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Off The Record: Church & Studio

Music & Recording Industry News
By Dan Daley

The decline of churches echoes the fate of studios — but it could present some exciting new opportunities.

The US Constitution offers clear (sort of) provisions regarding church and state. There is far less distinction between church and studio, however. In fact, the relationship between the two has only gotten deeper in recent decades. That could be a good thing for both entities.

The music industry is rife with houses of worship that have been converted into studios. For instance, London’s circa 1855 Crouch End Church, which Eurythmics producer/artist Dave Stewart transformed into a studio in 1984, where he worked with artists like Bob Dylan and Depeche Mode. After a stint under recording artist David Gray’s ownership, Grammy and Academy Award-winning producer Paul Epworth and studio designer John Storyk collaborated on an update in 2013 pretty enough to make you want to work on a Sunday.Off The Record

Examples of churches that have been transformed into recording facilities could fill a book, and it would be a nice coffee-table book, too, because the nature of the spaces seems to compel designers and owners to respect not only the laws of physics and acoustics but also of heavenly aesthetics. The reflective vitrine in the stained-glass windows that might have been ripped out and covered over in any other space are instead not only retained but incorporated into the larger design, often protected by non-reflective transparent coverings, as they are at Ocean Way Studios in Nashville.

Dreamland in Woodstock, NY, and Echo Mountain Studios in Ashville, North Carolina, are other thriving examples.

A Shared Sense Of Purpose

There is a real symbiosis at work in the relationship between church and studio. Both are the visceral and inhabitable symbols of respective eras and movements past their prime. Both multi-room studios and churches in urban areas have fallen victim to the relentless exigencies of rising real-estate values. (Interestingly, both types of entities have found ways to adapt in cities, with the so-called ‘portable’ church trundling its mini line array and wireless microphone system from bowling alley to cinema one week to the next, as itinerant recording rigs move from one Brooklyn flat to the next as the rents rise.) And both have increasingly found shelter from their respective cultural storms with each other.

As organised religion continues to decline, at least in the West, an inventory of hundreds of unused churches is being created. The Wall Street Journal reported last year that in the UK, where over 21 percent say they are religiously unaffiliated, the Church of England closes about 20 churches a year; about 200 Danish churches have been deemed nonviable or underused; the Catholic Church in Germany has shut about 515 churches in the past decade, and the Netherlands’ Catholic leadership estimates that two-thirds of its 1600 churches will be out of commission in a decade, while 700 of that country’s Protestant churches are expected to close within four years. The decline isn’t as steep in the US, where just over 16 percent of the population says it’s unaffiliated with any religion, though evangelical ministries here are often looked on as entrepreneurial opportunities. But there are plenty of long-term indicators suggesting we’re headed in a similar direction.

At a time when real-estate dynamics are pressuring the commercial studio business, this plethora of abandoned churches could be a gold mine. They certainly seem to be turning into everything else: in Holland, one ex-church has become a supermarket, another is a florist, a third is a bookstore and a fourth is a gym. In Bristol, UK, the former St Paul’s church became Circomedia, a circus training school, with high ceilings perfect for trapezes. In Edinburgh, a Lutheran church has become a Frankenstein-themed bar, featuring bubbling test tubes, lasers and a life-size Frankenstein’s monster descending from the ceiling at midnight. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the former First Presbyterian Church is now a community centre, while the former Evangelische Imanuel Kirche, built there in 1889 by a German immigrant congregation, is now the Neu Kirche Community Arts Center. By comparison, a recording studio would make even better use of the most intrinsic architectural benefit of a church space: its natural reverb.

Sales Call

But there’s no reason to stop at churches. Yet another category of large enclosed space is going up for grabs, this one mainly in the US: shopping malls. Victims of a changing retail landscape, these lumbering concatenations of shops and department stores were once bustling destinations but have been made increasingly redundant by the growth of online shopping and more mobile hipster attractions like pop-up stores and food trucks. According to a piece in The Atlantic, there are about 1200 enclosed malls in the US, and about one-third of them are dead or dying, thanks to rampant retail overbuilding in the last century. The US has twice as much square footage in shopping centres per capita than the rest of the world, and six times as much as in Europe.

Like churches, malls constitute another potential natural redoubt for the large commercial recording studio business: they offer plenty of space, proximity to (yet decent insulation from) population centres and clients, and in some cases sonically ambient environments that rival those of Gothic churches, as anyone who’s ever been in a near-empty mall near closing time calling out for a missing child/spouse/pet will attest. A few studios have already discovered this: studio designer Russ Berger built a 17,000-square-foot studio facility for the Media Resource Group in a former Middle Tennessee-area mall.

Music production is one of many industries that have been inundated by waves of new technologies. Finding economically viable refuge in the wreckage of some of them might be the ultimate sort of comeback. Together, cast-off churches and shopping malls also appear to offer more than simply space and availability: in a business fraught with uncertainty that anyone wants to buy your wares, recording in places that were once centres of commerce or prayer might be a pretty good idea.

Published December 2016