Two grassroots organisations show how their focus on the local music scene is helping studios survive in the new economic climate.
The word 'locavore' describes a movement that promotes the eating of locally grown foods, in the spirit of eco‑consciousness and sustainability. Similarly, in the era of unrestrained distribution of digital content, it's the local pub heroes who have found themselves at the centre of the music industry's evolution. So perhaps it's not surprising to see local recording studios beginning to organise themselves around their narrowly native music cultures. Two such groups — Chicago's EARS and the Philadelphia Recording Community — are harbingers of how US studios are participating in the localisation of the recording industry.
EARS (the Engineering And Recording Society) was formally founded in 1986, and flourished until the late 1990s, when a combination of retirements, deaths and a turbulent economic landscape for studios and the music business left it withered and virtually dormant.
However, the concept came roaring back to life in 2008, just as Chicago's music scene was beginning to crest. Grammy‑nominated producer and studio entrepreneur Johnny K had settled in at his Groovemaster Music complex, which also is home to mixer Craig Bauer's (Kanye West, John Legend) Hinge Studios. Led by EARS president and Joyride Studios owner Blaise Barton, and Hinge manager and organisation Vice President Reid Hyams, EARS today has 160 members — a 400‑percent increase over EARS's membership at its height in the 1980s.
Hyams attributes the renaissance in local studio activity to a burgeoning music scene in the city, and the subsequent influx of outside artists drawn by the city's talent base, which EARS helps promote (Black Eyed Peas and Los Lobos are just two out‑of‑town artists to use Chicago's facilities recently). Combined with a more pragmatic perspective on the part of the industry, with the major record labels and their budgets now all but decimated, the fortunes of local studios depend on how the music business evolves locally.
"It's all gone over to independents now — artists, labels — and very much local,” says Hyams. "There was a time when everyone thought they had to go to Seattle or to Austin or to Minneapolis for music. It seemed you always had to go somewhere else. Now that music is everywhere all the time, we've realised we have to create our own scene where we are.”
The Philadelphia Recording Community, meanwhile, is deliberately named plainly because, says one of its founders, it's growing organically rather than as a planned community. "The mission is kind of evolving,” says George Hajioannou, owner of local pro‑audio retailers Studio Logic Sound. What began with 20 studio owners and engineers in a back room of a South Philly pub in 2010 quickly grew to over 50 in less than a year. They meet monthly at a member studio to discuss business issues and new gear, and are driven by the city's own new indie class, as well as local icons like hip‑hop powerhouse Ruffhouse Records (Cypress Hill, Kris Kross, Fugees, Lauryn Hill).
The organisation has come up with a few novel ideas, including holding 'house concerts' at a local studio, introducing local bands to both the facilities and to the idea of recording in a studio "instead of an Mbox in someone's bedroom,” Hajioannou says archly. Another recent event saw a visit by a local legal expert on copyright protection, who alerted members to the fact that Russian and Asian websites are pirating members' music globally. "The amazing thing is that we have so many resources right here in Philadelphia,” says Hajioannou. To the point, say both Hajioannou and Hyams, no members of their local associations are also members of SPARS, the nationwide Society of Professional Audio Recording Services. "SPARS is fine, but we know our needs better locally,” says Hajioannou, who adds that Philly's organisation charges no membership dues and can be brought together with a few emails, phone calls and Facebook pings.
SPARS executive director Paul Christensen concedes that the national association has become less effective over time, a brand "somewhat tarnished by neglect”. Formed 31 years ago, it's gone from a membership high in the 1990s of about 350 to the current roster of 150. Christensen says he understands the attraction of the local level, but feels that a national organisation can complement rather than compete with it, acting as an information resource. To revamp the organisation for the new economic landscape, SPARS have dropped their membership dues for all types of members. Individuals, for example, will now pay $99, down from the previous $450, and studios now pay $150 for facility membership.
SPARS is launching a new website that will also link to Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds, and they are reviving certain local monthly meetings, such as the one incoming SPARS President Kirk Imamura hosted on VOIP technology at his Avatar Studios. "Like everyone else in the music business, we have to change and re‑evaluate what our mission is,” says Christensen.