On the second floor of an old surgical textile mill on Germantown Avenue, Irv Jean-Baptiste is getting ready to rehearse a love song Craig McJett wrote for his wife.
Jean-Baptiste is a 24-year old college student. McJett is a 58 year-old private investigator.
The two met as members of Working While Playing. The program in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood offers musicians an affordable space to practice or record. In exchange, members are required to do community service.
“It serves as experience, but not just experience, it serves as a free space,” said Jean-Baptiste.
For McJett, it brings him back to a different time.
“It just makes me free of heart. I feel like I’m 16 again,” he said.
To founders Danie Jackson and Adam Monaco, that’s what Working While Playing is all about.
WWP originally operated out of a space in Kensington, before the closure of that building landed the duo Germantown. Members can use the space for as little as $35 a month. Every package requires two hours of community service a month. To compare, time at a regular recording studio can cost upwards of $80 per hour.
Getting help to others
Jackson, whose stage name is Danie Ocean, has faced her share of challenges in the business. She has a passion for songwriting and is a performer of what she calls “soul pop,” with influences like Adele, Lauryn Hill, and Jill Scott. She is also has a degenerative disease that is causing her to lose her sight.
“It’s been quite a journey to be able to be successful in an industry that’s so vision-based,” she said.
Providing support as well as accepting it is what makes WWP so important to Jackson. It allows her to “share myself with people, and know my limitations and allow other people to help me help other people.”
Part of that meant facing her own fears and trading in her longtime, more traditional therapist career path to focus full time on WWP.
“You can’t let fear stop you from doing what you think is possible,” she said.
Where it’s needed most
WWP has about 20 members right now, Monaco said, and the waiting list for studio time is growing.
Though the organization didn’t set out to serve any particular demographic, and the music recorded there ranges from bluegrass to heavy metal, a key group of clients has emerged.
“Most recently we found that the people who are in the greatest need honestly are young black men,” Jackson said.
Jackson calls access to the arts, increasingly stripped out of public education, “a rights issue.” And as the music industry has increasingly become a fragmented, do-it-yourself endeavor of downloads and basement studios, artists who can’t afford the equipment are left behind.
“We’re trying to shape that and mold it so this can be in places where it’s needed most,” she said of the group’s mission. “We don’t see ourselves in these big, metropolitan, glossy areas. We see ourselves in neighborhoods and communities that actually need us.”
‘A YMCA for musicians’
Monaco, who plays guitar and mandolin, has big dreams for WWP’s growth as an immersive practical and artistic environment for budding artists.
“The way we picture it is like a YMCA for musicians,” he said of their plans to expand into other cities. First on the list though, will be getting space for a second studio locally.
Monaco said WWP is about more than just studio time, it’s about helping members value themselves.
“There’s a type of person who really ends up wanting to be a performing artist,” Jackson said. “They have a story they want to share.”
But nowadays, that can come with “a heightened vulnerability.”
Part of the WWP model is helping members “know who you are in this business, [helping] you know your worth, so people can’t prey on you.”
For many members, and even Jackson herself, who face extraordinary challenges in their lives, she said the mentorship of WWP is also about building personal accountability.
That means “having a relationship with your words, who you are, your own integrity. It’s all kind of the philosophical underpinnings of what Working While Playing stands for.”