AAt Olympic Studios in west London, the room where Jimi Hendrix recorded Purple Haze and where the Rolling Stones released most of six albums, you can currently sit down to watch Tom Cruise’s latest film. The building bbecame a cinema last yeararound the same time developers announced they were filming Townhouse Studios in Hammersmith – where Phil Collins composed that immortal drum track for In the Air Tonight and Pulp Different class – in apartments. A newspaper report published last monday suggested that the most expensive of these apartments could be yours for £2million.
Other famous sites – Eurythmics-owned Church Studios, Bob Marley’s beloved Sarm Studios – have flirted with full Where partial closure. Red House (Parklife) and the mansion workshop (Tubular bells) went years ago. To the casual observer, it may seem like UK recording studios are dying off, disappearing one by one like record stores.
Is that the case? As Observer Photographer Katherine Rose traveled the country photographing studios large and small, old and new, commercially run and privately owned, we spoke to some of the people who operated them. How are the changes in the music industry – declining album sales, shrinking album budgets – affecting them? With technology making production cheaper and less space intensive, were studios with a mixing desk still necessary? Still relevant ? Did they still expect to be open for business in two, five, ten years?
“There is a future,” says Nick Young, who heads the Miloco Group, its 52 studios including a converted car museum in Liverpoolone on Remote Island of Osea, Essexand a studio integrated into the hull of a boat moored on the Thames. “But studios have to be run extremely efficiently now. We tend to keep them constantly busy – high occupancy rates against low incomes. A top studio should charge £1,000 or £1,200 a day We get £450. Because that’s where the market is. That’s what the record companies are willing to pay.
Young wasn’t sure the situation was sustainable. “It’s probably going to hit a tipping point in the next couple of years. Unless the daily rates start going up, you’ll see more of them falling by the wayside…I’d say anyone who walks into recording studios now and invests in the genre amount of money needed to make a good studio, and expect it to be a business, would be crazy.”
Brian Young, who raced His CaVa in a converted church in Glasgow since 1974, agrees with Young that the pressure started about 10 years ago. “Mostly because the records weren’t selling anymore… Our numbers at CaVa are down now – but we’re still here.” Not too long ago CaVa had Paolo Nutini to work on an album, with the Paisley-born singer joining a rich line of Scottish artists who passed through the building’s “studio one”: the Proclaimers, Deacon Blue, Franz Ferdinand, Belle and Sebastian. “We are entering our 40th year,” says Brian Young. “It would be nice to be a lot busier, but who knows what’s around the corner.”
What’s around the corner? Smaller, more advanced, more affordable technology, inevitably. This begs a question: why pay by the day for a studio, when a laptop, Pro Tools software, a decent mic and a monitor mean quality recordings can be made almost anywhere? Young talks about the importance of “studio DNA” in the creative process. “We’ve got a real Hammond organ here. We’ve got Abbey Road gear from the mid-70s. There’s a pickup that everyone loves, worth an absolute fortune – because maybe the Beatles have used, who knows?”
Nick Keynes and Michael Harwood are part of a group of partners who lead Floor tile in north London, a vast complex of 70 rooms built in the 2000s on the site of a former industrial area. It houses, among others, the long-rented studios of Mark Ronson, Basement Jaxx and Ben Langmaid, until recently half of La Roux.
“You can make music wherever you want,” says Keynes. “With a laptop, you could do it on a bus. But to get something big? You need a room that sounds great. A room that’s acoustically treated. Isolated. You need an inspiring environment. .”
Keynes and Harwood were part of the 90s Ultra group together; they still feel a fondness for some of the old studios they used to work at. “Cork on the walls, with three engineers just to run the place and a tea boy.” Still, the two are skeptical of protecting famous old studios simply for “philanthropic” reasons, or because of the romance of singing into a microphone the Beatles might have once used.
At Tileyard, most studios are small, with room for a computer, a few bodies, and a handful of instruments. “Of the more than 70 studios here, there are only four with the old, big SSL consoles,” says Keynes. “And the old studios were all underground. We thought, ‘Why don’t we dare to put in natural light?’ You make art, so you want to be in a room that’s not damp, that’s not moldy, that you’re not going to get sick in… That’s the difference between a classic car and a car modern sports car. They’re both compelling in different ways. But when you’re driving a classic car, what I do, basically, is a bunch of shit.”
Where do these studio owners see their industry heading? Keynes and Harwood, busy expanding Tileyard, are optimistic. “Without technological advances [that allow a small studio to be built around a computer], our model would not exist. As a journalist, you might feel there is a negative image. I think we would say that just changed. We tried to accept this change.”
Meanwhile, Brian Young at CaVa has three bands booked for the coming weeks; the album Nutini is still in the top 10; he’s pretty happy with that. Miloco’s Nick Young thinks closing one or two more studios (“a clearer”) might even be a good thing, if it normalizes pricing.
In the meantime, he says, the stint will continue to be filled in the same way it has been for a decade. Finesse. Optimism. An affection defying all logic for music and the ways of recording it.
“People who work in studios generally love what they do,” he says. “It’s long hours. It’s antisocial. It’s unglamorous. They’re very passionate – and that’s what keeps it going.”