Electric Company aims to bridge the gap between local music and homeless communities

 by Brittany Nader

Nestled inside 15 Broad St., located off of East Market Street in Akron’s Middlebury neighborhood, lives a recording studio that is inspired by the storied history of its environment. 

The studio functions within several rooms of the building to track specific instruments or vocals. Because the space once operated as a hospital, local musicians could be tracking drums used in a spot that was formerly used as a 19th-century operating room.

The building and property are owned by Sage Lewis, a marketer and operator of the Homeless Charity. Lewis has worked to support the city’s homeless population through the now-closed outdoor Tent City, which was located in the lot behind the building.

The Homeless Charity was run out of the building’s basement, which offered a workspace, computer access, bathrooms, laundry and food to locals who were in need of such services. The building also held music events to draw community members in and give them an opportunity to interact with homeless people in Akron to remove some of the stigma or fear of the unknown.

It was during this time that Robert Keith, who teaches music lessons at Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts, was given access by Lewis to the building’s basement to work on recording music with his band, The Dreemers. As Robert used the space in the early days of Akron Recording Company, he became familiar with many members of the homeless community and the potential of the historic building.

Now, he wants to give back to those he met during this time. 

Through his recording studio, creative collective and forthcoming record label, Electric Company, his goal is to create a new space for the communities to join together.

“There’s so much left over from Tent City here. There’s great things, there’s things that I can’t explain to people in a deep way, and there’s things that are just really really huge hurdles,” Robert says. “The more we work here, the more we’re able to embrace that and continue the focus on people helping people, which was the best of Tent City.” 

Robert co-operates the space with Hannah Troyer, who he met at Akron Coffee Roasters, where she works as a barista. Hannah was involved with music programming for the Innerbelt National Forest project through the League of Creative Interventionists and brought Robert along to run sound for the outdoor live music events she organized in 2018. 

In July of the same year, the Electric Company — in its current iteration — was born.

The Electric Company existed for years before moving into 15 Broad St. Robert started it as an artist’s collective while he attended school in New York. He was inspired by the idea of a theater company, where creatives could hang out together, form relationships and “be electric.”

“I was in college, and we were really interested in third spaces and discovered how much people needed a place to go to be part of a community and express themselves actually — not as part of some sort of brand or some sort of business institution in the arts,” Robert says.

Having the opportunity to utilize the majority of the building at 15 Broad St. for creative endeavors inspired Hannah and Robert to push forward with the recording studio and open the space to both the local music community and those who once called the space home.

“That inspired us in so many ways, because what we were beginning to build was here when Tent City was still happening,” Hannah says.

Because the building is separated into small rooms off of a long hallway, doors can be shut to create an isolated recording experience and capture very specific sounds. There is even an echo chamber in the basement, which was once used as a crematorium, to create effects that utilize the environment in an almost serendipitous way. 

Despite the ability to literally separate recording artists from one another through walls and doors, the space feels warm and airy with natural light coming in through large windows, paintings on display and plush, velvety furniture. 

The co-operators of the Electric Company want the recording studio to feel like home—a place you don’t want to leave. They currently use a pay-what-you-can model for artists and book sessions by the day or evening.

“It’s been interesting being here, especially with the transition of the building, and what’s happened here and happens here now,” Hannah says. “We’re really just trying to continue to build.”

Hannah and Robert have already started a gallery space in the facility. They hope to soon set up a retail shop to sell physical copies of music that is recorded at the location and grow the Electric Company into a label that pays recording artists fairly.

Robert says his recording setup was put together by spending every paycheck on vintage equipment he could use to create sounds that capture the truth and effort put forth by the artists he works with.

“That’s why we like the older technology because it reminds us of how people used to use tools to record before people were able to make things very plastic,” Robert says. “It’s always such a leap of faith in some scenarios because every new session… are we going to be able to capture it? Is it gonna happen? And then, slowly, something happens.”

Robert handles the majority of the recording, but Hannah is learning the process while coordinating much of the business, scheduling and communications involved. 

The pair have started a mentorship program as part of the growth and expansion of the Electric Company. One overarching goal is to use the space to teach music lessons to those experiencing homelessness in an effort to build relationships between them and local creatives.

“It is a developing collaboration between us and the Homeless Charity, where we would partner with folks that are connected to their charity to help us do what we do,” Hannah says.

Robert adds that the lessons are suited for people interested in learning an instrument from a very practical level,l or who want to learn how to jam with other musicians and approach music in an organic way.

Hannah and Robert’s involvement with the building’s recent past as a safe haven for homeless members of the community has inspired the drive to foster relationships between the people who once lived on the property and their friends and contacts in the music scene.

“We spent so much time with the community and became a part of it in our way, and I think we have a deep understanding of it now and would love to share the understanding of our community with some people experiencing houselessness,” Robert says. 

The property’s rich history of existing as a facility that helps treat patients has also inspired the operators of the Electric Company to give back. They say their team is large and ever-expanding, from those who book live musicians in the space’s venue, to friends who run lighting for music videos that are filmed on site.

A lot of people believe in the healing qualities of music, and I do as well,” Robert says. “When you come here, it’s to be a better person. We might be successful, we might not. Just like if you go to see a doctor, we’re gonna certainly try.” 

Brittany Nader writes and lives in Akron, Ohio.

The Electric Company will host the debut of the gallery exhibition, “Salad Days,” with musical guest Matt DeRubertis at 15 Broad St. on Feb. 21.