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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News
By Dan Daley

The aviation industry has more in common with the studio business than you might think...

In the same week in February, American Airlines and US Airways merged to form the largest air carrier in the US, and Allen Sides, who had owned his benchmark recording facility Ocean Way in Los Angeles for 35 years, sold the studio's assets to the Sunset Gower + Sunset Bronson group of film audio post-production facilities. There are some interesting parallels. The origins of both American and US Airways go back to the 1930s, the formative decade of passenger aviation, while Ocean Way's heritage extends to the 1950s and its founding by Bill Putnam — "the father of modern recording,” as Bruce Swedien once dubbed him. The Gower facilities have plenty of heritage of their own: Gower Bronson, founded in 1919 by Sam and Jack Warner (the Warner Brothers), was the cradle of Vitaphone, the sound company that recorded and sync'ed the soundtrack to The Jazz Singer, regarded as the first 'talkie.'

Sea Change

The Ocean Way sale suggests that the wave of consolidation that has swept through all industry sectors in the last decade, and which has reduced the once dozen or so major labels that used to comprise the record business to a mere three, is extending itself to the engine room of the record business as well.

This is probably a good thing. Consolidation is symptomatic not of turmoil and downturn but of renewal and retrenchment. As has been noted in these pages more than once, old studios rarely just die. Rather, they become other studios, and now they're becoming multiple studios with fewer owners. It's been going on for a while; the acquisition of Legacy Recording Studios (formerly Right Track) by Manhattan Sound Recording (formerly Sound On Sound, a popular name but no relation to this publication) in 2009 is a good example. The phenomenon isn't limited to music recording: in the audio post-production world, several large facilities have merged or absorbed one another in the last decade.

This kind of trend is evolutionary, not revolutionary. When revenue bases shrink, as is the case with music, due to piracy and decreased sales, or costs climb to the point where they overtake profit margins, as has been the case with airlines for a decade, thanks to fuel costs, consolidation is a useful strategy for fighting back. It will mean loss of jobs — merging companies save money by eliminating redundancy in core areas like accounting and maintenance — but that's still preferable to a company going completely out of business.

Plane Sailing

This leads to questions about how consolidated companies can best serve the clientele of the new economic landscape that precipitated the consolidation in the first place. That's one area where the airlines, as dodgy a business as that's been for a long time, have a bit of a leg up on the music production business. Not everyone can afford to fly private, and it costs a lot of money and certain skills to become a pilot. On other hand, anyone can have their own recording studio, and some days it seems as if that's exactly what's happened.

The proliferation of the boutique studio facility, while not a new phenomenon, was accelerated by the shift away from major labels being the financial foundation of the studio business, towards indie musicians becoming the focus. In the good old days, a large traditional facility might have had five artists record there that were all on, for instance, Columbia Records. The reality is that the studio didn't have five clients, it had one — the label. That birthed a mentality among large facilities that's been understandably but regrettably difficult to dislodge now that the major labels aren't paying like they used to. Today, nearly every artist is a self-funded client. And just as we're now at the point where we've had an entire consumer generation raised on the notion that music is, to one extent or another, free, we're also in the midst of another generation that sees the music industry not as a monolithic entity with lots of money — a machine that one needs to find a way into and once there everything is taken care of — but as a warren of DIY possibilities where you have to take care of yourself. What if the big legacy studios could become more indie friendly?

That involves more than adjusting rates (nature seems to taking care of that anyway). Rather, studios could partner with independent musicians within the increasingly dense web of online services that are offered to them (everything from Tunecore to CD Baby to BandsInTown to Taxi). One could take a leaf out of the music conference organiser's book, which offers musicians the slim hope of making some sense out of the Babel of services — and putting together a conference and inviting Ted Cohen to speak has become just about the only reasonably certain way to make money in music.

Next Stop...

If your studio became not only a place to make records but also a kind of refuge that helped to guide independents through this new landscape, you could have a friend, and perhaps a client, for life. One person on staff or allied with the studio that can assemble a reasonably encyclopaedic knowledge of these services, as well as some savvy with social media, could be the 21st Century equivalent of having your own EMI plate 30 years ago.

The things that differentiated large studio facilities for decades can now be had for a few bucks as plug-ins. The real currency of the new music-business landscape is knowledge, not of signal path, but of an industry still looking for workable business models. To riff off of the classic punch line of the studio business these days, you're already running a non-profit organisation — what have you got to lose?    

Published April 2013