Last year was the third straight year of growth for the global record business, with music sales up from 2016 by over 8 percent, to $17.3 billion, according to the annual report released in April by IFP, which represents the recording industry worldwide. Streaming was at the heart of those figures, with digital revenues accounting for the first time for just over half of industry income around the world.
“We’re in a renaissance now,” says Glenn Swan, manager and director of music production for Premier Studios in New York City. Premier, which encompasses four rooms, two acquired from Quad NYC in 2010, and rents an entire floor to songwriter/producer Gregg Wattenberg of Wind-Up Records fame, boasts a client list of chart-toppers from Beyoncé and Bieber to, well, think of a popular artist.
Premier’s rebirth is partly due to the industry’s recent turnaround, but also the loss of the city’s facilities, largely to property developers. “Now that there aren’t many options for places where people can work, we’re a lot busier,” he says.
Filling the vacuum, smaller studios are popping up. “They’re taking business away from me, but we’re still doing well despite that,” says Swan, who reports that Premier’s rooms are busy around the clock.
State of the Industry 2017: Recording, by Strother Bullins, Oct. 22, 2017
State of the Industry 2017: Live Sound, by Clive Young, Oct. 24, 2017
State of the Industry 2017: Post/Broadcast, by Steve Harvey, Oct. 23, 2017
In the Midwest, Sarah Hamilton, music studio manager at Chicago Recording Company (CRC), reports consistent business over the past decade, buoyed every summer by major-label acts booking time while in town for the Lollapalooza and Pitchfork festivals. That said, the number of album projects has increased, she says. “I’ve seen an uptick. We just worked with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which put out three new albums and was here for a couple of weeks. And we have a client, Chance the Rapper, who does all his albums out of here.”
Streaming is helping the business, Hamilton believes. “Anything that helps make the artists more money comes back to us. We’ve been busier this year than last year. This week alone, all four music rooms are booked for at least one session every day, and three of them are locked out all week.”
The Bay Area, in contrast, has long been a secondary music market, but Oakland’s 25th Street Studios has few complaints. By focusing on artists in the community, not just larger-label acts, “my calendar has been booked seven days a week, all day and night, for three or four years,” according to general manager John Schimpf.
The inundation of the Bay Area by technology companies has caused property values to skyrocket, forcing artists to flee, says Schimpf, who has seen neighborhood art galleries close and musician friends decamp for Los Angeles. “But the mayor [Libby Schaaf] was by our studio recently; she has hired someone specifically to make sure that artists can survive in Oakland,” he reports.
One way to boost studio revenues is to diversify. At Premier, says Swan, he offers one-on-one workshop sessions with working engineers, producers and mixers. “We’re not trying to be a school,” he stresses. “We’re giving people an opportunity to do Q&A sessions at their convenience,” typically in the morning hours before the studio’s clients start to roll in.
CRC, founded in 1975, also has a significant audio post-production division, notes Hamilton, that is pondering a move into VR work. “And we’re looking into creating an online mixing service, something more affordable for demos and smaller projects,” she says. A couple of local colleges hold classes at CRC, and the Fox TV drama Empire comes by occasionally: “They shoot here a couple of times a year,” she reports.
When 25th Street opened in Oakland’s Uptown district in 2012, it was outfitted with top-shelf gear. Owner, artist and engineer David Lichtenstein had been a serious collector for years. The two-room facility has settled into technology that is both functional and useful, Schimpf says. “If there’s any equipment in the rack that doesn’t get used for more than six months, I pull it out and replace it.”
The preference is for uncomplicated signal paths, he continues. “Very simple equipment like LA-2As and 1176s. And we’ve got Retro Audio, which we love. If we can take an original U47 into a V76 into a Fairchild, it’s the minimum number of knobs—and it doesn’t get any better.”
Most artists see the equipment and are impressed, and understand they are being well taken care of, he says, but it’s not a deal-maker. “They just want to get rolling and get their music down, so it’s our job to work quickly.”
Premier’s two large-format mixing consoles have seen plenty of action over the years. “We’re considering getting rid of one of our SSL 9000 J consoles,” Swan says. “It’s so old and in such poor shape that it’s costing a lot to keep it going. We’re thinking about replacing it with a new SSL Duality, or maybe a Neve Genesys, which is a great-sounding small-format console.”
Then there’s the never-ending cycle of maintenance and upgrades that any studio faces. “In November, we’re going to upgrade the computers, if they announce the new Macs. If they don’t, then we’ll wait,” says Swan. “However, we’re going to upgrade to the latest version of Pro Tools and we’re going to upgrade all the plug-ins to the latest versions. And we’re going to get rid of our old I/Os and upgrade them to new I/Os.”
“We’re always upgrading the rooms to the newest versions of everything,” says Hamilton. “There’s always stuff coming out that we’re trying to keep up with—but that’s part of the fun, getting to play with all the new audio toys.”