Just as music and technology have been converging, so have studios and the tech industry.
Ever since music production began its migration into private spaces, anxiety has surrounded the future of the large studios that once dominated the industry. However, we’re starting to see one very interesting trend emerge: the studio complex as tech-business incubator. Two of the most iconic brands in music production in London — Abbey Road and Metropolis — have established their own hothouses intended to develop new technologies, platforms and businesses. In the US, Fort Knox, a sprawling rehearsal and recording facility in Chicago, is also following that track, with an announced 75 member companies occupying development, co-working and office space there, a year after launching its 2112 ‘incubator division’.
Incubators have become deeply embedded in the culture of technology. California’s Silicon Valley and New York’s Silicon Alley are dotted with companies like Y Combinator, AngelPad, Gust, Astia and General Assembly that will toss seed money and coaching at a seemingly endless array of start-ups. In some ways the scenario looks more than a little like the old major-label model, where companies would take chances on fledgling artists, funding the first few records and sticking with them to see if they could develop momentum of their own.
Abbey Road calls Red its “open innovation department”: thus far, it has spawned 3D headphone makers Ossic, cloud-based mastering service CloudBounce (see article in this issue), and Titan Reality, who develop gesture-based musical interfaces, among others. A stint at Red is intended to last six months, in which time one’s ideas are expected to prove their market viability. Abbey Road’s return for their nurturing is a 2 percent equity stake in the venture plus an option to invest further, at market value, in the future.
2112, the tech eccaleobion at Chicago’s Fort Knox, assembled 75 members in just over a year, occupying a physically interactive space that’s similar to the multi-room studios of yore, where serendipitous interaction in lounges created artistic synergies that ended up on tape and later in the bins in the record shops. In this case, the hope is that they end up on a smartphone: companies like UpNext and Volcanos For Hire are developing music-discovery and other app-based products. Scott Fetters, director of 2112 (it’s named after the power trio Rush’s 1976 concept album), says the huge space is designed for the kind of collaboration that tech germination requires.
“It’s about relationships,” he told me. “We’re providing a community in which they can interact, as well as providing mentorship and access to potential investors.”
Ian Brenchley, CEO of the Metropolis Group, was a tad more lyrical, admitting that he has, “a romantic notion [of Metropolis] as the Motown for the new millennium”. Even Berry Gordy would have been impressed by what Brenchley and key backer Kainne Clement have done with the place, which also houses the studio’s record label and which, Brenchley says, now generates more revenue than the studios themselves.
Like tech itself, Metropolis has gone global, lending its brand and expertise to a huge orchestral studio in Doha, which he says will act as a gateway for music and technology into Asia and Bollywood. Considering that Metropolis came out of bankruptcy/administration barely three years ago, it also exhibits the resilience characteristic of tech start-ups.
Interestingly, all three of these start-up nests also share an education-business component. Kainne Clement, Metropolis’ main principal, is also the executive chairman of the Academy of Contemporary Music, a music and technology school that uses the London studio for some of its production classes. Abbey Road have also gone into the education business, with some former SAE veterans establishing the Abbey Road Institute last year. Fort Knox houses two craft schools, one for stagehands and set designers, and the other for classical-music instruction.
In all three cases, the education component is at least tangentially related to the facilities’ main businesses: Fort Knox’s rehearsal studios provide opportunities for staging and rigging training, while Metropolis and Abbey Road may or may not take in an intern or two upon graduation from their programmes. But the education aspect may also be an important part in the progression to tech incubation: it acts as a kind of graduate school, an intermediate step between germination and realisation, while simultaneously providing studios with a new source of revenue and broadening a facility’s traffic and profile in its region. But perhaps most importantly, it introduces the idea that the studio itself must be fluid in its vision in order to survive. Yes, they were built to make great music, but times and circumstances change, and the studio and its sense of self has to adapt.
Of course, tech is as mine-laden a path as music these days; according to the Startup Genome Report, 92 percent of tech start-ups fail within three years, a number roughly equivalent to the failure rate for new artists on major labels. But since studios are already in a high-risk business, and technology has become so integral to music, the incubator route seems to make sense whether or not a studio decides to pass through an education phase.
But what they will have to be aware of is that, as with education, tech incubation isn’t something you grasp at as a last resort. It may be related to making records but it’s also an entirely separate enterprise that requires its own knowledge and market insight. The good news — if it is that — is that there may be as many people out there who fancy themselves the next Travis Kalanick or Mark Zuckerberg as there are would-be Mark Ronsons or Shellbacks. With an ascendant generation brought up on the notion that music is a subset of technology, and that both are creative and cool pursuits, what these few studio facilities have latched on to may be one of the more viable roads for the future.