You are here

Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published February 2013

Traditional and home studios haven't always seen eye to eye, but there may still be room for both types in this ever-changing industry.

Back in the early 1990s, the marketing flyer from a certain Hollywood-area personal recording studio turned up in the lobby of a major commercial studio, precipitating the owner of the commercial studio, and his allies, to commence what would become a kind of class war between two distinct camps: the emerging home or personal studios, and the existing establishment of conventional recording facilities. It was a confrontation that, for the first time, compelled people to place the modifier 'conventional' before what heretofore had simply been 'recording studio', just as digital had by then forced us to refer to what used to be simply tape as 'analogue tape'.

It was also the opening salvo in what would be a long and sometimes bloody war, as the establishment saw upstarts with anything from a Tascam Portastudio to a Neve VR80 sprouting in basements and garages, offering music recording services at rates that didn't have to take into account such costly exigencies as professional licences, workmen's compensation and liability insurance premiums, and minimum-wage laws. The home-brew parvenus, on the other hand, saw the conventional crew as stodgy, hoarding the high-paying major-label work.

Battle lines hardened: the traditionalists formed HARP, the Hollywood Association of Recording Professionals, and used zoning codes to punish the upstarts, who responded in a manner that any biologist would recognise as a species defence: they multiplied like rabbits, fuelled by ever more powerful and less costly technology.

It's hard to say who won and who lost. While all this was going on, the MP3, Napster and Apple appeared, and music turned into a 99-cent cottage industry that struggled to support studios of any stripe. But water eventually found its own level and the business of music recording moved on, if not necessarily forward.

This history is brought to mind by a minor municipal imbroglio in Nashville in December last year, in which a new piece of legislation was introduced that intended to make home studios legal in the city. That this hadn't happened already came as a surprise to the many thousands of people who have some kind of recording apparatus in their residences, understandably assuming that a place known as Music City would likely embrace more music making.

The dust-up over the legislation had to do with concerns by some in the music community that, in trying to codify recording studios to make them legal, the legislators would end up constraining them to the point of uselessness. For example, by grouping home studios with other legal at-home business ventures, those studios would be limited in the number of people who could be on the premises at one time, which would certainly put a dent in tracking sessions. And part of the problem lies in how to legally differentiate professionals from hobbyists in the language of the bill.

But the real eye-opener is that, unlike two decades ago, when codes were used as the weapon of choice against residential recording facilities, now we have legislators who, misguided as they may have been in their specifics, are trying to use those same regulations to accommodate home studios. A comment by Megan Barry, the city councillor who introduced the bill, is certainly inviting enough. "We talk all the time about wanting to attract creative people and create a place where they want to be,” she told the local newspaper. "We don't want to put any kind of impediment in front of them.”

That's drawn grunts of dissatisfaction from some of the conventional-studio owners who've been around long enough to witness the 180-degree change in the industry. Emailed comments were off the record, and made extensive use of CAPITALISATION and angry emoticons, some proprietors pointing out that big studios facing closure in recent years received no such legislative support.

When it comes out this month, Dave Grohl's directorial debut, Sound City, about the Los Angeles studio of the same name that was home to Fleetwood Mac's Rumours and Nirvana's Nevermind, is supposed to be a paean to the very notion of the conventional recording studio as a creative hive. But it also risks coming off as an elegiac retrospective on the whole idea of injecting vast amounts of money into cinderblock palaces fitted with valve amplifiers and Persian rugs. It makes one wonder if, at some Grammy Awards telecast in the not-too-distant future, we'll see the 'farewell reel' of notables who departed this life in the previous year include a generic four-room studio, its hopelessly optimistic rate card lying atop a forlorn Studer A80.

The reality is, of course, that the conventional studio lives on. It's no longer necessarily at the apex of what has become a muddled production-chain hierarchy, but is still a vital part of it. The entire landscape of music as an industry — recording it, distributing and selling it, storing it and more — is still incredibly fluid. Disruption is rampant; a computer company did for digital music what no established label could. Yet elements of the traditional music business that contemporary wisdom has declared dead or obsolete remain remarkably resilient: radio is still the primary way people discover new music, and CDs still accounted for 61 percent of all LP sales in the first half of 2012 (Nielsen SoundScan report 91 million units sold in those six months). So thanks to the codes department for watching out for the home studio, and thanks to those conventional facilities that still plug away. There's room, apparently, for all — for now.