers a drink to everyone in the room.
Once they’re all settled, Koehler cues music for the review.
During these sessions, artists get constructive criticism about their work, learning from their peers. Anderson says the biweekly song reviews are inspired by the weekly quality assurance meetings Berry Gordy conducted with Motown label mates.
Some who gather at Assemble Sound are more knowledgeable about technology and engineering music while others are well versed in lyricism and chord progression. No matter their realm of expertise, everyone’s opinion is valued.
It’s just one example of Assemble Sound being more than just a music studio — it’s a community where artists are connected through a shared belief in music. At these meetings you realize the importance of letting others hear your work before it’s released; you never know what you might be able to improve.
Even as an intern, from day one, I’ve felt like I can walk into a session or talk to someone about an artistic problem I’m having and they will help me, whereas in other studios if you walk into someone else’s session they might bite off your head.
Resident artist Nigel van Hemmye says resources such as discussion panels about the industry have helped him to hone in on his own creative process and promotion strategy for his music. But it’s also helped him connect to other artists.
“I went to church as a kid, and there is a very special time after each service gets out where people mingle and say hi, catch up, etc. This is the core of a community feeling and where it is built. Creating a space where creative people run into each other breaks down the often detrimental seclusion of a place like Detroit,” he says.
That’s where Assemble Sound comes in. Among the services they provide are licensing, music supervision, and original composition for TV, film, and music clients.
“I think whether you’re looking at the music scene, small business owners, community, or the visual arts scene or the film scene, you tend to find people doing things in isolation from one another,” Koehler says. “The city is just really, really spread out. I think I saw the same thing in the music space where there’s a lot of people doing music at a high level in the city, but there aren’t a lot of spaces where that happens together intentionally.”
Musicians share spaces when fanning out to their favorite artist performing at El Club, or dancing at Motor City Wine, or whilst admiring artwork at The Baltimore Gallery. But that’s as far as it goes. “I think coming together to listen to music or dance or party is very different than coming together to write or to learn about music publishing,” says Koehler.
Assemble Sound started with a cup of coffee and a dream to see independent and signed artists work in a collaborative environment in Detroit. After a failed bid in 2013 to bring the X Games to Detroit, Koehler and his partners envisioned creating a music festival as big as Coachella in California or Pitchfork in Chicago for the city of Detroit.
This venture soon failed as well, but Koehler wasn’t discouraged. He began having conversations with artists across the city and happened to bump into Anderson, his soon-to-be business partner.
Anderson, his sister Jax Anderson (aka singer-songwriter Flint Eastwood), and Koehler met in 2014 to incubate the entity known now as Assemble Sound with licensing guru Nicole Churchill, who joined later.
As a former music supervisor for Sony Music, Churchill has had years of experience pitching music for television shows, films, and commercials. In her role here, she helps generate funds for Detroit artists and Assemble. They work with the artist in mind allowing residents to maintain 100 percent complete control of their masters (final copies of albums) while providing opportunities for licensing.
Churchill says she “hit the ground running to find artists in Detroit who didn’t have record label deals and publishing contracts.”
Because Detroit has such a large music scene, she says it was easy to find due to the lack of industry opportunities. With Churchill and Seth on board, Koehler rerouted the Assemble name for a new mission, with his former partners’ blessings.
When it came time to begin looking for a permanent home for Assemble Sound, the group began searching for abandoned and under utilized churches around the city.
“We wanted a space that would be small enough to be acoustically sound for recording, but also acoustically interesting,” says Koehler. “Then, big enough to be a community space.
“Most studios aren’t that big where you can have 150 people in for an artist talk and we wanted to do be able to do that stuff.”
Their collective prayers were answered when they received a response from Grace to Grace Lutheran Church accepting their offer to purchase the building. The previous owner, Pastor Calvin Freeman, and their congregation occupied the facility for 15 years.
When they took over the church, it was in disrepair. Part of the roof was collapsing, and the plumbing and HVAC systems were in bad shape. With grants from initiatives like MotorCity Match, they have been working on restoring the building to its former glory.
With each renovation or deconstruction of drywall, they find a new piece of the church covered or hidden away. Before the deed passed through Freeman’s hands, there were three other congregations who convened in the cathedral. St. Paul’s, a German Protestant congregation under the leadership of the Rev. J. G. Hildner, occupied the space when the building was originally constructed in 1871. In the 1950s the church was then sold to The House of Israel, which later passed the deed on to La Iglesia tu Jesus Christo in the 1980s.
Throughout its history, the constants have been community and unification. Flint Eastwood says this is the core of Assemble and is what elevates her creative process.
“I think being able to come into a space where I’m surrounded by creatives all day and surrounded by people who have the same goals that I have is a very empowering thing,” says Eastwood. “Also being able to approach a community of people with an idea or a project and get honest genuine feedback. There’s not really competition here; everything is very uplifting. We all have the common goal that if one of us succeeds we all succeed.”