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Page 2: Running A Commercial Studio

Biggest Challenge?

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.

Attracting Clients

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.”

On the subject of gear, more than one studio owner suggested that investing in a range of high‑quality instruments and backline was a greater attraction to clients than racks of tasty studio processors.On the subject of gear, more than one studio owner suggested that investing in a range of high‑quality instruments and backline was a greater attraction to clients than racks of tasty studio processors.Photo: WeTheDee/StudiOwz

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 Fleetwood Jenkins, owner of StudiOwz in Wales.Owain Fleetwood Jenkins, owner of StudiOwz in Wales.

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.”

Minimising Downtime

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.”

The Future

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.”

Empire Sound

Good live rooms are always a draw for musicians, and Empire have also focused on vintage gear.Good live rooms are always a draw for musicians, and Empire have also focused on vintage gear.

A Creative BusinessBrothers Jim and Rob Holmes own and are full‑time producers at Empire Sound, a recording studio on the Isle of Wight. They’ve run a studio together for 19 years, and I visited their previous one, which was situated in a Victorian water tower. In a sadly familiar story for creative businesses, a large rent hike in 2020 led them to relocate — but the silver lining was that the move gave them the chance to re‑evaluate how they saw their studio functioning. Empire Sound is now located in an industrial estate, and Jim explained that they like being inconspicuous from a security perspective, but that they also enjoy seeing the effect on clients when they walk through the studio’s doors into the “ridiculously stylised” environment, which has a minimal, vintage aesthetic.

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!”


StudiOwz’ tall former chapel building allowed Owain to create a stunning mezzanine control room.StudiOwz’ tall former chapel building allowed Owain to create a stunning mezzanine control room.Photo: WeTheDee/StudiOwz

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

With its fantastic view across the Outer Hebrides, it’s not hard to see the appeal of Black Bay’s residential studio!With its fantastic view across the Outer Hebrides, it’s not hard to see the appeal of Black Bay’s residential studio!Photo: Neelam Khan Vela

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.

Urchin Studios

At Urchin, a traditional main studio is joined by several smaller spaces, and benefits from plenty of natural light.At Urchin, a traditional main studio is joined by several smaller spaces, and benefits from plenty of natural light.

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’

.Urchin Studios

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!