By Jeffrey Rindskopf
Once, this block was just another cluster of light industrial buildings amidst the divey bars of old Capitol Hill. Today, the neighborhood is a designated arts district and host to a huge selection of lounges and bistros that seem to come and go on a monthly basis, but one business remains intact almost two decades after its founding.
A black door, covered in old concert flyers and situated between two cocktail bars, leads to the underground corridors of Crybaby Studios, a warehouse that’s been providing local musicians with cheap, rentable practice spaces to hone their craft for 18 years.
“So many restaurants and retail places have come and gone,” says Crybaby’s lease-owner and sole operator Leigh Stone, gesturing towards the above-ground business as the sound of a guitar riff swells through the pink walls. “We’re gonna be the ones who survive.”
When she first found the space, it was only a cavernous basement with a few hanging lights and no dividing walls. A singer, guitarist and dancer herself, Stone recognized that there was—and likely always would be—a need for affordable practice spaces in a city as musically-inclined as Seattle.
“Sometimes art is just a compulsion,” she says. “And it’s really important that people have access to that. It’s important for people to be able to create.”
The affordable lease allowed her to develop the space slowly, first dividing it in two and renting out one half while using the other to throw parties for the sake of raising capital. Within a couple years, both halves of the warehouse were updated and partitioned to create 50 24-hour-access practice rooms of varying sizes.
Stone dubbed the space Crybaby Studios, as both a reference to a popular wah pedal and as a tribute to her then-newborn sons.
Out of financial necessity, she circumvented the city’s permit process, as well as all the fees and red tape that come along with it, while still ensuring what alterations she made to the property were up to code. Only when city officials inspected the entire building eight years ago, once Crybaby was already a well-established part of the community, was Stone finally forced to go through the official channels.
“The city actually helped me, because by that time, they knew the value in the space,” Stone explains.
One studio among the 50 is kept as a daily rental, usually reserved for touring bands in desperate need of a practice space before a gig, but the remaining 49 are monthly rentals, and have been occupied by one local act or another just about every day since the studio’s founding.
“It’s an institution in Seattle now,” Stone says. “I don’t do any advertising. People come here from other cities and have heard of it. It has its own name and does its own thing.”
There’s a waiting list for rooms, so as soon as one band is done renting, another is ready to take their place. As a landlord, Stone prides herself on keeping the studios affordable and giving prospective tenants the benefit of the doubt, rather than complicating the process with background or credit checks.
“I’m not a traditional landlord,” she says. “I take into consideration who I’m renting to—poor-ass artists. Which we need.”
In 18 years, Stone has witnessed shifts not just in the community around Crybaby Studios but within the bands renting her studios as well. Namely, she says, the number of women playing in bands in this historically male-dominated industry has noticeably, if gradually, increased.
Stone’s biggest undertaking with Crybaby since first establishing the studios occurred in 2009, when she converted three of the practice spaces into a working recording studio, complete with a secondhand mixing board once used to record the Terminator 2 soundtrack.
The setup only lasted five years until the associated gear became too much and too expensive to maintain, but in that time, Stone had learned a great deal about recording—her primary goal in the endeavor—and released two compilation CDs of Crybaby bands that went into regular rotation at KEXP.
Though she continues to play guitar and sing “for my own sanity,” Stone is no longer recording or performing live. Rather, her energies are spent organizing performances for other artists at her newly-launched Crybaby Studios showcases, now occurring the third Wednesday of every month at the Timbre Room. The showcases are free for all guests 21 and older, and each will feature three different local bands and one artist adding a visual component to the performances.
“It’s not just Crybaby bands playing the shows,” Stone says, pausing a moment before adding, “At some point though, most of them—most every musician around Seattle—have been through this place.”