In his early 20s, the electronic musician Moby lived in an abandoned factory on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He paid a security guard $50 a month — and not a dime in rent.
"Everything about it was illegal: It was a firetrap, it didn’t have running water, it didn’t have a bathroom, who knows how old the wiring was," Moby says in a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show. (You can listen to Klein and Moby’s conversation by streaming it here or by subscribing to the podcast on iTunes.) "We were exposed to all sorts of creepy chemicals, which is probably why I’m bald today."
But if the abandoned factory was dangerous to live in, it also represented an opportunity. Freed of a monthly rent bill, Moby could spend most of his days concentrating almost entirely on his music — an opportunity he now worries is lost for a generation of younger musicians.
In his new memoir, Porcelain, Moby looks at what made the New York City of the late 1980s and early '90s such fertile ground for an explosion of creativity. It’s a fascinating question — and the launch point for a broader conversation over housing policy, how fringe culture has evolved, and the right path for aspiring artists just setting out on their careers.
A lightly edited section of Moby’s interview is transcribed below. Download The Ezra Klein Show today by clicking here.
Ezra Klein: Something I thought was fascinating about the book was how it was a story of zoning policy, low rents, and New York City in a very certain period. It really seemed to me that a big part of the way you see your story is what was possible to do in the low-rent environment of New York City in that era.
Does that sound right to you?
Let's say it's late '80s, early '90s and you're an aspiring musician or director, and you want to live in some crummy, cheap, low-rent urban environment. You had so many places to choose from — you could move to DC, LA, Seattle, London, San Francisco, Paris — all of these inexpensive, rundown urban environments.
And I was just feeling a little sad for the young people of today: Where do they go to make art or make music and not have to worry about the rent? Because I feel almost every urban environment now is prohibitively expensive. ...
Paying $50 a month to squat in an abandoned factory, or my first apartment in New York, where I paid to live next to a crack den — I don’t know where that exists or if that exists.
EK: Tell me about your first apartment in New York.
Moby: It was on the corner of 14th and Third. We were on the ground floor, it was a three-bedroom apartment, and it was around $1,200. And we shared it with three to four people.
I had the smallest room, and my windows faced a shaftway that was literally filled with garbage — it had 3 or 4 feet of literally condensed, piled-up garbage. And there's this one story in the book about a drug addict who fell out of the third-story window, and the garbage saved his life. The EMTs came, and they took him away alive; if he had fallen onto a concrete shaftway, he probably would have died, but the fact that there was 3 feet of condensed garbage literally kept him from dying. ...
EK: You mentioned the warehouse you lived in before this. A lot of this seemed to be unlawful and in violation of all sorts of health and safety codes.
It got me thinking: How much of the regulations we’ve put in place to protect people actually end up stifling their ability to get their start? You made a rational choice to accept worse conditions to be in a place that’s more artistically productive.
Moby: In the 20th century, so many rules and regulations were passed with the best intentions, but the rules and bureaucracy take on a life of their own. At one point they're passed to serve the people, and then they just exist to keep civil servants in business. ...
I’m glad when I was living illegally in a factory that nobody bothered to pay attention. Everything about it was illegal: It was a firetrap, it didn't have running water, it didn’t have a bathroom. We were exposed to all sorts of creepy chemicals, which is probably why I’m bald today.
But at the same time, it enabled me to pay $50 a month to a security guard so I could squat in this abandoned factory and work on music and not have to worry about paying the rent. So I was really grateful to be able to live adjacent to the law.
EK: Why did that seem like a good play to you? When you were thinking about becoming a musician ... what was it about that location and the [decisions] you took that were important in your development?
Moby: I come from old New England stock, and the fact that I was living within my means — making $4,000 a year and paying $50 a month in squatter’s rent — there was a sort of Calvinist virtue in that.
And I was also really happy there. There’s something about this old industrial environment — I had these big windows that faced south, and I didn't have indoor plumbing, and it smell funny, and I was broke, and there were crack addicts — but the light was beautiful and I had free electricity, and it was only $50 a month.
The cons were also awful but really fascinating, because they were so foreign to what most of my friends were dealing with. So I sort of loved being the only white person in this neighborhood that was culturally so different from what my friends were dealing with. ...
EK: When you talk about the low rents of that period, it reminds me of something my colleague Matt Yglesias has written about ... something [Yglesias] says in the book is that we have tended to use high crime, high poverty as a kind of affordable housing policy.
Do you think there’s a way to have the artistic community you really value from that community, absent the substandard living quality that a lot of people suffered from? Can you recreate that world without the things that kept money out of it and kept the rent so low?
Moby: Yes, and — not to be glib — but I think a lot of that is being facilitated by what’s being allowed to be created online.
If you were a photographer or filmmaker or author, up until recently you needed to be in a major metropolitan area. You needed to be able to work in recording studios, or get signed to record labels and go on radio stations. But now, because of online access, most people don't need to be anywhere to successfully do their work.
So I think a lot of people are compartmentalizing — their work happens online, and where they’ll live is for quality of life. A lot of people are moving to upstate New York or Joshua Tree, or places that can afford them a nice quality of life but traditionally wouldn't have been feasible as places to live because they would have been so remote. But now it seems like that has changed.
EK: That’s really interesting, because I was going to ask: If you were going to start out today, where would you go?
It sounds like you would log on ... does that have the leveling effect it sounds like, or are there things lost in day-to-day collaboration of people you can see and meet on the street that you miss? This sounds more like a cerebral connection between different creators.
Moby: And we see the danger of online provincialism in politics — the far left and the far right are so accommodated by where they hang out online. ...
I think there’s a lot to be said for when the media was broader and more roughly ecumenical. When we were all saying essentially same thing and weren’t quite as polarized.
My friends on the far left, they started to disappear down rabbit holes of obscurity and arcane policy that makes a lot of sense to them because they only talk to each other. It seems really dangerous. And in the world of culture, as well.
Now people are only exposed to things presented to them via Facebook. They’re not necessarily as exposed to worldviews that might not even be contradictory but might represent something different from their provincial cul-de-sac.
EK: On the one hand, it feels like so much of what you valued in the book is the ability to be in niches where folks not represented well in the culture could find their own community ... and now, in a way, what you’re saying is the internet has made it easy. Far from having to fight for your community, you don't have to fight to be involved.
Moby: That worries me, because it pushes people even further to the fringes. I understand the appeal of fringe culture. I say this as a serious vegan: It’s nice to hang out with other vegans. ...
It can be way too insular, and almost tautological, in terms of the messaging people are putting out there and responding to. And then there's the danger of conflation, where you conflate the concerns of your subgroup with the broader concerns of the population.
Big thanks to Moby for joining The Ezra Klein Show; you can learn more about his new book, Porcelain, here.
For more podcast conversations — including episodes with Rachel Maddow, Bill Gates, political scientist Theda Skocpol, and conservative activist Michael Needham — subscribe to The Ezra Klein Show.