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Running A Commercial Studio

A Creative BusinessPhoto: WeTheDee/StudiOwz

Many of us dream of setting up a recording studio. But where do you start — and what’s it really like to run one as a commercial business today?

We’ve often shone our spotlight on the world’s top recording studios, treating you to gorgeous pictures of great spaces and high‑end gear, and recounting tales of sessions with big‑name artists. In every country, though, there are also numerous smaller commercial studios that may not achieve Abbey Road levels of fame or income but succeed in making their owner‑operators a living. I run such a studio in Cambridge, UK.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I can develop the business so that it remains relevant in the years to come, and decided I’d pick the brains and experiences of some other studio owners in different parts of the UK. They’ve developed different approaches to their businesses over the years, and I found plenty in our conversations to mull over — and if you have dreams of running a studio as a business, I hope you will too. You can find out more about each studio in the boxes that appear in this article, so let’s dive in and explore the reality of running a studio as a creative business in 2023.

Dreams & Reality

Nobody in their right mind would go into the recording studio business today to make their millions! So I was curious to learn how and why these studio owners ended up doing what they do, and what motivates them to keep going. For Pete Fletcher of Black Bay Studios, the motivation is clear: “I love making records. It’s thrilling, rewarding and challenging. Making an album in a big studio in a crazy location is many musicians’ idea of ‘living their best life’, so it’s incredible getting to share those experiences with people... though there’s some pressure in that too; you want to get everything right for people!”

But why set up a studio instead of working freelance elsewhere? “When I started to take the idea of being an engineer more seriously there were limited opportunities for me to work in commercial studios, so I pursued a DIY approach: basically, rehearsal rooms with some basic equipment in the corner. What I have now has grown from there over many years, through various spaces in Nottingham and then, eight years ago, to the Outer Hebrides to follow a ‘residential studio by the sea’ dream.”

Owain Fleetwood Jenkins, owner of StudiOwz in Wales, also forged his own path: “After four years studying music and technology in Birmingham, I applied to 30‑plus studios for work as an assistant engineer. I had zero responses, so decided to pave my own way. I began recording local bands with the limited equipment I’d started to collect. After a few years, word spread and I was working on bigger and bigger records.” Now, he said, “we’ve built a studio that inspires me to make the records I want to make, in the way I want to make them. I truly enjoy working and living with bands in our residential space. Constantly meeting new, wonderful and talented people is a joy to call ‘work’.”

Boe Weaver, aka Jim (left) and Rob Holmes.Boe Weaver, aka Jim (left) and Rob Holmes.Photo: WeTheDee/StudiOwz

The Holmes brothers at Empire Sound on the Isle of Wight started their original studio off the back of an old band project, recording themselves before going on to record other people. Jim was pretty blunt about why they do it: “It’s not the money! I think there can only be one good answer to that question... we genuinely love recording music. I think you have to!” He added that “we have always enjoyed getting a better result than an act was expecting. If you can also help them have a great time while they do it then that’s our goal; the music industry will add its own stresses and pressures soon enough and, as much as possible, we try to keep our clients away from that world whilst recording music with us.”

Dan Cox of Urchin Studios in London also loves making records, but the variety appeals too: “Running a recording studio means every day is different! One day you’re mixing, the next you’re engineering a band, the next you’re setting up with another producer for a vocal session. This is a people business, and hearing each and every artist’s story is part of what makes it so worthwhile.” Yet, all of the owners were clear that their studio must be more than a creative indulgence, and Dan put it succinctly: “Anyone who runs their own business knows that it’s a huge commitment and a lot of responsibility. The fact we’re in a ‘cool’ industry doesn’t take away from that. There’s tax, fire regs, company accounts, refuse collection, chasing invoices and all of that mundane stuff that’s a drain on time.”

Dan Cox (left) and Matt Ingram, of Urchin Studios, LondonDan Cox (left) and Matt Ingram, of Urchin Studios, London

Jim was also clear that: “100 percent, we have to think of running the studio as a business. At this stage in our career, we have no management helping us, so every single act that comes to Empire has been dealt with, chased and seduced by us!” For Pete, it’s very much a case of balancing the creative and business sides: “I was already several years into running my first studio as a limited company when someone referred to me as a business owner. It was a huge shock, and definitely not something I saw myself as. Now it’s much more like that, [but] I’m still, without doubt, running a business to be able to pursue making records as a career, not the other way around.”

Owain pointed out, though, that you can still allow room for individuals to focus on the creative side: “Mostly, I still see myself as a 15‑year‑old school kid on work experience, but hosting and running studio sessions has always felt natural to me. As far as invoicing, doing my tax return, and organising the calendar — the things I call ‘adult jobs’ — not so much. It’s not a one‑person show here. There’s a team of us ensuring things run smoothly, from booking bands and catering, to running the residential side.”

Not My First Rodeo

These guys all had previous experience before setting up their current businesses, and I asked how this had informed development of their new studios. “My previous studio”, said Owain, “really helped me concrete the idea of what my ‘dream studio’ would look like, and how it would function. I wanted to make sure I put things in place to make my day‑to‑day life a little easier — even down to the simplest things, like having plug sockets at your feet in the control room.” He explained that he’d cut his teeth running a studio in an old cow shed on his parent’s farm, where he developed his engineering skills and learned some of the realities of running a smaller‑scale studio. Whilst StudiOwz is on a much grander scale, Owain approached development of his ‘dream studio’ with a clear idea of what his clients would want: “We’re based in a beautiful rural location that will appeal to people wanting to get away from the city. It was essential to me, though, that the studio had that ‘wow’ factor that also delivered the goods once people got to work”.

Jim thinks of his previous studio as “a 19‑year‑long case study in what not to do! Don’t get me wrong,” he explained, “we did get many things right, but addressing our existing problems was not only cathartic but [also] a brilliant foundation for developing our new space. Some problems, line of sight for example, are a simple fix. It was more issues with the flow, layout and busyness of the space. We were keen for Empire Sound to be as streamlined as possible.” Another conscious choice was not having sofas or furniture that turned the control room into some kind of lounge/chill‑out space: “We stop short of telling people to stop looking at their phones, but we want to do what we can to make the control room a space where everyone is engaged in what is going on.”

Dan was also keen to address historical problems: “One thing we struggled with in the old studio was noise transmission between the two studios. In building a new complex of 11 rooms, we had to focus on getting that right. This meant getting one of the rooms to the point of being able to get a door on it, sticking a drum kit in there and then bashing the bejesus out of it to see what was spilling out into the next room! In the case of this test, it wasn’t initially quite up to scratch, so we ended up putting in additional walls to make the soundproofing as bomb‑proof, or drum‑proof, as possible.”

Pete explained that he’d wanted to retain the ‘heart’ of his old setup: “What was great about [my previous studio] First Love was that it was full of weird and wonderful instruments, and [had] a big live room and... an environment that bands felt comfortable in. That’s definitely something I’ve tried to bring through. Black Bay is the product of about 20 years of daydreaming about the perfect setup.”

Pete Fletcher, owner of Black Bay Studios.Pete Fletcher, owner of Black Bay Studios.Photo: Neelam Khan Vela

With any small business that runs out of a brick‑and‑mortar facility, it’s essential that the rent or mortgage, which is the biggest overhead, is not only affordable but also secure. Rented buildings can be the only viable option in expensive areas, in which case you’ll need some assurance that your landlord won’t suddenly put up your rent — this is something Jim experienced at his previous studio. “With our new space,” he told me, “it was essential for us to have some long‑term security. We took our time finding our current location and, whilst still renting, we found an affordable situation that we could feel confident investing in for years to come”. The team at Urchin had a similar experience, and Dan observed that “when we embarked on our new studio, we could only do so with the security of a long‑term lease that we felt was affordable over a number of years. We’ve put substantial investment into the new studio and it would have been crazy to do so without taking due care.”

Black Bay and StudiOwz are both in fairly remote locations, where suitable spaces are more affordable, and both Pete and Owain explained that they’d been able to buy their properties for relatively modest sums — but that even with a DIY approach it’s hard to underestimate the costs involved in building and fitting out a professional studio facility once you have the building, even before you consider the gear.