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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News
By Dan Daley

Home studios make it easier for musicians and engineers to work on their own — but is that always a good thing?

Marissa Mayer, who recently took over as CEO of Pleistocene-era Internet something-or-other Yahoo, made waves earlier this year, and not just because she's a serious babe running a tech Goliath in testosterone-fueled Silicon Valley. (She is, but that's beside the point.) Mayer has ended the company's longstanding and apparently grossly ineffective work-at-home policy. Yahoo employees now will have to come into the actual office to do actual work. While that's interesting for a lot of reasons, not least of which being the need to do something to get the attention of both Wall Street and the hordes of Yahoo employees who had essentially gone unilaterally on paid leaves, one sentence in Mayer's widely distributed internal memo caught my eye: "Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home.”

Corridors Of Perception

Where have we heard that before? Actually, it was more felt than enunciated, and felt strongly from the 1970s and well into the 1990s, when music production dwelt largely in multi-room studio facilities, where artists, producers, engineers, musicians and songwriters would bump into each other on breaks in lounges and parking lots — and, quite often, unexpected magic might take place. While no one went to work expecting serendipity to occur on schedule, it was part of the production culture when you worked in multi-room facilities — there were always going to be other people, like you, slightly crazy, under the same roof. We didn't have to explicitly express the possibility of fortunate happenstance; it was just part of the landscape. But now that we live in a culture in which the private/personal/project studio has become a dominant model, Mayer's action offers a contrast between the way things were and the way things have become.

You never knew who you would randomly encounter in the lounges. Mixer Bob Bulloch remembers working a session at Emerald Studios in Nashville, when William Lee Golden of the Oak Ridge Boys bumped into the Eagles' Joe Walsh, who wound up playing the solo on the track they were working on that day. They may also have exchanged hair-care tips.

Chance Encounters

Sometimes the outcomes of such interactions could be creative, other times they might be practical. Al Schmitt tells me, "Many times I'm working in one studio at Capitol and artists and producers see my gear and cases in the hall and say, 'Al would be perfect to mix this,' or 'Al would be great to record the strings or brass on this album.' This has happened so many times I could not count them all. That's one of the reasons I would never have a home studio — you get too isolated.”

The technology community at large is familiar with this interactive effect. "There's a great statement toward the end of the Steve Jobs bio where the writer talks about how he laid out the new Pixar building around a central courtyard,” recalls Eric Schilling, known for his work with Gloria Estefan and Jon Secada. "The idea was that, as people would take breaks from work, they would mingle amongst each other in this courtyard sharing ideas.”

This return to what the Greeks called the agora, the central marketplace, is becoming ubiquitous among the technocrati. At the SXSW conference that wrapped up this March, the Wall Street Journal reported that the "buzzword around the workplace panels was 'serendipity,' the importance of unexpected connections [...] The conference itself is designed to maximise serendipitous interactions,” with attendees "forced to look up from their screens and actually talk to one another. In a digital world, face time matters.”

CEO Mayer's edict to rein in Yahoo's geeky diaspora seemed to strike a chord among attendees at SXSW — the conference that seems to best combine geekiness and cooldom. One advertising firm there came up with the concept of a talking beer machine — a water cooler-type oasis designed to encourage interaction and socialisation — and a pair of MIT professors explained the Allen Curve, which represents how collaboration decreases in proportion to the distance between workers.

Antisocial Networking

The personal recording trend is not going to be reversed anytime soon — it's simply too deeply ingrained in the culture of music production now — but there is a larger and undeniable shift back towards physical interaction taking place in corporate, tech and other milieux. This trend undermines the concept (and name) of so-called social media, which, when it's not being used to hawk cure-all acai berry-juice elixirs, or post links to cat videos, often serves to present the illusion of connectivity while revealing how isolated we have actually become.

I have friends who had been enamoured with the novelty of making entire albums where each person works in their own little home studios, Dropboxing files to each other before they wind up at someone else's home studio for fixing and mixing — but the novelty wears off soon enough, replaced by a weird sense of being disconnected from the project. Booking any kind of commercial recording facility is a habit many people have simply gotten out of, but the multi-room facility is especially missed when it's not used, rendering the alchemy of random interaction unavailable. As Woody Allen put it, "Eighty percent of life is just showing up.” The multiroom studio is where "just showing up” can have the greatest effect.    

Published May 2013