You've got a tremendous amount of experience owning and managing studios. I would really appreciate if you could share your thoughts on the key elements of running a successful commercial studio in today's challenging business environment.
Thanks in advance,
I've had studios for 25 years now, first in the B room at Sound City in Van Nuys, then in Weed, California at RadioStar, now in an awesome old church in Ashland, Oregon.
It was difficult to schedule my own sessions in the Sound City Studio B because it was booked and maintained by Sound City's management. Kind of frustrating, but heck, it was making money... When that arrangement stopped working, I pulled my gear outta there and moved up north, restoring a dilapidated theater in Weed to start RadioStar Studios. The town of Weed, California is a 5-hour drive from any metropolis area, so it was unexpected that we were able to attract any clientele. But the studio grew! Starting with one room in the theater with the Neve 8038, then a second tracking studio in an adjacent building with a Neve BCM-10, then a mix room upstairs with an SSL J-Series, then another studio in a nearby house with a Trident Series-80, then a giant dancehall tracking room with a digital recording setup. 5 rooms! In the middle of nowhere!
So why did it work for 15 years? What was the magic formula for RadioStar's success? Manager Chris Johnson and I marvel at what happened in Weed and came to some post-mortem observations:
Built in Clientele: First of all, I came from Los Angeles already having established myself as a producer with my own clients. If you are a studio owner in a remote place depending only on local business, you might have a difficult time keeping your studio booked. It is better if you don't have to start from scratch, but not impossible to build a new business.
Low Overhead: By moving to a little low-rent town, I was able to purchase commercial property for a fraction of what it would have cost in Los Angeles or any other more populated area. Having a low monthly nut meant I didn't need to work every day, and could invest in other things, like GEAR. And I didn't spend a lot of money on acoustic design, I just set up the old Neve and got started!
Standardized Recording Formats: I realized early that by using Pro Tools over other cheaper, simpler (and sometimes better) digital recording programs made it easier for my clients to bring projects in from other studios. At the same time sessions could be sent out from RadioStar to be mixed at other professional studios with few compatibility issues.
On-Site Accommodations: Chris and I now realize that the secret to our RadioStar success was that we had accommodations for five bands at any time! We built a dozen adult-sized bunkbeds and created living spaces in apartments, basements, lofts, houses and even an RV. The rates we offered to clients usually included accommodations, so we got people to come from all over the world to our crazy studio in podunk USA. Seriously. This was a big part of why it worked.
Internet Promotion: I found that starting dialogue with artists directly was a more effective means of promotion than doing blanket mailings of studio advertisements. While in it's heyday, I spent at least one day a week listening and writing bands directly on Myspace and with the help of interns, I discovered some fantastic music. Many of these bands became clients of the studio! Today I try to keep up on Facebook... wow there is a lot of great music out there.
Offer Something Unique: I suggest that you make your studio environment as interesting as possible, and offer something no one else has... for RadioStar it was recording in an old vaudevillian theater, an unusual acoustic space. For you, how about an airplane hangar, an old sewing factory, or an air-raid bunker? I'll travel halfway around the world to record in Castle Röhrsdorf in Dresden, Germany (photo below). If it wasn't for the fact that it is in an old castle, it might just be another boring studio. But if I have to choose, I'll go there. Also, having unique instruments and other gear available will attract musician clients. For instance, specializing in piano recordings by offering a Bosendorfer or classic Steinway will make your place a destination studio. Or have a crazy selection of old synthesizers! Or a cutting lathe! It is not enough to have a giant selection of plug-ins, though it may be necessary for you to get into the game at all.
Be Versitile: Offering services besides music recording will get you more business. I've been asked several times for mastering services and know that many young clients want to go to where they can get it all done in one place. Brokering production jobs to other producers will broaden your clientele. Being able to offer the services of session musicians is also an advantage. Another big one for me is offering string arrangements. I get a lot of return business and referrals because clients can get killer string parts on their songs. That is something not many studios offer.
Multi-Tasking: And, having worked with Prince and Rick Rubin, I learned how to run several sessions at the same time. Both Prince and Rick Rubin would delegate responsibilities to a trusted group of engineer/producers. I did the same. I would train engineers from the ground up as to how I like the sessions to be recorded, organizing the tracking in such a way that the sessions could bounce between rooms, or even between engineers, and everyone would understand the system and where to take it. I would stroll between sessions and spend time where I was needed. Initial tracking days would require my full attention, but while that was happening in Studio A, I would also be supervising the setup of another project's mix upstairs on the SSL in Studio B, while guitar overdubs were being done by one of my engineers in Studio C, editing was being done in Studio D and rehearsal recording was being done in Studio E.
The big multi-room studio in Weed was a magical place, a lot of hard work with many rewards. One of my favorite memories of being a multi-room studio owner was how all the bands would mingle together in the community kitchen, sharing meals. And how the different nationalities would discover each other, inviting the neighbors to play on their songs, adding an international spice to the musical stew. It is a shame it is over, divorce and politics put an end to that beautiful dream. But one crash won't take the "studio addict" out of me. Tomorrow Chris Johnson and I go into contract on a new building... a new unusual property to set up our second room in Ashland, Oregon. I am so... insane.... Hah!