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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published January 2012

Economic uncertainty and the rise of digital distribution have taken their toll on many major studios, but there is still a future for them.

There is an old elementary school joke, in which a person, when asked why he continues to hit himself in the head with a hammer, replies "because it feels so good when I stop.” Proprietors of the large, multi-room recording facilities that once dominated the music-production business are feeling some relief too, lately, if only because the relentless hammering that they have had to endure for the last decade has finally subsided a little. And now that the smoke has cleared, some of them are looking forward to going to work in the morning again.

The reasons for so many large music studios shutting down in the last decade are both economic and cultural. The shift to digital distribution of music, legitimate and otherwise, damaged the traditional revenue sources for those studios (the major record labels). Then that same technology enabled many record makers to take their work into their own studios, while a shift towards an 'indie' culture also made it cool to do so. The knock-on effects were as predictable as they were devastating to this class of facility, causing several dozen studios to drop off the radar during the last decade. But that same Malthusian dynamic is also responsible for an increase in work for the survivors.

"It's simple supply and demand,” says Ellis Sorkin, owner of Studio Referral Service, a studio-booking agency in Los Angeles. "There's less work that can afford to go into large studios, but now there are even fewer rooms out there for it to go to. That's driving demand up a bit. Not sure if I'd call it a comeback, but the survivors are getting more of what work there is.”

The roll call of losses is lengthy and notable. New York lost facilities including Clinton Studios, Chung King, Sorcerer, Battery Sound and Sony Music Studios, while in Los Angeles, O'Henry and Cherokee also expired. Sorkin estimates that New York City had the largest losses — as much as 40 percent more than LA, due mainly to Manhattan's higher real-estate costs, which also fuelled the exodus across the East River to Brooklyn in that same time frame. Of the large multi-room facilities that managed to survive the decade, many of them had hip-hop's blingy culture to thank for their survival, with producer teams like the Neptunes routinely booking out entire recording complexes in New York and LA, in as much of an advertisement of their commercial prowess as the fleets of Lincoln Navigators that filled the studios' parking lots.

Even that trend has tailed off somewhat for the big rooms, as record budgets continue to contract. However, macro-economic dynamics have brought some relief, too. Consolidation among the labels — Warner's and EMI's music groups were both sold last year — has reduced overhead costs, and those labels can more easily find the Dr Luke-level money they need to keep the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and other slickly packaged, high-sales machines running smoothly. And those are the cohorts of artists and producers that are also helping to stabilise the business a bit for the large studios.

David Amlen's MSR Studios in Manhattan are a testament to consolidation: his three-room Sound On Sound facility had merged with the six-room Right Track in the middle of the last decade to form Legacy Studios, until he settled out with the remaining partners last year and renamed it. Amlen says that even though rates and revenues are not rising, stabilisation is a welcome visitor after a combination of digital destruction and Wall Street mayhem.

"There's still a desire on the part of major artists and producers to use big studio facilities in New York and LA,” he says. "These are the only places that can offer the infrastructure that they want. The big question remains, though: how are they going to pay for it?”

Jeff Greenberg, president of Village Recorders in Los Angeles, says that the idea of the multi-room facility as a dying breed is a fallacy. "We provide services like surround mixing, and, more importantly, we're a place where professionals can be with other professionals. That's something that got lost when music recording went into people's homes.”

If it's true that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, then the travails of the past decade have proved that there is still a place for the big 'Battlestar Galactica' studio in modern record production. But this period underscored the need for fewer of them than in the music industry's pre-digital heyday, and although some new members of the class — such as Germano Studios in New York — have arrived, the net head-count is still lower than it was.

In the current economy, no one's talking about green shoots any more — we read the tea leaves instead, in search of 'the new normal,' whatever that may be. But the large-facility studio model, battered though it may be, is proving that its combination of technological diversity, industrial sophistication and high-level service can remain a key part of music making in an uncertain economic future.