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Off The Record (US Edition Only)

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published June 2011

When is a studio not a studio? When it's a venue, a nightclub, or a yogic meditation centre... We talk to some recording facility owners who've found more diverse ways of using their space.

In an era when entire records are made on laptops and mixed on smartphones, what is a recording studio? Some facility folks are rethinking their spaces for the changing music business.

One night a month, something unusual happens in the wood‑panelled tracking room at Westwood studios in Nashville. It's the place where producer Blake Chancey made hits for the Dixie Chicks and Gretchen Wilson, and before that his father Ron Chancey did the same with the Oak Ridge Boys and others. Now guests sit on overstuffed chairs and sofas and listen as performers take the stage for two songs each, while chic twenty‑somethings mill about, cocktails in hand. It might be an open‑mic night at a hip club anywhere in America. But most clubs don't get their audio mixed through an SSL 9000 console and recorded to a Pro Tools HD3 system.

Current owner and producer David Malloy (Eddie Rabbitt, Reba McEntire, Mindy McCready) and two partners are using the space for the cringingly‑named but consistently SRO Hootenanny that he's run at the studio one night a month since last summer. What began as a group of Malloy's friends getting together to hear intimate live music has turned into an industry showcase and insider hang — the courtyard on Hoot night is a swirling schmoozefest, where aspiring artists, songwriters and producers pass CDs around with whichever hand is not holding a Styrofoam cup of wine. The overflow has landed online, with more than 1400 people reportedly tuning in for the live streaming of the February showcase, with live chat.

This is the recording studio as an agora for talent — a marketplace and meeting place that gets the studio in on some of the action that has shifted to the live performance side of the business, as well as tapping some of the 'Idols' syndrome, with as many as two dozen performers using their eight to 10 minutes to make as much of an impression as possible. No-one's been signed yet as a result of their Hoot appearances, but label execs are regular visitors and there's the sense that this is just a matter of time — Malloy's vetting of performers replaces some of the filtering lost from decimated and under‑funded A&R departments.

But as importantly, the studio is marketing itself with every show. Yeoman musician/producer Billy Burnette, of Fleetwood Mac, stopped by a show last fall and ended up booking his next solo project at Westwood. It's also getting some early mindshare with young performers — the Teen Hoots that run periodically have some talent that make the Jonas Brothers look positively ancient — whom Malloy says are experiencing something that too many aspiring performers may never do: making music in an actual recording studio, as opposed to on the aforementioned laptop.

"The problem with recording studios these days is that they take up a huge amount of real estate — you have to multitask them for them to make economic sense,” Malloy says. "What this has managed to do is raise awareness of studios in general, and of this one in particular.”

Recording studios do host a variety of propositions beside music sessions. The Village Recorders in Los Angeles has movies and music videos to its credits, and it's the site of the Grammy Producers & Engineers Wing event each year during Grammy week, which is about the closest that the solder set gets to a black‑tie function, now that the TEC Awards are at NAMM. Several studios in Austin, Texas hosted events related to the SXSW conferences that took place there in March. Studios in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco collaborate with pro‑audio manufacturers to turn their rooms into party and event spaces when the annual AES Show comes around.

"There's really no down side that I can see to using a studio for something else, as long as it's something connected to music,” says Ellis Sorkin, owner of Studio Referral Service, a national booking service in the Los Angeles area. "There are so many studios that doing something like that makes you more than a face in the crowd, especially if the people who attend events are people who can become your clients. It's a positive — you're making yourself and your facility available to the community of producers and engineers and artists in your area, rather than being simply another vendor.”

I talked to more than a few studio owners who preferred not to discuss other ways their studios get used for hire (fashion shows, acoustical seminars and zomba dancing lessons are among some of those extracurricular clients they've had), and I understand and respect that. When you hear terms like "Cow Face” and "Extended Triangle” in the tracking room, you'd rather they referred to rappers or folky trios than yoga poses. But the recording studio underwent a massive redefinition in the early 1990s when the project studio arrived. It hasn't been the same since, and there's no reason to predict it will be in the future, either. Studio owners are a remarkably creative lot and they've found many ways over the years to reinvent their facilities. Better yoga on your terms so you can live to record another day.