As the role of studios changes, so too must that of the new generation of studio managers.
At the recent Winter NAMM Show, I spent more time at the education and training events than I did on the show floor. Consider it an endorsement of NAMM’s enhanced commitment to broadening the instructional component to more comprehensively address pro audio. But one of the TEC Track panels in particular proved to be both a welcome addition and also a disappointment.
‘Operating Cathedrals of Sound: Studio Managers’ panel’ had the right voices on stage: this putative discourse on recording studio management was moderated by Candace Stewart of EastWest Studios and featured managers Paula Salvatore of Capitol Studios, Amy Burr of Larrabee Studios and Rob Goodchild of United Recording Studios. And they began auspiciously, invoking the name of the supreme goddess of studio management, Rose Mann Cherney, recently retired from helming the Record Plant. Unfortunately, though, the discussion tended to emphasise the known challenges rather than the fundamental reimagining of the commercial recording studio and its management that the future seems to be demanding.
There were some enjoyable moments, such as the revelations that Neil Young prefers Calvin Klein underwear, and that the old staple of excessive-artist syndrome, the segregation of the brown M&Ms, remains firmly in place. But listening to this panel made it sound as though little has changed in recent years. This may have been due in part to the fact that all of the participants work in well-established facilities in the LA area. As we noted in a recent column, LA studios have weathered the ongoing real-estate juggernaut better than their counterparts in New York or Nashville. But management of recording studios these days needs to take its cues from the corporate notebooks of Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley, as well as from the burgeoning art scene. The multi-room studio as a place solely dedicated to music production is a quaint notion today, when studios show up as backdrops for TV commercials, with presenters leaning on consoles whose LEDs were configured by a lighting director instead of an audio engineer.
One reason that studio management seems so stuck in the past is that it’s rarely considered part of the education curriculum. The larger pro-audio academies pay it lip service but little more. Full Sail’s ‘Get In Media’ blog, which outlines career tracks that its current and prospective students can traverse, does as good a job as any at explaining the role, and to its credit, it acknowledges the more labourious aspects of its study, such as coursework in accounting, finance, marketing, and business administration. But if you’re going to pay $60,000 in tuition fees, it’s likely better spent learning to manage a hedge fund rather than a recording studio.
Studio management has become more of a science, with more software, such as StudioFiles StudioStation, StudioDix, Studio Suite 9 and StudioHelper to assist in getting through the quotidian stuff. Wouldn’t it be interesting, though, to see the role expanded more deeply into a creative pocket? Studios have already begun transitioning into event spaces, for both music and non–music–related activities. In many ways, the panel’s reference to ‘Cathedrals of Sound’ unintentionally reminds us how many of the actual cathedrals in Europe (and to some extent the US) are being repurposed for a range of uses: driven, as are studios, by economic need, but usually without the loss of their original mission. The conventional multi-room studio has to rethink itself from the inside out, and who better to do that than a new generation of managers who aren’t mired in the past?
The modern studio manager will have to be rainmaker and meteorologist: a visionary thinker who also has to acknowledge the vicissitudes of the present. This is the kind of skill set that can be taught and fostered — it’s done every day in MBA programmes — and the pro-audio schools are a good place to develop them. My friend Chris Davie, a principal in the Sonority Group, a consultancy to media-education schools and former VP at the SAE Institute, agreed, adding: “Very few graduates walk out the door into studio management gigs unless they’re starting their own studio, and in that situation, solid business and entrepreneurial courses are extremely beneficial. It would be interesting to see how many graduates of music-business programmes end up in studio management positions, considering their focus is not audio engineering but business.”
What might be more difficult is getting that next generation to see the possibilities. When the Q&A came up at the end of the panel, the first question from the audience asked what an engineer should do if they don’t like the music their client is making. After a stunned moment or two, a level-headed engineer in the audience turned around and set the fellow straight, pointing out that that the engineer is there to help the client realise his or her musical vision, not pass judgment on it. But it further derailed what had been a somewhat tangential discussion, avoiding the real central issue: yes, managing a studio in the current economic environment is a challenge, but the real solution lies in reinventing what can be done with and within a recording studio.
Some possibilities were alluded to during the panel, such as Paula Salvatore’s comment that Capitol are bringing in more film mixing work that utilises Dolby’s Atmos system. But take that a step further: as online music distribution services like Spotify move towards video distribution as well, studios have to get ahead of that trend and become the hubs for the vast amounts of new AV content being generated by and for these new distribution channels, like Netflix and Amazon.
The commercial studio is undergoing an enormous fit of disruption, one that’s going to take it down some even more unconventional paths in the future. The studio manager who can thread that needle is the one you want in that chair.