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’.”
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.”
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.”
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.
I asked the owners what they feel are the biggest challenges in running a studio today. For Dan, “it would have to be the day‑to‑day plate‑spinning. Our current setup is a far cry from our single‑room studio back in Limehouse in 2007. Some days there’s just a bit much on your plate... you’ve got a full recording session to do but also one of our tenants reports that the front door won’t open or there’s no toilet paper!”
Jim suggested that “location is our biggest issue. Although the Isle of Wight is a wonderful place to take a moment away from the real world and make a record, we don’t operate a residential studio and not everyone has the time to ‘get away’.” For those who do run residential facilities, the hardest aspects of studio life are probably not a surprise. Owain explained that they “have bands come and stay for weeks at a time. It’s hugely satisfying seeing all our hard work being used to make music, but it’s also a lot of hard work having people stay in our home — it really is an all‑consuming lifestyle!” Pete focused on some of the less obvious costs: “Our electricity bill is horrendous, particularly as our heating is electric. We have a really big space, which is amazing, but it all needs to be warm. Cleaning is a huge undertaking too. We have nine beds, three bathrooms and a kitchen... It’s about eight hours’ work to get the place turned around for the next clients, and I often feel like I’m running a B&B and not a studio!”
Studios of this size generally can’t afford their own maintenance engineer, and every one of the owners identified maintenance as a significant issue. Pete confided that “it’s actually a nightmare. We do a lot in‑house, but essentially everything is constantly in the process of being about to break at any moment. That’s true of old stuff, new stuff, expensive stuff and cheap stuff, and you do have to budget for it, particularly when you’re on a remote island in the Atlantic! I have three working pairs of massive power supplies for the desk, for example.” StudiOwz has lots of lovely classic gear from the ’70s and early ’80s and Owain told me that it “does have its drawbacks. At 40‑50 years old, it seems the time has come when a lot of that equipment needs upgraded parts or recapping, on top of regular wear and tear. I’ve always found it frustrating when renting other studios and the Hammond organ doesn’t work, or the pianos are out of tune... I promised myself I’d always keep on top of these things.”
To keep a lid on the costs, Jim at Empire said they’d “learned to do some of the maintenance ourselves, but with anything valuable or even slightly tricky we will send it to the best tech we can afford. We are obsessed with having everything working to its best level and, truthfully, we spend a good whack on maintenance every year.” The guys at Urchin also “do as much as we can in‑house, partly because it’s cheaper than hiring somebody else, but also because [we] find it enjoyable to learn new things, and developing these skills will hopefully help us keep the studios in good shape long‑term. Of course, things break that you can’t fix yourself... Off goes the AC30 to the amp doctor, again!”
Jim Holmes: You can have a world‑class recording chain with a single swipe of your credit card — you have to be able to offer something more than just nice equipment.
I was especially keen to hear what the owners believe are the most effective ways of attracting clients, and it all starts with being clear about what the studio offers. As Jim put it: “We live in a time where you can have a world‑class recording chain with a single swipe of your credit card — you have to be able to offer something more than just nice equipment. We’re passionate believers in ‘doubling down’ on what you’re good at genre‑wise, and not trying to create a studio or produce music that is necessarily suitable for everyone’s tastes. The best experiences we’ve had creatively and from a business point of view are when we have stuck to our guns and produced music how we like to make it.”
For Dan, the location is a crucial factor. “Hackney Wick is a thriving creative community in London, which is obviously one of the world’s major music cities. Putting our studio in the thick of this environment means we’re surrounded by like‑minded music‑makers and a creative community.” Location is important for Pete too, but for different reasons. “I think people come to us initially for an adventure... Our USP is the setting, so it was important for us to have large windows and generally make the studio feel part of where it is. Once here, they find a great studio and an environment that encourages creativity, and that’s what brings people back or leads to recommendations... People primarily use us as a tracking studio, so it was also important for us to have varied and good‑quality backline, such as guitar amps, pianos and interesting or fun keyboards for musicians to play and get inspired by.”
Owain made a similar point: “People are coming to a studio like ours to get away, get creative and record, not to mix or get into the super‑fine details.” He too touched on the gear: “Investing in backline was one of the best decisions we made from a business point of view, and we get clients booking our studio specifically to use our piano or Hammond.”
There then comes the question of marketing, and Dan explained that “networking is so, so important, especially with the studio being based in London... Getting out to gigs, music industry events and inviting people over to the studio is really important. Even if it’s music‑makers directly, you never know who’s got a friend that needs to make a quick demo, that results in them coming back six months later to record an album.” Jim explained that networking is rather more challenging on the Isle of Wight: “We have a network of people that we work with but we have to work hard to stay on the radar for labels and independent artists and encourage them to come over to ‘the island’ to work with us.”
Pete stressed that “making a great record is still the best marketing you could ever do... and a lot of people seem to have found us through the various projects that we have been involved in.” Jim concurred: “Being on a smaller island community means that word of mouth is everything: If you do a good job everyone will know — but this also works the other way around! We’ve learnt the hard way that you should only take a job if you feel you can achieve their goal and it’s important to treat everyone equally and never badmouth other clients. A good reputation is the golden goose.” Owain added: “There’s a saying that goes something along the lines of ‘you’re only as good as your last record’. I don’t think that’s strictly true, but it’s really important to remember that, whatever you’re working on, you need be excited, enthusiastic and working to the best of your abilities.”
Owain also discussed a different tactic. “The majority of marketing for the studio is through social media, but we do advertise in TIWN magazine, which is a free Welsh magazine.” I invited him and the others to share more about how they viewed and were using social media. “Using a really good photographer — ours is called WeTheDee — has helped when posting to my socials,” said Owain. “I think it’s important to maintain a presence to keep in the back of people’s minds. You can’t force people to come and record with you but, as long as they know you exist, when the time is right they might just reach out.”
While it’s less central to Urchin’s approach it’s still important, as Dan explained: “When we started the studio it was before social media had even taken off, so all we had was word of mouth and that still feels like our most important marketing tool. The big difference now is that if somebody hears of us in conversation, they will almost certainly check out our Instagram before getting in contact, so we do try to maintain an active presence.” Jim believes that “having a good presence on all the social media channels is important, but the most positive aspect that we have found from using these tools is that it’s a great way of reaching out, networking and generally looking for new opportunities.”
Few music studios will be fully booked all the time, and there will be times when you need to be elsewhere, doing other things. It makes sense to make that studio downtime productive if possible — there are plenty of potential avenues a studio would be well‑placed to explore, such as podcast production and live‑streamed gigs, and I was curious to know what, if anything, our studio owners were doing along these lines. What struck me most about all their responses was that the owners had chosen options that didn’t spread their time and skills too thin: occasional events, or long‑term sub‑lets and contracts that mean they don’t have to duplicate their efforts when it comes to things like marketing.
In a way, Urchin Studios were designed from the ground up to side‑step this issue, with multiple spaces being let out to other artists and producers. But Dan also explained that Urchin co‑owner Matt “has been running a drum recording workshop a few times a year, and I’ve been working with a mentoring scheme locally. They’re not things that supplement studio income directly, but they do mean new faces through the door and often that creates new leads for work.”
Owain, whose overheads in rural Wales are obviously lower, also values events that get people through the door: “When we first opened and had plenty of downtime, we would put on live concerts to an audience of around 35 people. Although this was a loss leader, it was very successful in securing new bookings for the studio and spreading the word”. Building the studio business in that way was a success, and Owain finds he can now focus largely on more traditional recording studio projects.
Pete at Black Bay also seems to have reached a level where he can focus on traditional music recording sessions, but said that they “do some workshop‑style songwriting camps, which are great fun and a good way of promoting the studio to musicians. I’m here to make records, however, and it’s easy to get pulled away from that.”
Jim at Empire Sound remarked that: “We have a pretty equal split between running the studio as a ‘for hire’ space and a place for us to work on soundtracks, scores and library albums, alongside our production work. We have a new relationship with the local music college that we’re excited about, however: they are taking a few days each month to incorporate using the studio for their degree and masters students, and it’s a welcome bit of fixed income for us.”
Finally, given the rate of change in the recording world, how do these studio owners see recording studios adapting in the future?
“There will definitely be technological [advances] in the next few years that may make some of what we do redundant,” said Dan, “but musicians still need collaborators and will always value great spaces to get together and focus... We do need to be adaptable, though, and to keep an eye on the way music makers are working.”
Owain felt “optimistic about the future of recording studios. We started out with analogue recording studios, then came digital, and now we’re in a place where we’ve combined the two. I think this relationship is only getting better and more exciting. I also see first‑hand the enjoyment people have from being here and I believe musicians will always search for that experience, time and time again. Coming to the studio is a special occasion.’’
Pete pointed out that “there’s more to making a record than just the mechanics of putting some parts down, and I think a studio and producer can elevate it to a place that is beyond what you imagined. A good studio provides inspiration (as well as a proper drum sound!). Who wouldn’t want to spend a couple of weeks making a record in a big studio?”
Jim also believes that “there will always be a market for recording facilities, but I think the ones that will survive will be the ones doing what they do very, very well. People aren’t going to pay for something they can do with an interface and a laptop — why would they? I am confident there’s still going to be a place for studios like ours though!”
Advice For New Studios
Could our studio owners offer some tips for anyone wanting to turn their studio startup dream into reality?
Owain posed a question: “Do you love it? I have a classic car and it’s my pride and joy. Someone once told me, referring to the car, that ‘you’d better love it, because if you don’t, with the amount of problems it’s going to cause you, you’ll end up hating it!’” Jim had similar thoughts: “The pressure and stress of any creative business can be a killer, and I think you have to be the right kind of person to run a studio... If you don’t like dealing with people — difficult ones specifically — then I’d avoid it entirely. You also have to love music, because otherwise it can be hard to justify the all‑encompassing demands on your time, and time away from family and loved ones.”
Dan advised that “it takes a long time to build up a client base. You work on some awesome music and you want to tell everyone about it, but the label doesn’t release it for another nine months! In the beginning, be prepared to have a side hustle, just to keep yourself financially afloat.” For those who remain undeterred by all these words of warning, Pete said to ask “what’s the building like? I’d be thinking about acoustics, basically: ceiling heights, layout etc. You can always upgrade a microphone but it’s hard to make a space sound amazing if it’s not a good starting point. The other question is ‘do you need your own studio?’ Hiring someone else’s space or partnering with an existing space can be a great option too.”
The studio also reflects how the duo like to produce music, with an emphasis on capturing musicians playing together, committing to sounds ‘on the way in’ and generally being bold when going for a particular vibe. The new studio’s live room is key to this approach. “The space we took on had originally been a studio of sorts,” said Jim, “and our original plan was to completely change the ceiling height and make other structural changes. We thought we should at least try out the room first, however, and immediately fell in love with how the room sounded... The goal then became subtly refining the room without ruining it!”
Run by engineer Owain Fleetwood Jenkins and his partner Jodie Marie, StudiOwz is a residential recording studio in Pembrokeshire, Wales. The main building is a converted Baptist chapel built in 1804, and it has a cottage next door that can accommodate bands and musicians. The conversion from derelict chapel to studio is a striking one, and as someone who’s done plenty of dry‑walling and building work in my own studio, I was hugely impressed to learn that Owain had, with the help of friends and family, dry‑lined the entire inside of this large space.
The studio adheres to the original shape of the building, but now includes a couple of isolated areas and a mezzanine‑style control room that looks out over the recording space. It’s a well‑thought‑out space for recording musicians, who seem to appreciate Owain’s decision to focus his early investment on acquiring an eclectic selection of backline and microphones, rather than filling endless racks with outboard. Owain’s vision was to create “an inspiring place” for bands, where they could “get away from everyday life and focus on recording their music”. Typically this sees bands and artists using StudiOwz for tracking and then taking away their projects to finish and mix in their own studios.
StudiOwz has now been open for four years, and these early decisions seem to be paying off: the studio is attracting a steady stream of bands and musicians from the larger English cities such as Birmingham, London, Liverpool and Manchester, who are making a choice to travel and ‘get away’ from their own environment to focus on recording a project.
Black Bay Studios
Situated in a former crab‑processing factory in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides islands, Black Bay Studios is one of the most remote recording studios in the UK. Indeed, owner Pete Fletcher describes it as a “residential studio at the end of the world”. It’s an impressive setting, and Black Bay seems to tick all the boxes for an ‘escape’ studio, offering comfortable, good‑quality accommodation, as well as a great studio.
The story of Black Bay’s inception and development offers a glimpse into the sort of issues you can encounter when chasing a studio dream like this. Pete explained that he ran a small studio in Nottingham for several years before his “partner got offered a job opportunity in Stornoway, the capital of the island of Lewis and Harris, and my thinking was that there’s bound to be some cool old building waiting to be converted into a studio there!” It took real ambition and dedication to get this project off the ground, though. On moving to the island in 2015, Pete drew on his existing client base to continue mixing and mastering in a small home studio, while he searched for the right building. The reality was far harder than he’d anticipated. “When it comes to investing all of your money into a project,” he told me, “you have to be able to step back and distinguish between ‘the dream’ and ‘reality’. It’s hard to underestimate just how remote we are here, and I was clear in my mind that this idea would only work if the studio was on a scale impressive enough to encourage people to come and record here.” Sadly Pete “didn’t initially have enough money to do that” but, rather than give up or blindly plough ahead, he researched possible sources of funding and, with hard work and perseverance, secured financial help from Scottish and EU schemes offering support to businesses in challenging locations. Setting up not just a studio but also the necessary accommodation plunged Pete into a world of permits and planning permission: it took him over a year to find the building and secure the necessary consents, and then another of building work before the studio could open in 2017.
The hard work and business‑minded decisions seem to be paying off, as the studio has gained a reputation to rival some of the most famous residential studios in the UK. They host a lot of bands from the big Scottish cities, but also from the wider UK and further afield, with clients from Europe and beyond. And well‑known producers, impressed by what Black Bay can offer, are now bringing acts in. It was also great to hear how the studio has been supported and welcomed by the local music community.
Engineer/producer team Matt Ingram and Dan Cox have run Urchin Studios since 2007, and the current premises in Hackney Wick, London is its third location. They moved here after the landlord of their previous home of eight years decided to sell up to a property developer; an all‑too‑common story for creative businesses in London! Happily, the new building inspired ideas for a different way of running and sustaining their studio business.
Today, Urchin is representative of many of London’s studio spaces, in that it has a main, traditional recording studio (Studio A, with a good‑sized live room featuring a drum isolation space, its own small toilet and chill‑out space), but also several separate, smaller ‘production’ studios that are rented out full‑time to professional musicians, engineers and producers. The interior is striking, with huge windows (which, fortunately, were already well soundproofed when they moved in!) flooding the building with daylight, and communal spaces helping to realise the pair’s vision for this studio as a music ‘hub’
With a recent nomination for MPG Recording Studio Of The Year under their belt, it seems the pair’s perseverance and hard work has got the third incarnation of Urchin Studios off to a great start!