If you’re reading this, you have likely been sent an email by me. Or it was forwarded to you, or someone else posted it publicly. I have chosen not to post this statement, or any link to it, on any social media platforms, because while I feel that it’s an important story to tell, I am not out to try and destroy anybody’s careers or reputations. I am writing this to inform people in my community about a terrible thing that has happened. It is all, of course, written from my point of view, how could it be anything else? But I believe all of the facts in it to be true.
Here’s the bottom line: I firmly believe that the Pellicci brothers, current owners and operators of Brothers (Chinese) Recording, acted unscrupulously, disingenuously, and deplorably in their actions towards Lisa Mezzacappa during the aftermath of the death of their business partner — and Lisa’s domestic partner — John Finkbeiner, in the fall of 2021. On top of that, I think they likely acted illegally as well, although I want to be clear that this is only my opinion, and has not been proven in any courtroom or legal proceeding.
Some historical background: John Finkbeiner and I met in 1992, through mutual high school friends. We soon started playing music together, and some of my very favorite and formative experiences with music, ever, happened with him over the following few years. In 2003, we pooled resources and started New, Improved Recording in a commercial space in North Oakland. Although we were lucky enough to find a space that already had a control room, it was empty, and had never been set up for live band recording. Over the years John and I built the space out and ran the studio together, just as recording budgets started to severely decline. Nevertheless, since we were both heavily entrenched in a few overlapping Bay Area music communities, we, together with a broad array of guest engineers and producers, ended up creating a thriving business, recording hundreds of records in the space over the ensuing decade.
In 2012, my family and I moved to Brooklyn, and I stayed half-owner of N,IR for two years. As I quickly tired of regularly flying back to Oakland for sessions, we decided to look for a partner or two to soak up the open days on the calendar. In 2014 Jay and Ian Pellicci, having just severed their ties with the studio Tiny Telephone, and having worked a fair amount as guest engineers at N,IR over the years, each bought a quarter of the business. This was a pretty simple process, in part since the four of us all considered each other good friends. I typed up a document that stated how much we were asking for each share of the business, exactly what they’d be getting for this money, and what they wouldn’t be getting for this money. We agreed that they could work off some of the debt through the installation of upgrades to the space, and then we came up with a quarterly payment plan to span over multiple years for the remainder. There was never a hint of animosity during this process, nor was there any negotiation from the Pelliccis’ side regarding the asking price. Since the majority of the communication happened over email, I have loads of documents that reinforce this position. Not a single one of them suggests that the brothers thought they were paying too much money, or were getting anything other than a fair deal to own part of a successful studio business which had been in operation for over a decade at that point, with a very favorable lease and many thousands of dollars worth of buildout and infrastructure. Not to mention, the studio was in a really great part of Oakland, close to Berkeley, Emeryville, BART and the Bay Bridge.
In 2018 I decided I no longer wanted to be part-owner of a studio 3000 miles away, and planned to pull out all of my gear from N,IR to bring it to my newly-formed upstate NY studio. I gave John, Jay and Ian the option of either buying me out between the three of them, or finding a fourth partner to buy my share. They quickly and unanimously chose to buy me out themselves, so we set up another multi-year payment plan to pay me off over time. I proposed that the business had appreciated over the intervening years, and since I hadn’t received any dividends for my ownership stake during that span of time, that the buyout amount should go up accordingly. Again, no negotiations were made; everyone agreed over email that my request was a fair one, and payments commenced June of 2018.
At the start of the pandemic, it became clear that in-person studio work would be impossible to continue in full force. On April 11, 2020, I emailed John, Jay and Ian, and told them that they could pause paying me back until things got settled. Ian wrote me back an appreciative email letting me know they’d resume payments as soon as they could. They ended up making two payments to me in 2020 — one in August and one in November. After the second one, they were just about three-quarters of the way towards paying me off for my share of the company.
In December of 2020, John was diagnosed with cancer, and it didn’t look good at all. He told me over the phone that the doctors had given him a year, while we cried together, 3000 miles apart. I told him to forget the rest of the money that the studio owed to me, in order to minimize any extra stress in his life. As it turned out, the doctors had over-estimated how long he would live; he died of cancer on September 25, 2021.
The last time I saw the Pellicci brothers in person was at John’s memorial, on October 9, 2021. The exchanges were just as you might expect them to be among friends in such a situation. They were kind, and expressed heartfelt condolences to me for having lost one of my closest friends. We ate lunch together, and I remember thinking at one point that Lisa was lucky that she was going to be dealing with such nice, thoughtful guys through this process of reconciling John’s ownership in the business.
Shortly thereafter, Jay, Ian and Lisa began meeting about the future of the studio, and within a couple of months, had agreed via email and in person on a dollar amount that they would pay her for John’s third of the company, and a timeline for the buyout. (They declined the idea of having a third person buy Lisa out.) This number was significantly less than a third of either valuation we had come to in 2014 and 2018, but when she asked me my opinion, I told her that I thought it was fair, given the pandemic, and how hard it is to stick numbers on this stuff anyhow. It seemed like a non-insulting number, but one that they wouldn’t have trouble paying off over a year or two. However, on December 4th, 2021, in an email forwarded from Lisa, I got the first whiff that things were awry. The brothers had started to question the agreement, due to an incident in the building that made them think maybe they didn’t want to stay in the space at all. This event seems to have set off a whole shift in their thinking.
The three of them then tried to come to an agreement of how to value the studio in some new way, and discussed hiring outside consultants to help. The brothers shot down every suggestion Lisa had for a third party to consult. Then suddenly, the Pelliccis halted that discussion completely, and unilaterally decided that the only value that the studio held was the value of the actual gear that was co-owned. The tape machine, the computer, the piano, the headphone amps, etc. They had somehow come to the decision that the other things they had agreed to as having value, not once, but twice before — the buildout John and I had done ourselves, the buildout we had paid others to do, the cables in the walls, the studio’s reputation in the community, the below-market and stable rent, the very positive relationship with the landlord, etc etc etc — in fact had none.
Shocked by this development, I sat back and waited for them to come to their senses. I just really couldn’t fathom that these guys I had liked so much, and trusted so deeply, had started down this road of ultimatums and lawyers. On February 17, 2022, after getting the sense from Lisa that they were no longer willing to continue negotiations, I reached out to Jay and Ian and asked if they would have a Zoom call with me so I could figure out where they stood with their reasoning. Lisa didn’t know I was doing this; it was of my own accord. I was no longer an owner, since I had forgiven all of the remaining buyout debt, which came out to $2,083 per person. (In retrospect, of course, I wish I had only forgiven John’s portion of the debt, but in the moment it had felt like the right thing to do to make the terrible situation a little more bearable for everyone.) This meant that I didn’t have a say in what happened, but I was just trying to help out my friend Lisa, the love of my dear friend John’s life, in her quest to get what should have rightfully and swiftly come her way. They refused to talk to me face-to-face or over the phone, so on February 23rd I sent an email, telling them I thought that they were making a mistake. It went back and forth a few times (between Ian and myself, with Jay never responding), as I tried to get them to understand that the value of something — property, gear, businesses, used cars, even money — is inherently based on what somebody is willing to pay or trade for it, and as far as I could tell they had put zero effort into finding out what the actual market would determine the value of the studio to be. In fact, some of their actions after John’s death appeared from the outside to be deliberate attempts to devalue the studio, like letting the website expire. Despite my efforts, they would not budge. They said they had consulted a few people, and they could see no way in which the studio had more value than the basic sum of its assets.
Of course, I disagreed. The thing that John and I had built, the space that had countless incredible artists come through, so many return clients who loved working there, so many beautiful recordings made, was all worthless to them. Not only did this hurt my feelings, not only did it seem wrong on so many levels, it just seemed so cruel that they were pulling this move, gearing up for a fight with someone in mourning over less money than the value of a single one of their vintage microphones. I summed my feelings up to them in the best way I could, the phrasing of which still resonates a year later as I type this. I wrote to them: “So by taking a hard line on what you think is right, and not even considering [Lisa’s] point of view, you are, in her opinion, dishonoring John’s legacy, and in my opinion, strong-arming a widow at the most vulnerable juncture of her life. Whether or not you think that’s a fair assessment, it’s how it looks. And it’s really, really not a good look.”
This framing didn’t seem to faze them; their only response was that I should consult the “experts” they had talked to in arriving at their new position. In the following months, I did talk to two of their “experts”. One was our old accountant. The other ran a prominent gear-rental business until major label recording dried up in the early 2000s. I like both of them personally just fine, but to be honest they both sounded extremely defensive on the phone. Neither of them stood by the idea that a recording studio is only worth the gear it houses, of course. Under very little prodding from me, they both agreed that there was further value that could be assigned, and they both said independently that they had actually advised the brothers that this wasn’t worth a fight, and that they should just pay Lisa the original amount they had agreed to. I can’t verify that that is true, but it’s what they each told me over the phone.
In the meantime, the brothers wrote to Lisa saying that they wouldn’t negotiate with her any more, or acknowledge any responsibility to her, since their “lawyer friends” had advised them that the studio partnership agreement had dissolved upon John’s death. The partnership agreement that they were referring to had been written up in haste in order to get a new bank account; Ian stated in an email that “It was a generic one we found online”. In any case, it was drafted while I was still an owner, without my signature on it, so it’s hard to imagine this document could withstand legal scrutiny.
Fast forward almost a year. A year of Lisa losing sleep, mourning her partner of eleven years, dealing with lawyers, gathering information on decades of studio finances, selling John’s gear, giving away his clothes, still finding his picks lying around under every piece of furniture. A year in which the brothers changed the locks at the studio and blocked her out of the N,IR email account. A year in which they canceled the time she had booked to record one of her projects at the space — after they had originally proposed she could use the studio at no cost until they bought her out — for which she had offered to hire Ian to engineer for a sizable sum of money. A year in which they continued to use collective gear after promising not to, from the looks of various social media posts. Now, at last, there is closure on the process. Only after lawyers became the only mode of communication for many months, a settlement was agreed to, and the brothers have paid her something more than what they claimed her third of the remaining gear was worth, and much less than the original number they had all agreed to. The actual numbers don’t matter, but I am certain you would all be shocked at how small they are. All of this heartache, for fucking peanuts.
After a search for a different space, as verified by various sources around the recording community, the brothers renewed the lease at the old N,IR space last September. Because, of course they did. Building a studio from the ground up in the Bay Area in 2023 would be prohibitively expensive. They clearly realized that what John and I sold them actually did have value: an already built-out studio with hundreds of recordings under its belt, and an affordable lease with a very music-friendly landlord in a convenient part of town, where they can earn a decent living doing what they love. They even refer to N,IR by name on their website as I type this, saying that “the studio, formerly known as New, Improved Recording, holds a rich history…” after claiming in an email to me last year: “In the last seven years I can count on one hand how many clients have booked Jay or I based on the NIR reputation. If the name has value we have yet to benefit from it after all this time.” (I personally recommended more clients than that to them in that time period.)
If you know Jay and Ian personally, I imagine you’ll want to get their side of the story. I would love to get their side of the story too, but they haven’t communicated with me in any meaningful way since March of last year. That’s fine, because I’m done with them. Something snapped, and I don’t ever see it unsnapping. I certainly don’t wish them harm, but it’s hard to imagine ever forgiving them for how they’ve acted. At the end of the day, I’m really writing this because I want anybody entering that space who knew John, or knows Lisa, or knows me, to be aware of who the two brothers showed themselves to be in a moment of severe crisis. They emphatically did not choose the high road, and needlessly caused a lot of pain to someone I really care about, who didn’t at all deserve it.
Thank you for reading,
Eli Crews 2/14/23