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Off The Record: Label-based Studios

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published February 2017

The glory days of Abbey Road and EMI may be gone, but labels and studios are still working hand in hand.

It may seem quaint now, but recording studios directly and wholly owned by record labels were the norm for the better part of a century. The business model made sense well into the late 1980s: recording equipment was expensive to purchase and maintain, and required significant expertise to operate. By owning the studio, the label not only controlled its scheduling but also had a tight rein on production costs. This model led to some of what became the classic ‘temples of sound’: the RCA and Columbia studios in New York, Nashville and LA; EMI’s far-flung empire from Abbey Road in London to Studios 301 in Sydney; Atlantic’s studios in New York and Fantasy Records’ facility in Berkeley. The model scaled well at the mom-and-pop level, too, serving early indie ventures like Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studios in Memphis, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records and its studio in Detroit, and Fred Foster’s Monument Records and its studio in Nashville.

Off The Record signature image.That all changed by the 1990s. Labels in cities with intense real-estate markets found their studio holdings to be worth more as condos and office buildings than as studios. As online sales and piracy undermined revenue and profits in the early ‘00s, even LA- and Nashville-based labels let go of their production properties. Under pressure from the wave of lower-cost (but powerful) digital technology, record labels everywhere began to realise that owning their own facilities made less and less economic sense. Certainly since the beginning of the new century, that’s been the dominant model: instead of giving their artists time in their studios, the labels were giving them production budgets and saying, in effect, “Bring me back a record.” The remaining exceptions are few, such as Capitol Records Studios in Hollywood and, of course, Abbey Road, though both of those function as prestige properties as much as they do recording studios, and both have had real-estate developers breathing down their necks in recent years.

This century has also seen a tremendous proliferation of record labels, almost all independent ones, often catering to specific genres, and often with very small rosters. It looks not terribly unlike what the business landscape for making records must have seemed like 80 or so years ago, but with way more inputs. Except this time, the economic imperatives that drove the RCAs and EMIs of the 20th century have been replaced —or perhaps we should say reordered — by the availability of both recording technology and technical/creative talent. Both of those elements are important — powerful gear is readily available for a relatively small investment but, thanks to several generations of audio academy graduates, so is the ability to use it to its maximum potential.

Next Generation

A small but interesting new generation of label-based studios leverages the accessibility of both the technology and the talent to run it. Pairings like New York’s Downtown Records (the Cold War Kids, White Denim, and others) with Downtown Studios, and Nashville’s Average Joes label (specialising in alt-country artists like Colt Ford and Montgomery Gentry) with Keystone Studios, illustrate a refreshing revival of synergy between label and studio.

Others, like Daptone Records in Brooklyn (profiled in SOS for their work with Amy Winehouse) and Spacebomb Records in Virginia, have at their cores a group of musicians who act as studio and touring support for a label’s artists (something they have in common with American Studios in Memphis in the 1960s). Each of these labels has its own studio that serves as the hub for development and production.

Zach Hancock, Downtown Studios’ manager, points out that the relationship between the studio and the label has changed since they were created in 2006, but that the facility continues to share ownership with Downtown Music, a huge publishing concern that he says benefits from a similar symbiosis to how the studio related to the label: a facility predictable in its availability, its capabilities and its costs. “A [label-related] studio is a device that can lower production overhead and add value to a label’s roster,” he explains.

At Average Joe’s Keystone Studios, the studio manager and head of engineering there, Michael Zuehsow, says studios like his fall under a still-unnamed rubric between that of personal/project studio and traditional commercial facility, both of which are abundant in Nashville, and which, ironically, may be a prime motivator for creating a mezzanine category. With personal studios often limited in terms of time and technology by the needs and preferences of their owners, and commercial studios often unavailable at short notice, Zuehsow says a label-based studio can offer a high level of technology and service with the label treated as a primary client.

“The artists aren’t limited in where else they can go to record, and the studio isn’t limited only to the production company’s artists, but we’re always here as the main recording resource for the label,” Zuehsow explains, adding that the studio (located very near Nashville’s municipal zoo, where Zuehsow says he can occasionally hear monkeys chattering) is run autonomously and has its own P&L accounting. When the studio is not booked for recording by either in-house or other clients, it’s used as a backdrop for videos and artist interviews. “It’s a Swiss Army knife,” he says. “It’s designed to do a lot of different types of projects in addition to recording. The label had been outsourcing a lot of work before this, and now it knows it can have a studio available when their artists and producers need one. The studio knows it has an anchor client but it can take work from other clients at other times. It’s a comforting equation.”

No one expects record labels to once again capitalise major recording facilities; the economic rationalisations for that are long past. But the synergy a growing number of them have found in maintaining their own studios is a reminder that it’s an arrangement that can make sense for more of them, and that while charity begins at home, records don’t always have to.