18 Mar 5 LESSONS IN 5 YEARS OF OWNING A STUDIO
“Failure is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes.” – John Dewey
On this day exactly 5 years ago I exchanged $42,000 that I had borrowed from the bank for a recording studio in Annandale – a busy and vibrant suburb in the inner west of Sydney. For my $42,000 I got the web site, music equipment, furniture and fittings, the business name, some goodwill and a space already set up as a recording studio. The rent was ok. The guy selling the business told me he was having a quarter life crisis and moving to Senegal to set up a studio for local kids. Good dude. I had been freelance producing and studio hopping for 10 years, but it was always my dream to have my own studio, and here was my opportunity.
So, on this day 5 years ago my dream came true. I took the keys and went straight to work on a country record I was producing for Travis Collins, and started painting the walls with graffiti art to create a vibe. It was a really fun start and I was having the time of my life.
Less than two weeks later disaster struck – I had the neighbour from hell.
What the “good dude” who sold me the business didn’t tell me was that he had been at war with the guy upstairs who works directly above the studio. And now that guy wanted to have a war with me to shut down my studio because loud guitar amps and drum kits made life in his office upstairs quite noisy and unpleasant.
Unfortunately the guy upstairs happens to be the least affable human being on the face of the planet and he threatened me with legal action to shut down the studio. On top of this problem, I had a serious water leak – the back room leaked until the floor was covered in an inch of water every time there was a heavy downpour, rendering it intermittently useless. All in all it was a pretty bloody awful start to owning your own business. But more about that later…
Fast forward to now, 5 years later, and my little studio is quite amazing. I have a brilliant engineer and label partner in Scotty Donnelly who manages the business and engineers up a storm and makes everyone he meets fall in love with him. I have two delightful interns who are brilliant and funny and lovely in Lauren and Chris. The place is a creative wonderland in the middle of industrial Annandale. It has a chandelier, vines, fairy lights, grafitti, original artwork, games, beautiful instruments, funky chairs, colour and many different moods. We’ve made countless great recordings and worked with the cream of the crop of Sydney musicians and artists. I have seen artists like Little May and L-FRESH THE LION come in as unknown artists and end up on everyone’s hit lists. Every single day in the studio something amazing happens. I am truly grateful for everything Vienna People and our clients – our Vienna Peoples – have given me.
So here are 5 key things I’ve learnt in that time :
1. ITS NOT ABOUT THE GEAR
You don’t need the most expensive mics, or converters, or software to make great records. You just need creativity, musicality, a willingness to experiment, and vision.
My studio didn’t come with loads of expensive stuff when I bought it. It had a small low-mid price mic collection, and the studio itself had almost no acoustic treatment. It is true that over the last five years I’ve upgraded equipment and made some tasty mic purchases, but in comparison with the big expensive studios around town the money I’ve spent on our equipment is chicken feed. However I have worked on several records where some tracks were recorded and mixed at Vienna People and others at some of the most expensive studios in the world and you can’t sonically tell a difference.
All you need are a couple of good mics and a laptop with a semi decent preamp and you can make great sounding records at home. Many a great album has been recorded in a bedroom, including ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ by Bon Iver, ‘White Ladder’ by David Gray, ‘Odelay’ by Beck and ‘De Stijl’ by The White Stripes. Anything is possible.
2. DO STUFF FOR FREE
Sometimes musicians don’t have the money to pay you what you’re worth. It’s that simple. But conversely sometimes you can’t afford not to work with a particular band or artist. There have been a small number of occasions in the last 5 years that I have either waived my fee, or dramatically reduced it, in order to work with an artist or band that I truly loved, and they have been really great decisions. Some of my most cherished memories as a producer have come about with little or no money up front from the artist. I am forever grateful to all the artists who have put their music in my hands.
If an artist blows you away and you think you have what it takes to make their music sound amazing and can take them to the next level, then do whatever it takes to work with them. Maybe offer one track for free to test the waters. But don’t let money, or a lack thereof, stop you from making great music.
I’ve learnt to have one singular aim – to make the best music I can make every day. The music is my reward, not the money.
3. LISTEN TO EVERY DEMO
There are only 2 factors that really matter when it comes to making great records – great songs and great performances. Much has been written about how to capture great performances, but what if you missed the best song?
The first thing I do when outlining the vision for an EP or album with an artist is to listen to every single song they have. If they have a demo (even a crappy iPhone recording) then I’ll listen to that, or if they don’t have a demo I’ll make them play their songs live. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that in about 90% of cases we end up including a song that the band or artist hadn’t initially thought to put on the record, and often they end up being the best songs. Artists often overlook their older songs in favour of their latest ones simply because they’re bored of the them. This is where as a producer you are worth every cent – choosing the right songs is as important as any other production decision you will make on that record. So listen to every song in the artist’s repertoire!!!
4. SURROUND YOURSELF WITH GREAT PEOPLE
It truly astounds me how many beautiful souls I get to work with on a daily basis. Friendships are made during the recording process that last for a lifetime. It makes working a joy – unequivocally a real euphoric joy. Making music is such an intimate, personal and often vulnerable process that feeling loved, cared for and nurtured is of the utmost importance for everyone in the process.
Every now and then I’ve met people who I don’t like – occasionally musicians, sometimes business types. My attitude is that I simply won’t work with them again – there are too many great people to take up my time to waste any of it on people who create bad energy.
Surround yourself with good people – people who are kind, generous, caring, funny, loving and who generally make you feel good about life. Obviously this is true of life in general, not just business, but if you want to make great music then my advice is get rid of anyone in the studio who brings you and/or others down. The positive influence of the people around you will rub off on the music you make, I promise.
5. DON’T GO TO WAR
As I mentioned in the introduction, I had, by purchasing the studio and attempting to use it as such, made a particularly nasty, aggressive, tenacious, angry and wealthy enemy in the guy who had an office directly above me. Let’s call him Sam for the sake of this story. Sam owned a bathroom supply company (and a half a million dollar Maserati) and had his office directly above the studio. The sound from guitar amps and drum kits went straight through the floor boards and into his offices at a pretty loud volume, and distracted him and his staff from their work.
At this point I have to recognise and take responsibility for not undertaking sufficient due-diligence – I had not properly checked out the business I had just purchased. I had asked the guy who sold me the business whether there were any problems with sound and he said there weren’t. I took him on his word. Mistake number one. I also didn’t realise that, whilst the walls were brick and the floor concrete, making for excellent sound isolation, the ceiling was simply a layer of timber floorboards and a single layer of MDF – thus providing virtually no barrier for sound travelling upwards. Basically I didn’t do my homework. And now I had Sam wanting to shut me down.
Sam hated music, and he was not going to accept loud music coming through the floor and disrupting his work. Although I was within my rights to make loud industrial noise due to the fact that the studio is in a heavy industrial zone. He yelled at me and threatened me with lawyers and basically told me there would be no recording studio while he was there. He let me know in no uncertain terms that he would do everything and anything in his power to get me to close down.
I wanted to ignore him and make the loudest goddam music I could so he couldn’t think straight. I wanted to stand up to him in the name of what’s right, to show him that I wasn’t scared of him, and to not allow the bully to win. Every one of my friends and family told me to stand up to him and fight for my rights. I didn’t want this guy to ruin my dream.
Instead, I ignored everybody’s advice and offered him a peace deal – agreeing to not record loud instruments such as drums, electric guitars and heavy percussion during his business hours. Which meant 6 days a week 10 hours each day my studio was somewhat hamstrung. We had to record drums and guitar amps Mon-Sat after 7pm, or on Sundays. But these were my conditions, he accepted the treaty, and now I sit here writing this blog 5 years later.
It was the best decision I’ve ever made. Instantly the war was over. We had a civil neighbourly relationship from then onwards. I never had to worry about him banging on the front door and yelling at me, or even more worryingly abusing my clients. I didn’t have to worry about whether he was going to throw tons of money at his legal team to take me down. My surrender terms ensured no more bloodshed. He even gave me some bathroom supplies for the studio for free! As a recording studio we adapted to the new conditions – recording overdubs, vocals, acoustic guitars, DI’d bass, light percussion, piano and keyboards, mixing and editing during his business hours. We recorded bands at night and on Sundays. And all the while our business flourished and the vibe was magical, loving, caring and exciting.
Three years later his business was placed into receivership, and I haven’t seen him since. I truly feel for his employees who were always super nice to me and apologetic for their boss. But I’m still here, still not at war with anyone, still making music that fills my soul in ways that only people who make music can understand. I still love every day that I continue to produce records for a living.
And all because I knew then, as I know now, that war is never the best solution.
We have now set in stone that our studio can make noise at all times and no future neighbours can stop that.
So happy 5th birthday to my (and a lot of other people’s) happy place, Vienna People. If you haven’t been here and would like to come and check us out please contact me and come and visit and feel the magic for yourself.
I hope some of these lessons I’ve shared here have helped you in your quest for the recording holy grail, whatever that may look and sound like. Thanks for reading.
Viva la musica!