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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published September 2012

Just like studios and record companies, music industry trade bodies have had to adapt to survive in a rapidly changing business landscape.

In the very first of these columns, back in the winter of 2011, I focused on some grass-roots organisations set up between recording studios in a few regions across the US (you can read that column at /sos/feb11/articles/usnews.htm). Studio groups, notably in Chicago and Philadelphia, had come together organically and almost spontaneously, looking for a shared sense of purpose amid a massive, digitally induced reappraisal of how music is produced, distributed and, ultimately, consumed.

These groups were still trying to figure out what their missions would become, but they were in agreement that they needed to look after their local tribes. By extension, they also agreed that the national entity that had represented the studio industry for three decades, SPARS (the Society of Professional Audio Recording Services), was no longer relevant. "We know our needs better locally,” George Hajioannou, who headed the Philadelphia Recording Community (PRC), put it back then, noting that none of the PRC's 50 members were also members of SPARS.

At the time, SPARS's executive director Paul Christensen conceded as much, noting: "Like everyone else in the music business, we have to change and re-evaluate what our mission is.” But, unlike many of those who saw the digital revolution unravel their entrenched view of the industry, SPARS's executive cohort did something about it.

A little less than two years on, SPARS's membership is growing, to over 200 corporate and individual members (up from 150), spurred by lower membership fees and increased geographic inclusivity. In that time, the organisation has established several new events and programmes, with an emphasis on mentoring neophytes in the industry, particularly recent graduates of the professional audio education programmes and schools that SPARS has increasingly aligned itself with. The SPARS Studio Summit, for example, was a two-day event in Ashville, North Carolina, that brought together educators, students, producers, engineers and SPARS members and facilities in, symbolically, a location well off the beaten paths between LAX and JFK.

The Ask SPARS mentoring programme introduced there has an ongoing counterpart in the form of a forum on Facebook, part of SPARS's new venture into social media. This new emphasis on education has also taken on a practical bent at the HOT Zone (Hands-on Training) events, which SPARS co-sponsors at the NAMM Show in the US, along with various pro-audio manufacturers. There is a raft of other mentoring initiatives that span live events, trade publications and industry web sites. It's been, in short, a remarkable resuscitation; a return to relevance of what had become a moribund idea.

SPARS's current president, Kirk Imamura (Christensen remains its executive director), says the comeback came about as a result of sincere soul-searching about the nature of the organisation and the industry around it. "We tried to figure out what our strengths were as an organisation and how to apply them to a very changed industry,” he told me. Those strengths, obscured by a fast-changing industry landscape, were nonetheless very real. SPARS has refashioned itself as a knowledge resource, become more inclusive and pragmatic, and, in the process of reinvention, has reinvigorated itself. More regional events are planned, and spreading awareness of professional audio as a multi-faceted career choice beyond just music has become a major part of the message.

The establishment of the new non-profit SPARS Foundation prefigures the organisation's transformation from a practical trade group to a philosophical beacon. As the owner of one of the industry's largest legacy facilities, Avatar Studios in New York, Imamura himself represents a revolution in how the studio business views the changes around it. The recording industry began its relationship with the new order confrontationally, back in the late 1980s and '90s, fighting against the arrival of personal studios by invoking zoning regulations and making cataclysmic threats about the quality of music as a result of it being made in spare bedrooms. Even though those warnings about quality turned out to be more than a little prescient — sales of catalogue albums outpaced those of new records during the first six months of 2012 — zoning laws were of little use in holding back the larger digital revolution.

But SPARS's recent renaissance hints at a fundamental resilience innate in those who see music recording as a profession rather than a pastime. The technology revolution may have swept away the old order and, in the process, moved convenience and coolness further up the consumer hierarchy, but it couldn't undermine the appreciation of authenticity that comes when someone who actually knows what they're doing is in charge of a process, whether it's flying airliners or making records.

PRC and EARS (the Engineering And Recording Society) in Chicago continue to focus on their own niches, and the Internet has made music recording a more intensely local proposition than since Buddy Holly found he needed go no further than Clovis, New Mexico to record hits. But SPARS has now formed a relationship with these (and other) local organisations. They have solidly connected themselves to the next generation through schools (in a way that the more formally academic AES perhaps cannot), and they are recognising their own value as a unique repository of knowledge about the workings of music recording as a business. Imamura says it's about building bridges between constituencies. One could also say it's about time. It's good to have a robust SPARS back again.