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Welcome To The Playroom, The 'Musical Oasis' For Usher, Fantasia And Charlotte Music

Wayne White.jpg
Wayne White
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Eddie Z is owner of The Playroom, Charlotte's oldest and largest music facility.

Since 1994, tens of thousands of musicians have trekked to the “music oasis” that is The Playroom, the 22,000 square foot facility that is Charlotte’s oldest and largest music production space. On any given day, you can find more than 100 musicians working out of the facility, with talent ranging from up-and-coming Charlotte acts to Grammy Award winners like Usher and Fantasia. At the heart of The Playroom is facility owner and music producer Eddie Z and his goal to create a comfortable “home-away-from-home” for musicians near and far.

"We never lose sight of the fact that we are a place where people go to create. If people are comfortable, they’re going to create better. And if they create better, then the art is going to be better. And then it’s a win-win for everybody.”
– Eddie Z, owner of The Playroom

Interview Highlights:

On starting in music:

I got my first microphone and amplifier when I was four. My mom tells stories about how we were on a trip going cross-country and staying at campgrounds, and I sang every night at different campgrounds. And apparently I sang the same song. And after a couple campgrounds, some guy came up to my mom and said, “Hey, I’ve been seeing him three or four nights in a row. He needs to learn a new song.” [Laughing]

My mom says that this fascination that I have with wires and microphones and amplifiers goes back as long as she can possibly remember.

On moving to Charlotte nearly 30 years ago:

I was going through a divorce in Florida, and I was on my way back up to [my home state of] New York to be in my comfort zone. I stopped in Charlotte to see some friends, and I got sick with strep throat. And the buddy that I was going to go see in New York and work for said, “Hey, we’re having the worst winter we’ve ever had in recent history, so I don’t know if I could put you to work.” So I went out looking for a job in Charlotte. And the city won me over. There was so much opportunity here… you could open all kinds of doors that you could never open in New York. And I fell in love, and the city claimed me (or I claimed it, one of the two), and I stayed. It’s been an amazing journey in this city.

On being inspired to build The Playroom:

When I opened The Playroom, I was homeless... I was really hurting for money and doing carpentry jobs on the side. One day, I got hired to be a carpenter at Panthers Stadium. And on my first day to work, I started walking down the street, almost got to the stadium, and said to myself, “You know what... if you do this, you’re never going to pursue what your real passion is. You’re never going to do this Playroom thing.” And that was the start of [building The Playroom] in 1992 and 1993.

From years of touring across the country and being in the most disgusting, nasty rehearsal spaces, I was always like, “Why does it have to smell like pee or puke, or be dark and dingy? Why can’t it be nice? Why can’t the gear work? Why can’t it be safe?” From day one, that was my intention: to open a place that was safe and comfortable and really fed the artist a clean environment. We’re really proud of that.

On The Playroom’s philosophy:

I stole this sort of philosophy from a well-known hotel chain: the Ritz-Carlton. They’re known worldwide for being the best at what they do, and their president wrote a book called “The Gold Standard,” and I’m a huge fan of that book. And their philosophy is, “The answer is yes. Now, what is the question?” That resonated with me, and it still does. And so that’s what we strive for here at The Playroom.

We never lose sight of the fact that we are a place where people go to create. If people are comfortable, they’re going to create better. And if they create better, then the art is going to be better. And then it’s a win-win for everybody. And that’s why we do what we do. Because without our clients and without our artists, we fail to exist. A fantastic facility that is empty is useless.

On working with Grammy Award-winning North Carolinian Fantasia:

We just had Fantasia in for her fourth tour. And this time when they loaded in, there was a marked difference in the gear, commitment and expenditure. Their music director walked in, and the all-female band walked in. The band was Beyoncé’s band, and the music director was Kim Burse (who came from Motown and Sony, and her clients are Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez… and as a matter of fact, Kim Burse is producing this year’s Super Bowl half-time show).

After they were here for a week, I pulled Kim aside and asked, “Look Kim, I know you’ve been in the biggest and best houses in the world. What can I do to make The Playroom better?” And she said, “Eddie, don’t change a thing. This place feels like home. Those other places feel like concrete boxes that feel like factories for us to produce a product. We came here to create, and it feels like music, and it feels like art. We’re so comfortable in here, and I love it.” And I was very, very proud of that.

On The Playroom being home to more than 30 Grammy Award nominees:

It’s phenomenal. It’s something we’re really proud of. In 2019, we recorded J. Cole’s half-time show for the NBA All-Star game that was broadcast all over the world. People thought that was live, but there was none of it that was live. The NBA spent a week in The Playroom.

There’s all of this goodness going on, and I want to watch everybody grow. There’s so much success that’s come out of here, and I really think we’re just at the tip of the iceberg.

On being diagnosed with kidney disease:

In 2012, I was diagnosed with kidney disease. In 2014, I received a kidney transplant from my significant other. Literally, I was on dialysis for two years. I was still doing shows, but I was so sick, but I refused to give up and let kidney disease stop my life. It was to the point where I would go behind my amp and throw up in buckets, and I would go back out [to the stage] and keep playing shows. We had a doctor and two nurses in the audience at every show I played because they thought I would fall out. I’m a much different person post-kidney disease… when your life is almost taken from you, you realign your priorities really fast. As a matter of fact, The Vault [recording space] would never have been built if it weren’t for my kidney disease. I did it because it’s good for my soul. We’re sitting and working in a space that only exists because kidney disease almost took me out… but it didn’t.

Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:

Eddie Z & The Vault Dwellers - “Do You Better”
Eddie Z & The Vault Dwellers - “As Seen on TV”
Eddie Z & The Vault Dwellers - “Talk to Me”
Eddie Z & The Vault Dwellers - “Breathe”

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Joni Deutsch is happy to call Charlotte home as WFAE's manager for on-demand content and audience engagement, where she's led the first Charlotte Podcast Festival (named one of the “best podcast conferences” by Buzzsprout) and helped produce such podcasts as FAQ City, SouthBound, Inside Politics, Work It and the Apple Podcast chart-topping series She Says. In addition to being an NPR Music contributor, Joni is also the creator and host of WFAE’s Charlotte music podcast Amplifier, named “Best Podcast” by Charlotte Magazine and honored for excellence in arts and music podcasting by the local Edward R. Murrow Awards and The Webby Awards (called “The Internet’s Highest Honor” by The New York Times).