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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published March 2011

Energy drinks makers Red Bull and sportswear company Converse have both recently opened their own recording studios. But what does this mean for artists and smaller recording facilities?

When you look overhead in many of New York City's residential neighbourhoods, sooner or later you'll see a pair of sneakers tied together at the laces hanging over a telephone or power cable. It's been a rite of passage for decades, celebrating graduation from grammar or high school — or maybe just bullying the weird kid. You know, the one who grows up to own his own Gulfstream V. The once‑gritty Williamsburg 'hood of Brooklyn is definitely one of the those areas that has seen plenty of sneakers dangling from utility cables over the years, and chances are they were Converse sneaks, the high‑top street basketball sleds that somehow retain their air of rebelliousness despite the fact that Converse are owned by the larger, more worldly Nike brand, whose 'swoosh' is one of the best‑known commercial logos. (Yes, we're going to get to audio in a minute.)

Williamsburg became the center of the hip universe during the '00s, as Manhattan became more overpriced (if that was possible) and the hipsters brought their Pro Tools with them across the East River. There are now enough little commercial and personal recording studios in the neighbourhood to service all of its Strokes manqués and Eno descendants playing guitar through their laptops, and then some. But what might become the biggest studio of them all in the 'burg isn't owned by some guys in plaid shirts, skinny jeans and wool knit caps — the standard‑issue uniform of the W‑burg hipster. No, rather it's owned by Converse, all 5200 square feet of it, fitted with top gear and available absolutely for free to any band or artist that Converse deems worthy of recording time, filtered via Cornerstone Promotions, an alt‑lifestyle marketing company and publisher of Generation Millennium favourite The Fader magazine.

Converse Rubber Tracks, as the facility is called, may be a lousy pun on recording technology and/or a mid‑period Beatles album title, but it's intended to be a legit music recording facility. It will have to be — Converse was beaten to the punch, so to speak, by energy drink makers Red Bull, who in 2007 built a huge studio fitted with an SSL 9K console in the company's Santa Monica HQ, and has since opened others in London, Cape Town and Auckland to support its own record label.

The implications of major corporations opening recording studios in US music centres are both real and symbolic, and often contradictory. While it's a marketing investment to Converse, putting what will have to be in the high six figures into building, running and promoting a recording facility in a city that has seen more studio casualties than one cares to count is disturbing to some. Studio rates are lower today than they were 20 years ago, eroded by dwindling label budgets and affordable recording technology, and the idea of a self‑liquidating studio business, to use a retail phrase, is becoming increasingly endangered. On the other hand, one more studio on the local scene could also mean more paying work for local engineers.

And then, much of this studio's constituency is going to come from a generation for whom music is supposed to be "free”. In a sense, Converse giving away studio time is simply an annoyingly logical extension of what's been happening to the economics of music for the last decade or so. The potential danger there is that free studio time could perceptually devalue the recording process in the same way that free file sharing has devalued music as a product.

Kirk Imamura, owner of Avatar, one of New York's anchor facilities, is wary of the Converse project because of its business model, but he wonders if it might simply stumble under the weight of all the bands that would understandably want in on it. "It would be cheaper for Converse if they just gave all the bands new shoes,” he deadpans. But Troy Germano, owner of Germano Studios in New York and co‑designer of Red Bull's studio in California, says: "People who are worried about this are worried about the wrong stuff. Helping the artists is what this is all about.”

Corporate support for music is nothing new. Companies like Starbucks have had their own record labels for years, and in the era of Live Nation and AEG Live there's hardly a pub that's not bannered with signage from carmakers and electronics purveyors. Partnering with artists to fund, distribute and promote music is nothing new. Partnering with them to actually make the stuff is novel. The Converse and Red Bull studios are perhaps the most hi‑tech manifestations of the re‑emergence of the arts patronage business model, which worked rather well during the Renaissance, and for lack of a better one might help get music, musicians, studios and engineers in the US through what's become an extended, systemic slump.