Michael Kolar, Founder of SoundScape Studios (background) Photo: Courtesy of SoundScape Studios
The live music ecosystem has been devastated by the coronavirus, and every corner of the music industry has felt the devastating effects of the pandemic. Concerts could be canceled until 2021album release dates have been postponed or canceled, and the future of recording studios is a big unknown. Even before the pandemic, studios had been meet challenges due to the growing popularity, quality and convenience of home check-in, along with gentrification and rising rents, it has become more difficult to stay open. But with shelter-in-place orders and social distancing measures enacted across the country, studios have had to clear their schedules and turn away new clients.
“It’s not just that the schedule is cleared out in the studio, but all the records that we were working on on the label side are made in our studio. All the records that we were making and the things that we were supposed to be working on are affected by the studio being empty,” said Trey Pollard, co-owner of Richmond, Virginia’s Spacebomb, a recording studio, record label and production company. “Economically, the real recording studios that live and die when the schedule is full, I have no idea how they do. Spacebomb doesn’t work that way since our studio is for use of our label and our individual producers.”
While Spacebomb can focus more on business with its record label and can finish mixing albums already in progress remotely, smaller studios like Minneapolis musician Holly Hansen’s living room, which depends on new clients, face insurmountable challenges.
“I’m at the point where I don’t know if I should start thinking about closing. I have a month-to-month lease and I’m basically paying most of the rent out of pocket right now,” Hansen said. . “It’s unfortunate because it’s the only female-owned studio in Minneapolis that was open to clients. I was really excited about it because that never happened. I want to keep it open but I don’t know if I can.”
Engineers have turned to mixed projects they can tackle independently and backlogs of work they need to complete. “Everyone is affected, but not everyone is down to zero. I just happen to have a fair amount of remote work that I can do with mixing and mastering,” said Jack Shirley , a Bay Area-based engineer and owner of The Atomic Garden.
But all is not gloomy. Because much of their work can be done remotely, some audio engineers do well. “People will record stuff at home and then you can send it to a great engineer and a studio and they can take it to the finish line,” Pollard said. “It’s something that happens often. I don’t think mixing and mastering engineers lose a lot of work.”
But many studios can’t live on mixing and mastering revenue alone. Michael Kolar, the owner of Chicago’s SoundScape Studios, says he’s been able to do some remote work, but it’s not a sustainable financial situation.
“Fortunately, what was received was enough to pay all our bills: utilities, equipment insurance, alarm monitoring, etc.,” he said. “But there is nothing more to pay me.” While Shirley was able to get help from the Small Business Association for the Atomic Garden, other studios were less fortunate. “I’ve looked high and low. I’ve spent days on my laptop applying for everything. I haven’t received a penny from any city, state, or federal, loan assistance, payroll protection,” Kolar said.
Studios like SoundScape, which has been in business for 23 years, have emergency savings and the Atomic Garden, which keeps overhead low because Shirley lives in the building that houses the studio, has the means to weather the pandemic. . SoundScape had to lay off its staff to stay afloat.
“All of my staff who work here are sitting at home. Only one or two were on the payroll getting unemployment while the rest were independent contractors so there’s not much for them,” Kolar said. “It’s the same for my clients. So many artists who come to this studio were from the gig economy to have flexible work to pursue their musical dreams. They were bartenders and waitresses and worked in concert halls and were driving Uber and now they’re all screwed.”
For now, all studios are stuck in a waiting game until restrictions are lifted and they can safely take on clients again. But as the shutdowns end and people return to work, recording studios will still face uncertainty.
“I don’t see a rosy future here. Are artists going to want to stand up and put their mouths six inches from a microphone that so many people are breathing on? Are you trying to get into a soundproof, isolated room that has no windows with other people?” Kolar said. Hansen is also worried: “I would feel comfortable starting sessions again if I knew people could get tested and not just to see if they have it, but also if they have the antibody. So only it makes sense to do what we can to replicate normal life and normal studio work while taking precautions.”